Here’s a game to play for some light relief at the beginning of your next meeting. Suggest that everyone quietly guess and jot down whether they think each of their colleagues was – the first-born child, a middle kid, the youngest, or an only child. Then try the reveal.

My bet is that you’ll all score around what would be expected by chance. I’m in the camp that believes birth order leaves relatively few distinctive marks on its graduates.

Now, next time you are in a meeting with people you know are graduates (note some of my colleagues aren’t as they didn’t have the right opportunities, so be sensitive with this one), consider another game. See if you can guess what undergraduate degree your co-workers first undertook and at which university. Look for those distinctive graduate attributes.

Again, I doubt you’ll be able to guess. My expectation is that you’ll be surprised by the results. You’ll find archaeologists doing finance, chemists in HR, and everything else in between. And you’ll find that many different institutions produce fine graduates.

To me, this reinforces the idea that university degrees are about broadening the mind in preparation for the decisions required in jobs rather than about quickly skilling people up for specific roles. I have nothing against the latter and not everyone wants to or should endure years of training in critical thinking – but a university education should be available to those who want deep training in thinking.

And there’s more. If I’m right, this all suggests that trying to cover everything in each degree, to make an institution’s degrees distinctive, and to hold very tightly to listed graduate attributes may not be essential. It may be useful in helping to unite people around the university’s priorities, but it may not be important to the educational mission.

Over the years as the world has changed, I’ve fielded requests to inject compulsory courses into the curriculum to ensure our graduates are properly qualified and up to date.

Computers are important so every student should learn coding. But computers are not everything, so each student should do philosophy. Everyone should understand the scientific method, read the great books, study ethics, should do a unit on climate change, should know basic economics, should be aware of civil duties, should learn about the history of our land, should do community service, should do a research unit, should study a foreign language, should appreciate human rights, and the awful record of transgressions both current and across our history. But while options such as these can be valuable, once they are made compulsory they are often resented by students, since introductory courses tend to be superficial and seldom fulfil their intended purposes.

The desire to cover everything also happens in disciplines. As each discipline has advanced, I have come across very modern colleagues who are eager to include each new advance in the curriculum but reluctant to remove any of the gold that has survived the test of time – how can a biochemist graduate without knowing the Kreb’s Cycle by heart?

Which brings me to a golden rule – physics teaches us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; experience tells me that in a university information can be created but not destroyed – so I conclude that deliberate pruning is essential.

You will probably have heard of T-shaped graduates. Discipline-specific strengths and then the ability to work across teams. If we prune properly, we can do even better and produce: Tree-shaped graduates.

According to this model it is in primary and secondary education that pupils try many things – they establish an extensive root system touching on maths, humanities, science, crafts, music, arts, drama, and physical education. Then when students move to university (if they wish to) they should prepare to sprout out and drive one strong trunk upwards (or perhaps two trunks if they do a dual degree like Science/Law) in their chosen discipline. Finally, once they have matured, they are ready to branch out again. But the latter branching is quite different from the initial tastings – it involves making choices, life decisions.

It is these choices that will define the lives our graduates lead and the contributions they make to society. As educators we cannot foresee or control the decisions, but we endow our graduates with the critical thinking skills and resilience to make wise choices. We aim to instil wisdom as well as capability. Their majors, the trunk of the tree, are not the end game. They are a reflection of the fact that you can’t train critical thinking by thinking about nothing. You need substance.

Not every student has to be expert in everything. But every student has to be an expert in something. Developing a strong disciplinary trunk builds confidence and resilience, and helps students see further.

When one looks down on the community forest of all the Tree-shaped graduates one can’t always see the trunks or the roots. You can’t guess birth order, school, or undergraduate degree majors. Those components were only important in the past. It is the individual leaves stretching upwards that explore that are important. The leaves gather the sunshine of new ideas each day. It is also the lofty canopy of the open-minded and ever ready forest of tree-shaped graduates that sets us up to weather the incoming storms of uncertainty that society are ever on the horizon.

Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life



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