Learning By Doing Makes Economic Sense

As seen on The Australian Financial Review:

Learning By Doing Makes Economic Sense


Robert Lundy and Ken Buckle


Over 20 years ago, the International House at the University of New South Wales began a unique approach by focusing on the concept of “Learning by Doing”.   The main idea of this approach is to enhance the student’s learning through experiential activities. If the purpose of a university experience is to teach students, then why not use the residential college as a practical, hands-on learning laboratory?   Why not use the activities that occur naturally in the college as an opportunity for residents to apply the ideas taught in the classroom and develop new skills that will better equip them to undertake their first career job and enter the labour market?

The goal at International House is to involve the residents in as many activities as possible so that they can learn by doing.   The focus is not on producing the best outcome, but providing as many learning experiences as possible. Employers are looking for graduates with real-world capabilities. Learning by doing provides valuable real-world experiences that will make the students more employable in the rapidly changing workplace.

While academic qualifications are important, employers are also looking for people with skills that are often hard to measure.  Employers want people that are good communicators, capable of teamwork and with cross-cultural understanding and experience.  At International House residents have a unique opportunity to gain real-world experiences that will better prepare them for their future careers.

Engaging the residents in the management and activities of the College has additional benefits.   The goal is to motivate the students to work with the staff in a cooperative way not because they are paid but because they truly want to get involved and make the community in which they live in a better place.  Hopefully the experiences they obtain will not only be good for their future career prospects but will make them better people.

The key to this bottom-up management structure is empowerment.   By being involved the residents view the College in an entirely different perspective.  The College is not just a place to sleep, eat and have some fun; it is home.  Residents do not abuse the facilities, they take care of it and they take an active interest in the welfare of the other residents.

That’s the theory. But what does this mean at the practical level? At International House at the University of New South Wales, the Executive Committee of the Residents’ Society works with the Master to establish policies and procedures for the College.  The Seniors perform administrative duties in the evenings and weekends when the office is closed.

The IT Support Team provide computing services and support to the residents as well as the office staff.   They designed and maintain the College website and just recently they launched a new website.  They also created the International House resident/alumni database system and this year’s team will be responsible for negotiating a new contract with the internet service provider. Ex-residents of the House serve as backup IT support as needed. Architecture students become involved in renovations to the building.  Accounting and finance students work with the Master on the budget and the setting of room and board fees.   The Social, House and Food Service committees work very closely with the staff to improve the quality of the services and activities of the House.


Besides practicing what they are learning in the classroom “Learning By Doing” provides the students the opportunity to develop essential interpersonal skills that are difficult if not impossible to teach.  Skills such as effective communication and leadership, negotiation and decision making, team work and group effectiveness and most importantly cross-cultural understanding.

Involvement of the residents not only creates a wonderful caring and learning environment it also reduces operating cost and enables the College to keep room and board fees lower than would otherwise be the case.  The room and board fees, for the full academic year, at International House are $10,630 which is $266 per week.   International House is probably the most affordable full-board residential college in Australia while remaining very profitable.  Last year the operating surplus was 34 per cent of the total income and if you only include the fees from the residents then the surplus was 22 per cent.

 “Learning By Doing” not only provides excellent learning opportunities for students, it makes good economic sense.

Dr Robert C Lundy Emeritus Professor Ken Buckle
Master & CEO Deputy Chairman
UNSW International House UNSW International House



Dr Robert Lundy is Master and CEO of UNSW International House.  Emeritus Professor Ken Buckle is Deputy Chairman of UNSW International House


The above article was printed in the Australian Financial Review, Education Section on Monday 22 September 2014.