George Pell's market share of Australian values


Australia’s largest health/sciences university has proposed closing its undergraduate nursing program, and in effect its entire nursing faculty.

Nursing students currently enrolled at Sydney University will complete their degree, but the university will no longer accept undergraduate nursing students from 2005. Instead, those places will be transferred to the University of Technology (UTS) and the Australian Catholic University (ACU).

The University of Sydney maintains that if the proposal goes ahead – which it to all intents and purposes has, as the university’s Senate has approved it by near-unanimous vote – the faculty of nursing will remain open, although according to Professor Don Nutbeam, Dean of Health and Sciences, nursing has a low postgraduate intake relative to other health and science degrees.

The university says that the decision has nothing to do with finances, and everything to do with its aim to become Australia’s premier research-based institution, through a move to ‘an entirely different form of nursing education [which]is to move to a graduate entry program’. In short, the university wants to focus mainly on a postgraduate intake of students, especially in health and sciences, in an attempt to become Australia’s Harvard.

Tamsin Lloyd, education officer for Sydney University’s student representative council, estimates the decision to be ’90 per cent financial and 10 per cent to do with the university’s research ambitions’.

Her claim is based on federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson’s latest reforms to higher education. These reforms include giving universities the power to set their own quotas of full fee paying students, and to increase fees at the university’s discretion by up to 25 per cent through the de-regulation of HECS.

Sydney University’s Senate voted to raise fees by the full 25 per cent from 2005, despite opposition from the student community. There are two exceptions to the fee increases: the reforms do not allow universities to raise HECS on nursing or teaching. This is part of the Howard government’s solution for the critical nationwide shortages in teaching and nursing.

The Howard government has progressively cut funding to public education in Australia and redirected it to private institutions. This is happening in the university sector as well as other parts of the education system. Government funding today makes up around 30 per cent of Sydney University’s core budget, compared with 50 per cent a decade and a half ago; and much of the University’s research funding comes from what Professor Nutbeam describes as ‘some very good relationships with commercial companies’.

The decision by one of Australia’s oldest and best respected public universities to close its undergraduate nursing program came with the government’s announcement in August that it will give four million dollars to the opening of a branch of Notre Dame University, a private Catholic university based in Western Australia. This new campus will be located just down the road from Sydney University. It is slated to open in 2006, offering courses in law, business, teaching and “ yes, nursing.

Notre Dame University plans to open two Sydney campuses: at St Benedict’s on Broadway, and the Sacred Heart parish site in Darlinghurst, opposite St Vincent’s Hospital.

Notre Dame’s expansion is strongly supported by the Sydney Catholic archdiocese. Cardinal George Pell has announced that the archdiocese will contribute 5 million dollars in cash and up to 20 million in land and existing buildings.

He said: ‘the University [of Notre Dame]has secured a strong position in the prestige-end of the university market in the West, based on Catholic values, high standards and superb teaching.’

Archbishop Pell has said that he ‘supports choice and diversity in primary and secondary education’ and also supports it in tertiary education, adding that ‘this personal commitment of mine reflects the Church’s wider commitment to making an excellent education with a religious dimension available to all.’

‘[Notre Dame Sydney] will be a private university,’ he said. ‘And from the beginning, most of its funding will come from private sources. But the priority HECs places in nursing [80 places] and teaching which the Prime Minister [has announced], together with the federal government’s contributions towards capital funding, provide an enormous boost to getting the campus underway sooner and on a sounder footing than might have been otherwise possible.’

Notre Dame University established the first Catholic law school in Australia and proposes to open a medical school next year in Fremantle, Western Australia. Cardinal Pell also applauded this proposal: ‘Law and medicine are vitally important professions and like all professions they need to be taught well and guided by sound values.’

Archbishop Pell can recognize, even celebrate, the importance of ‘sound values’ in debates about education for ‘vitally important professions’ like nursing.

So isn’t it about time the rest of us asked our own questions about the ‘values’ implications of the Howard government channeling public funding of higher education in these areas towards the private (and non-secular) sector?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.