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By 2008, the existing undergraduate system at the University of Melbourne will have undergone a radical restructure. Prospective students will be faced with the choice of six generalist ‘New Generation’ degrees: the Bachelors of Arts, Science, Music, Commerce, Environments and Biomedicine.

Similar to the academic structure of institutions such as Harvard and Berkeley in the US, the so-called ‘Melbourne Model‘ aims to provide a broad generalist education, before specialisation at a graduate level. It’s reminiscent of tertiary education under Robert Menzies in the 1950s and 1960s, when students would acquire an extensive generalist degree before choosing a course tailored towards a professional qualification.

The difference, of course, is that it costs a lot more under the ‘Melbourne Model.’

The impetus for such vast changes, explains Deputy Vice-Chancellor Peter McPhee, was a ‘bold ambition [for the University of Melbourne]to become one of the best universities in the world.’

This is not an easy feat but if any Australian tertiary institution has the audacity to pull off such radical changes, it is the University of Melbourne. Not only does it possess considerable cachet both locally and internationally (consistently being ranked in the top 25 universities in the world) it has also been successful in raising capital from private investment. It’s a bold and ambitious move that has evinced a mixed response from Melbourne Uni’s student body and others in higher education circles.

Libby Buckingham, Education Officer at the University of Melbourne, laments the lack of consultation between the University and its students, noting that there has been ‘a lot of student anger about the sense of not being involved or informed about decisions being made.’

But Buckingham’s main concerns are access and equity particularly for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. She sees the ‘Melbourne Model’ as only exacerbating perceptions that the University is firmly entrenched in a culture of elitism, making it ‘more exclusionary.’

McPhee disagrees, noting that students from disadvantaged backgrounds make up 23 per cent of the University’s annual intake. ‘Obviously, we’d like to increase this figure,’ he says. He also notes the success of the ACCESS Melbourne Program which has dedicated over $100 million to scholarships over the last three years.

With the ‘Melbourne Model’ gaining qualified support from both the Federal Government and the Opposition, it seems there is a bipartisan reluctance to make major increases in public investment in higher education.

It has been intriguing, then, to see the reaction to Kevin Rudd’s call for an ‘education revolution.’ Finally, tertiary education is enjoying a renewed joie de vivre in public discourse as Rudd and Howard slog it out over the ideological coalface with their visions of the future for Australian education.

Many public commentators have been quick to praise Treasurer Peter Costello’s $5 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund and Professor Richard James, Director and Chair of the Centre for Higher Education at the University of Melbourne notes that Vice-Chancellors have ‘almost universally welcomed the Federal Budget and its various elements.’

It is, however, slightly misleading to call the Fund a $5 billion injection into higher education, he stresses, when the real capital flow is actually derived from the interest accrued from the Fund. He also points out that it should not be ‘assumed that it will address all the current financial issues’ facing the higher education sector. ‘Australian universities will still be under-resourced,’ he says. Nevertheless, it’s a positive step considering the $1 billion that was slashed by this Government over the last 11 years, says James.

Dr Julie Wells, a higher education policy analyst at Melbourne’s RMIT University, says the Government’s view is that universities should ‘be more oriented towards the needs of the market. It’s a call for universities to differentiate themselves, to specialise, and to market themselves as niche providers.’

Diversification of that market is also important to ensure that the higher education sector remains viable. James does not believe ‘we could sustain a higher education sector in Australia in which all universities are trying to be comprehensive universities it’s simply not viable for a nation like Australia.’

For some smaller, cash-strapped universities, becoming a niche provider is the only option. The Queensland University of Technology (QUT), for example, has chosen due to cost factors to replace its Humanities Department entirely, and concentrate on the creative industries.

Diversification can offer prospective students more choice. But Wells is cautious. ‘Choice is difficult,’ she says. ‘You have to actually understand the choice to be able to make a good one.’ And for some students, wading through the choices can be paralysing.

Buckingham, Wells and McPhee all agree that the ambivalent attitude of governments to tertiary funding is worrying. There are already vast financial discrepancies between the so-called ‘sandstone’ universities (such as the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney, the ANU and UNSW) and the less financially fortunate institutions. It can be seen as a multi-tiered system, with a wide gulf between the comparative minnows (Central Queensland University, Victoria University) and the middle-tier (universities such as Deakin, LaTrobe University, Macquarie, University of Western Sydney). While the quest for private investment may well compensate the wealthier universities for the shortfall in Government funds, the less-endowed institutions will find it increasingly tough to compete against the market power of big-hitters such as Melbourne.

And if cost becomes the determinant of a good, high-quality education, then it is the students who will bear the brunt.

While it is not realistic to expect that the playing field will be level for all institutions, it is hard to see the benefits in a market which has bestowed power on a select few ‘world-class’ institutions to the detriment of others, The question is, can public institutions in Australia expect to be globally competitive without perpetuating a culture of elitism?

The Melbourne Model claims to be based on a Harvard-Berkeley prototype. Harvard is a private institution with a $US29.2 billion endowment and a student population of approximately 19,000. Melbourne University has almost 40,000 students and an endowment of $1.092 billion. It’s obvious that greater access to funding improves research and other opportunities which consequently afford an institution globally competitive status.

Some students view the ‘Melbourne Model’ simply as a revenue raiser teetering precariously on the verge of privatisation. ‘This is definitely a move away from [being a]public institution,’ stresses Buckingham.

McPhee is less cynical, maintaining that a considerably ‘large proportion of students will remain on Commonwealth Supported Places.’ A minimum of 50 per cent of all graduate places will be funded by the Government, although there are concerns about the Government’s proposed lifting of the caps on full-fee paying places. He also offers up an interesting point made by Melbourne University Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis: ‘If Government funding makes up around a fifth of our operating costs, to what extent are we a public institution?’

It explains Davis’s use of the label ‘public-spirited‘ to describe the University, says McPhee, a dig at the misconception that universities receive the majority of their funding from the Government. ‘We get the same funding [per student]as a State secondary school, but we’re also expected to provide world-class research.’ Private philanthropy goes some way in funding research projects, but what about potential conflicts of interest that arise?

McPhee vehemently denies that the ‘Melbourne Model’ is a step towards privatisation but, interestingly, Wells remarks that Australian universities are ‘world leaders in terms of our independence from public funding.’

A buoyant and vibrant tertiary education sector generates incalculable benefits for society, particularly in an age where knowledge is the driver of economic prosperity.

Whether the ‘Melbourne Model’ becomes a blueprint for other Australian universities remains to be seen (there is talk that the Universities of Western Australia and Sydney are considering a variant of it). But it is nonetheless a widespread view that without greater support from government, the quality and accessibility of higher education will suffer immeasurably.

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