All Aboard The Education Revolution


Last week, Sydney University’s Academic Board approved a new course for the Law Faculty called the Juris Doctor (JD). Bearing the same name as similar courses on offer at UNSW and UTS, the JD will replace the graduate-entry law degree currently offered by the faculty.

What might seem like an innocent curriculum redesign is worringly symptomatic of broader trends in Australian higher education. Though the JD is a masters-level course, students who complete the program will not be appreciably more qualified than those currently completing an undergraduate Law degree. At the same time, the faculty stands to make a motza from full fee-paying students.

This shift from undergraduate professional degrees has its roots in what is called the Bologna Model, which had spread to most European universities by 2006. Put simply, this model of tertiary education offers degrees in three "cycles", with each successive cycle becoming more specialised.

Cycle 1 degrees are roughly equivalent to a three-year Bachelors degree; Cycle 2 degrees correspond to what we know as a Masters, and take two years study; and Cycle 3 degrees are three-year research higher degrees, or PhDs. Bologna’s "3+2+3" system has been widely adopted throughout Europe and is now sending shockwaves through Australia’s tertiary sector.

There are two problems with the Bologna Model as far as the Australian tertiary sector is concerned.

First, Australian degree offerings don’t line up all that neatly with the three cycles. In many disciplines, Australian Cycle 1 degrees offer honours programs which allows students to skip Cycle 2 entirely. Then there are the graduate-entry programs, such as the graduate law or graduate medicine programs offered by many universities. These degrees are equivalent to a second Bachelors degree and thus classify as Cycle 1 but entry requires a previous degree.

More serious problems arise with regard to the way universities and students are funded under this new program.

Late in 2008 the Rudd Government announced that it would abolish domestic undergraduate full-fee places at public universities in line with the policy position it took leading up to the 2007 election.

This meant that Australian universities could no longer charge money for Cycle 1 degrees. Cycle 2 postgraduate coursework degrees still attract up-front fees. The government disbursed one-off transitional funding to universities, ostensibly to cover the shortfall in funding. However, this funding is not ongoing and universities remain underfunded due to the legacies of many Howard-era cutbacks. Now in 2010, many Australian universities have a vested interest in pushing students into Bologna Cycle 2.

As a result, Australian adoption of the Bologna Model has been piecemeal and haphazard.

The most controversial efforts were those of Melbourne University Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis, who cut all undergraduate offerings down to six general education Bachelors degrees in 2007. At the same time, Melbourne moved all graduate-entry degrees up into the postgraduate level. These reforms were known as the "Melbourne Model". A similar transformation occurred at the University of Western Australia in 2009.

Other universities, Sydney included, have been slower and more circumspect in their efforts to propel students into lucrative postgraduate coursework programs at the expense of lower-cost graduate-entry alternatives. The rapid changes degree offerings in the Faculty of Architecture have undergone at Sydney University indicate, however, the kinds of problems arising from the transition to the Bologna model.

Until July 2007, a qualification in Architecture was made up of a three-year Bachelor of Design followed by a two-year Bachelor of Architecture — both Bologna Cycle 1 degrees, both funded out of the public purse through the HECS system and delivered at very low cost to the student.

Since 2008, the Bachelor of Architecture is no more and students must now complete a Masters of Architecture in its place, a degree that despite curriculum differences sees graduates professionally accredited in exactly the same way as the old Bachelor of Architecture — but under a Masters funding structure.

The big problem with these changes is that this degree is not really a Cycle 2 degree. It is a basic, professional entry qualification which should place it squarely within Cycle 1. But within the Australian system, allowing the Bachelor of Architecture to remain at Cycle 1 means that the university cannot charge domestic students fees. The easiest way out of this bind is to shift the same degree into Cycle 2, call it a Masters, and slap on a number of full-fee paying places.

At Sydney University, this hasn’t been restricted to Architecture: the faculties of Engineering, Nursing, Health Sciences and now Law have all begun to offer similar degrees. Whether or not all of these new degree offerings improve teaching and learning or make the degree better is irrelevant. The fact is, they offer the same end qualification to students. A JD student who paid $85,000 for their law degree will wind up with the same qualification as a Law student who did a graduate-entry degree on HECS.

The Law Faculty has been upfront about their financial motives for making the change. The Dean of Law told The Australian in November 2008 that "what one could do is to take our graduate LLB and rebadge it as a JD, and bingo you’ve got a capacity to charge fees." This financial imperative was echoed by the Law Faculty’s submission to the Academic Board which acknowledged that "The JD provides a financial replacement for the loss of income from the LLB following the change in government higher education policy."

The end result is that it’s more expensive for students to study professional entry degrees. They still have to do a second degree to access the profession they intend to work in, but now, if they can’t make the high cutoffs for the HECS places, they are forced to pay huge fees to cover the cost of teaching their classmates.

Beyond the possible watering-down of the student cohort with wealthy but less academically talented students, there are also serious equity implications. Less privileged students from poorer schools who do not qualify for undergraduate law programs will no longer be able to use an excellent tertiary record as a pathway into a lucrative, prestigious career. That is, unless they can find $85,000 to pay for the new and improved JD.

The Law Faculty hasn’t minced words about the financial motives behind the shift to the JD model — something which points to deeper issues with the Australian tertiary sector. Funding to universities through the Commonwealth Grants Scheme (CGS) has not been tied to the real costs of delivering education for some time now and these costs always increase.

Re-badging undergraduate programs as postgraduate programs is only one way universities have been making up the shortfall. High numbers of full fee-paying international students have also helped universities pay the bills with wide-ranging social and economic implications. The Rudd Government’s plan to dismantle the relationship between university places and funding will put more pressure on universities to convert their Bologna Cycle 1 degrees into Cycle 2 programs.

Meanwhile, postgraduate coursework degrees are the most poorly supported and least equitably delivered degrees in Australian universities.

Postgraduate coursework students aren’t eligible for any income support, have access to far fewer scholarships and don’t qualify for special entry or other equity measures. They also leave students with tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have made bold promises that 40 per cent of young Australians will have a Bachelors (or Cycle 1) degree, and that 20 per cent of university students will be from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2025. These achievements will only be possible if they stop throwing poorly aimed infrastructure grants at universities and seriously reconsider the way tertiary teaching is funded. Tying funding to real costs would be a great start.

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.