The purported plans of the University of Melbourne to remodel itself into a "Berkeley in the antipodes" have sparked debate about the future scope for graduate professional education in Australia. Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson has weighed in, speculating on the possibility of transferring undergraduate places to outer suburban and regional universities that would specialise in undergraduate programs.
If reported correctly, Nelson's suggestion sits oddly with the central thrust of his reforms, which have put student choice of university at the front and centre of policy. And students have been voting with their feet accordingly, creating something of a challenge for a number of institutions - some regional ones among them - that have struggled to meet student load targets.
The advantage of the University of Melbourne's proposals for a few of the older players is clear: they would shift more of their student load away from HECS to high fees (much of which would be covered by student loans), thus removing their exposure to government underfunding, where income per student has lagged well behind cost increases for more than a decade.
There are no advantages for outer metropolitan and regional universities in all of this. They would become even more beholden to the tender mercies of government funding and would be particularly vulnerable in times (such as now) of dampened demand. Allocating these institutions even more places would only compound their challenges, while the rigours of the increasingly cut-throat research funding framework will continue to limit their capacity to develop a key research presence.
The non-sandstone metropolitan players - such as my own institution and other members of the Australian Technology Network, as well as significant others such as Macquarie and Griffith universities - are a blind spot in the present debate. This is curious, given that they cater for most Australian undergraduate students and compete fiercely with the older sandstones for that cohort, as well as for competitive research funding.
Of course there are advantages for government of having institutions parcelled into neater classifications. From the time Robert Menzies laid the foundations for post-war expansion in university education, it was known that the public could not afford to have every institution operating with full and comprehensive research intensity. That remains the situation today, with about two-thirds of basic research expenditure concentrated in one-fifth of the nation's institutions. That requires institutions with serious research aspirations to focus their efforts selectively in order to be competitive at the highest level.
In the search for a workable future model of Australian higher education, comparisons are often drawn with the Californian master plan of 1960. That plan established formally distinct roles for various universities and colleges. It is hard to see such an approach being transplanted here: our universities are operating with established identities and profiles. Unlike California four decades ago, there is no prospect of massive publicly funded growth, little need for new private providers (though they are welcome), and no post-Sputnik "endless frontier" agenda driving vast increases in outlays for education as well as research.
Returning to the issue of postgraduate professional education, this model certainly has some merit in strengthening the educational base for professional education. However, it has worked in the US better in some fields (medicine and law) than in others, and in any case raises fundamental questions about the nature of undergraduate education, which has languished in US research universities. Nor is that model necessarily relevant for our times. It is based on young people coming out of school and going into university, yet we are already seeing greater involvement of mature-aged students, for whom a three or four-year general undergraduate education may be neither relevant nor affordable.
Even for school-leavers, who have grown up with the Internet and typically couple full-time study with part-time work or other activity, the applicability of the US four-year general education model must be questioned.
Australia faces significant challenges in the years ahead, with an ageing population and declining growth in the professional workforce. Making professional education more costly, less accessible and longer in duration is unlikely to help; it could significantly deter the much-needed participation of mature entrants to higher education in the years ahead and distort the subsequent pathways they choose for professional practice.
We need a higher education system that is driven by student and employer demand and national research imperatives as well as by robust competition and universities' ambitions to achieve excellence.
Universities of all types need the freedom to compete under the same rules and to make strategic choices about their future. The rules of the game should allow the good to flourish and the complacent to languish. We have many of the fundamental elements in place and we should build on these. What we do not need is some structural kneecapping that protects a few and weakens competition.
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