COVER STORY: HIGHER EDUCATION: Top university accused of elitism
by Colin Teese
News Weekly, December 3, 2005
Students at Melbourne University may be required to complete a general arts/science undergraduate degree before they can commence studying for professional or specialist qualifications, writes Colin Teese. This radical proposal will inevitably result in a decline in student enrolments, but may be necessary to prevent a threatened decline in the university's reputation for education excellence.
On November 16, Melbourne University's Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis announced a new policy direction for his university. Radical though the policy undoubtedly was, Professor Davis can hardly have expected the proposed new arrangements to have been so widely condemned. Even the editorial columns of the Melbourne Age found reason to criticise the new proposal.
Professor Davis's new plan was doing no more than taking necessary steps to secure a better future for what, he reminds us, is no longer a public institution, but still, nevertheless, a publicly-spirited university.
The model he chose to emulate is that followed by US universities whose funding is derived in a similar manner to that which Melbourne University has been compelled to adopt. The same model, it should be noted, is now being embraced by European universities.
Melbourne University proposes to offer an undergraduate degree, after three years of study from within a new faculty of arts and sciences.
All students at the university will be required to obtain such a qualification before they can pursue postgraduate study towards a professional or specialist qualification in areas including, but not confined to, medicine and law.
Under the new arrangements, student numbers are expected to decline by some 10,000. The university administration welcomes this outcome. Clearly, it believes that it will not be possible to maintain standards with the present large numbers. The obvious intention is the pursuit of quality over quantity.
The vice-chancellor has been accused of pursuing elitism. Presumably, he will not seek to deny the label - at the very least he will feel no discomfort in supporting elitism as it relates to scholastic excellence.
Nor would he deny that competition for places in the newly-structured university will be intensified. More even than now, Melbourne will be the aspiration of the best students.
But whatever the merits or otherwise of the new policies, the vice-chancellor is right to insist that the existing policy, could not be sustained without compromising the university's future reputation. Neither can Professor Davis be blamed for the political circumstances which have presented him with what must have been an uncomfortable choice.
When Labor's Bob Hawke became Prime Minister in 1983 it was, after all, one of his incoming Government's first acts to overturn the policy of his Labor predecessor, Gough Whitlam, and re-introduce university fees.
This new policy on fees was part of Labor's plan to cut back on Commonwealth spending in general, and on funding for universities in particular, and to enshrine the new concept of user-pays in our tertiary education sector.
The Hawke Government's task was made easier because, as it turned out, the Whitlam policy of so-called free universities had been a somewhat unhappy departure from the norm.
Free university education was seen as a way of empowering poor families. Somehow it didn't work out that way.
For the 27 years of Coalition government after 1949, a system of means-tested Commonwealth scholarships - inspired by Robert Menzies - had been available to children of less advantaged families who qualified for entry to a university. This policy effectively looked after the poor.
What the Whitlam policies did was make it possible for the rich to go to university without paying fees.
Of course, the Hawke Government's changes amounted to more than a reversion to the old Menzies policies.
Poor families not exempted
The old Commonwealth scholarship scheme wasn't reinstated. No longer were university students from poor families exempted from fees so long as they were successful in their studies.
Now their families were required either to pay university fees up-front - or have the student take a loan from the Government, repayable from future earnings. For many graduates, this meant entering the workforce burdened with a substantial unpaid loan.
The universities were also worse off. The Hawke policies left them struggling for funds. To keep afloat, and maintain a reasonable fee structure for Australian students, they have had to rely on ever-increasing numbers of foreign students paying the full cost of their university education.
Now this was the reality of the situation Professor Davis had to cope with at Melbourne University. The Labor education spokesperson Jenny Macklin's particular reaction to his proposal must have been especially galling. The Labor Party, Ms Macklin announced, would oppose change that would disadvantage poorer students.
Coming from Labor, and with the record of the Hawke Government's changes in mind, that really is a bit rich.
The question Jenny Macklin should be required to answer is this: "Okay, so Labor wants the poor to have better opportunities to get to university. In government, what precisely would Labor do to make that possible?"
Better scholarship program
Meanwhile, Professor Davis has said that Melbourne University itself already has, and will continue with, its scholarship program. No doubt he expects that, with the new policies in place and the university's future secured, it will be able to support an even better scholarship program.
Apart from the criticism of the possible impact of the new policies on poor students, few have yet chosen to consider what has been the major reason behind the changes even though the vice-chancellor has clearly alluded to them.
He has pointed out that Melbourne University - like so many of its US counterparts - is not a public institution. Most of its funding is no longer provided by the government.
This has been the choice of government rather than university. The first steps in that direction were taken by successive Labor governments 20 years ago; and the policy was taken further by successive Coalition administrations.
More importantly still, the Commonwealth Government is already party to an arrangement on services in the process of being established by the World Trade Organization.
If enacted, this agreement would oblige Australia to allow foreign-based universities to operate here in direct competition with local institutions.
And, incidentally, the scope of the arrangement is not confined to universities: it also applies to hospitals and to schools. Additionally, the arrangement requires our Government to provide assistance in the same measure to the foreign-based institutions as it does to those based in Australia.
Understandably, the Government has been in no hurry to elaborate on this obligation.
Certainly, it has not explained to taxpayers that if the present levels of government funding for schools, universities and hospitals are to be maintained, equivalent amounts will need to be given to foreign-owned institutions setting up here.
No doubt this new and menacing form of competition is at the forefront of the concerns of Professor Davis when he considers the future of Melbourne University.
Then there is the issue of foreign, full fee-paying students. The vice-chancellor is on record as saying that it would be unwise to rely on these students as a long-term source of income.
His warning is timely. There is already evidence of a slackening off in demand from that source.
That apart, foreign student demand is, in effect, the university's export income. Indeed, government sources and others are all too ready to boast about these particular foreign exchange earnings, and to regard them as a permanent feature of the future of our economy.
Moreover, there is an influential group of commentators only too willing to encourage exporters generally - not merely universities - to regard and rely upon the continuation of export income with the same certainty as domestic income.
Income streams are, of course, one of the many uncertainties of any business; but export income is even less certain. So much of it is subject to fluctuations outside of one's control, that the wisest of companies with export business now assign it as incidental in importance, compared with their domestic market.
That important point is no doubt driving much of the Vice-Chancellor Davis's thinking. Those with a stake in the future of Melbourne University should be grateful to him, and wish him well in his bold new experiment.
Let us hope, too, that the Government takes heed of Davis's careful thinking and finally realise that, in considering our future economic prosperity, greater emphasis should be placed on income that can be generated domestically, rather than on exports, the volumes and values of which can so easily shift - for reasons we can neither anticipate nor control - to our disadvantage.
At the moment, there seems to be a view that export markets are more important than the domestic market.
- Colin Teese is a former deputy secretary of the Department of Trade.