The Melbourne Model

I am very fond of Melbourne University. The combination of location, environment, access, atmosphere, its thriving campus life and even the historic architecture easily make it one of the most pleasant universities in Australia to study at. I will declare my bias; I spent a decade of my life there, firstly as a student and then as a member of staff. In February this year, I returned there as a student for the first time in eleven years (I feel old) to do their summer Swedish course. I thorougly enjoyed it, and it was great to be back studying there again, even if it was only for a short time.

I’m rather concerned, however, about the University’s new education model, termed The Melbourne Model. If I understand their website correctly, from 2008, they will be replacing their entire range of undergraduate degrees with just six three-year generalised degrees: Arts, Biomedicine, Commerce, Environments, Music and Science. Students wanting a specialist degree will have to complete it as a two-year Masters course afterwards.

This has three important consequences. Firstly, it will now be impossible to do an undergraduate Engineering degree at Melbourne University. Secondly, it will be impossible to get a HECS-funded Engineering degree there, as the postgraduate courses are all full-fee. Same for Medicine, Law and all the other specialist courses that the University previously offered. Thirdly, it will take five years to get an Engineering degree, as opposed to four under the old system.

When I was in secondary school, my intention was to go on and do an Engineering degree. My course preferences reflected this: 1) Melbourne University Engineering; 2) Monash University Engineering; 3) RMIT Engineering… I can’t recall the intermediate choices, but my final preference was for Melbourne Science. If Melbourne University had have had this new course structure back when I was choosing universities, my first choice would have been Monash, and I suspect that this is what students are going to do now.

I firmly believe that education should be free. Not half-arsed government subsidised education, but completely, utterly free. I know that’s not a particularly popular view in this age of user-pays economic irrationalism, but if the prospect of huge debts upon graduation are bad enough to put students off study, then they’re going to avoid full upfront fees like the plague.

In a world where manufacturing is moving to those countries where they can get away with paying workers next to nothing, the only way forward for Australia is to have a highly educated population, unless we’re content to just be the gravelpit and playground of the world. To do that, we should be encouraging young people to study, rather than making it more difficult by lumbering them with debt and requiring them to spend five years to get an Engineering degree. I simply do not believe the rational that we cannot afford free education (look at those massive surpluses that Costello churns out, year after year) – and I’m sure some of that money we’re wasting on other people’s wars would be much better spent on our own education.

Faced with the pressure from all angles – parents, society, financial necessity – to get out and work as soon as possible, students wishing to do Engineering are likely to thumb their noses at Melbourne University, and instead choose an institution where they’re guaranteed to be able to do the course that they want, in a reasonable period of time, without paying through the nose for it.

7 responses to “The Melbourne Model

  1. While I agree with you that these changes at Melbourne seem kinda odd, I have to pull you up on the education should be free thing. The problem we have is that so many people now want to do tertiary education.

    Say a rich person sends their kid to law school, for free, and the rich kid graduates and then earns megabucks in corporate law, all funded by the taxpayer. Now imagine a poor kid who studies nursing, then goes on to become a nurse, working hard, long hours for not a whole lot of money.

    What I would like to see is that the megabucks-earning corporate lawyer pays more for his education than the nurse. Equally, I want the poor kid to be able to study law and earn the megabucks of a corporate lawyer.

    What we need is a system that charges people when they start earning the megabucks. This system is called HECS. Unfortunately, the threshold when you start repaying HECS is nowhere near “megabucks”. What’s more, it gives yet another incentive for our best and brightest to leave the country and never return.

    That is what needs solving. The current system, as originally conceived, is good an fair. It just needs to be tweaked.

    Oh, and every time a politician who got a free university education votes for a user-pays system, they should be sent a bill for their education.

    • Nah, can’t agree there, Simon. Thing is, when a lawyer is earning ‘megabucks’, they’re paying megabucks in tax. Education pays for itself.

      Everyone uses a variety of government services for which the cost is covered directly out of general tax revenue. I don’t really see why education should be singled out as a user-pays service; and, as I said above, we should be encouraging people into further education by making it free.

  2. Paul: that’s a reasonable way to look at it except for two things. What happens when the megabucks lawyer takes his education and leaves the country? Also, why should someone who hasn’t had a formal tertiary education but ends up making megabucks still pay for the formal education system? (I’m less convinced of this last point, I’m a socialist too, just pointing out some issues with your thinking.)

    • I’m not concerned about people leaving the country. It happens, it always will happen. We should be treating out diaspora as an asset, not as a loss. Many of them come back in the end; I left Australia, and came back again, and most of my friends have too. I may well go again, also.

      Not everyone is going to leave, and in the end, I believe the long-term benefits of a free education will outweigh the money spent on those who leave and don’t return. I’ll also point out that even having a HECS debt doesn’t stop you leaving the country. Someone could easily do a runner with that.

      As for the person who doesn’t have an education but pays a lot of tax; there’s plenty of things we all pay for that we don’t use. I have no particular desire to pay for our military escapades overseas; I don’t like paying for government advertising of any kind. I also don’t believe we should be encouraging unsustainable population growth by giving baby bonuses to people who have kids. Education is just another of those things that come out of general revenue; it’s no different to the roads.

      • re: the diaspora… I recently encountered a fellow loudly cursing at an inconsiderate taxi driver in Manhattan, in a very thick Australian accent. I suddenly felt homesick for Australia.

        re: nurses… there is a large sign near my office here in Delhi, saying “AUSTRALIA NEEDS NURSES: Call xxxx”. Make of that what you will.

  3. It’s interesting that you say students are : “Faced with the pressure from all angles – parents, society, financial necessity – to get out and work as soon as possible.”

    In essence Uni Melb seems to be saying that an undergraduate is something you shouldn’t rush. It should be broad, liberal and about the education and academic experience, not just about “doing your time” to earn that piece of paper that allows someone to get a job. And if you want to rush it, go to another uni (or better yet Tafe).

    Not all students know what they want to do for the rest of their lives out of high school, and a lot of those that think they do end up changing their mind somewhere down the line. Under the Melbourne model, the student will be exposed to many different areas. Upon the completion of their undergraduate degree, they can then complete a Masters level degree or enter the workforce.

    Obviously there are some drawbacks, but it’s inevitable and inexorable trend of education world-wide.

    • Some food for though:

      What are the ‘many different areas’ that the biomedicine degree students will be exposed to? It is designed purely as a pre-medical degree.

      How much broader will the Arts faculty be after the staff cuts and reduction in course offerings?

      How employable will the (as yet, unaccredited) 2-year M.Eng. students be compared to their peers at other universities who have 4-year, accredited, B. Eng. degrees.

      How content-restricted were Science and Arts degrees compared to the new model undergraduate courses? Why eliminate double-degree courses when they are very popular and offer undiluted content?

      How much money has been spent on advertising the Melbourne Model by the University ? The number and size of print ads is extraordinary. Where is the money for this (and the new scholarships) coming from, and what are the financial consequences?

      Melb Uni has lost 6%25 of first preference applications this year; and I would bet they are bright students realising they can’t do undergrad Law, Medicine and Engineering at Melbourne, but can elsewhere.

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