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.