This morning’s papers ran a lot of pre-launch publicity for the Melbourne Model, the University of Melbourne’s new approach to higher education that was officially launched today and will be phased in from 2008.
Over time, the number of undergraduate degrees will drop to six: Arts, Science, Environments, Commerce, Music and Biomedicine. Most professional courses will be taught in graduate schools, with a dozen of these new Masters-level courses starting in 2008, and more to follow in subsequent years.
I’ve said little about this on the blog, as part of a general effort to keep separate and conflict-of-interest-free my roles as an employee of the University of Melbourne and as a higher education commentator. I’ll keep avoiding public discussion of the merits and demerits of the changes (though of course I think that there should be more choice in Australian higher education, with the market rather than the Commonwealth deciding what is offered). Plenty of other people have been offering their views on the substance of the changes at Melbourne. But there are a couple of contextual policy points worth making.
One thing to note is that this is a rare case of a public university introducing major reforms without being forced to do so by external circumstances. This is partly because policy since the Whitlam takeover in the 1970s has given universities little room to move, but also because as I noted last week university governance has historically (though not so much now) been dominated by internal interest groups and political appointments, not people generally with the inclination or ability to promote change.
A second thing to note is that though the Minister, Julie Bishop, has endorsed the broad direction Melbourne is taking the reforms are an unanticipated consequence of an earlier reform, the Postgraduate Education Loans Scheme (PELS) which began in 2002, and which was replaced in 2005 by FEE-HELP. Without the extension of income-contingent loans to postgraduate students a model like this one is unlikely to have been possible.
If the Melbourne Model works and is imitated by other universities it will be the second major change to Australian higher education that is as much a product of policy inadvertence as design. From 1995 to 2004, and again from 2008 after 3 years of incentive increments, the indexation policy for university grants has been to cut them in real terms every year. Since it is impossible for universities to stay in business on this funding formula, they went looking for students who could not only pay their own way but also cross-subsidise domestic students – hence the extraordinary growth in international student numbers. They now make up a quarter of all students enrolled in Australian universities. Would this have happened if universities were able to fund themselves domestically? To some extent, it probably would as Australian universities sought to give their campuses a more international flavour. But I very much doubt it would have happened on anywhere near the current scale.