On April 17, 160 people rallied at Melbourne University (MU) against the introduction of the "Melbourne model". They were joined by students from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).
The Melbourne model, due to be implemented at the MU Parkville campus in 2008, will require students to complete a three-year generalised degree before they can undertake study towards a professional qualification at postgraduate level. Loosely based on US and European models of tertiary education, the Melbourne model is MU's latest attempt to transform Australia's higher education system to benefit elite universities.
Allyson Hose, the VCA student union's education research officer, explained: "If successful, the model will allow wealthy, well-resourced universities to shift most of their focus to the more lucrative postgraduate market, leaving the main burden of undergraduate studies to a second, plebeian tier of education institutions."
The changes will also affect the VCA, which has recently become part of MU. Under the plan, VCA courses will be slashed between 2009 and 2014 to make way for a single undergraduate degree, taught across the five disciplines of art, dance, drama, music and production.
Hose said, "The Melbourne model is arguably the most severe neoliberal attack on higher education in the last 30 years. Its vision is of an education system that is elitist, prohibitively expensive to most students, and totally irrelevant to visual and performing arts students, who require intensive, specialised study at an undergraduate level."
The university claims that the Melbourne model will give students "a profound educational experience" and a "broad and deep understanding of the world". However, this understanding won't include gender studies, which has been cut from the Bachelor of Arts degree at Parkville. Nor will it include film and television at the VCA.
The Melbourne model will make it easier for the university to cut subjects that are smaller, more expensive to run or can generate more revenue at postgraduate level, as film and television undoubtedly can. According to Lauren Hutchison, the MU student union arts officer, "So many third-year subjects are being cut in creative arts that it is impossible for many students to finish their course. The university has said there will be no more subject cuts as long as no teachers leave, however, teachers are leaving thick and fast so it is unclear what subjects will continue to be on offer."
It's not only students who are targeted in the new plan. The VCA also wants to "recruit new and younger academic staff, capable of operating in a changing educational and training environment". It also wants to "change the mix of permanent, contract and sessional staff to increase flexibility and responsiveness to budgetary restraints". Future staff will need to be young and prepared to sign individual contracts that get rid of their union-regulated rights, wages and conditions.
MU has spent a lot of time and money promoting the fact that it has succeeded in obtaining permission to shift undergraduate Commonwealth-supported places (formerly known as Higher Education Contribution Scheme places) to graduate places. At a briefing for Parkville students on April 3, deputy vice-chancellor Peter McPhee claimed that all "new generation" courses would be comprised of at least 50%, and up to 80%, Commonwealth-supported places.
Further, MU has lobbied the federal government to scrap the 35% limit on fee-paying domestic students, meaning that further cuts are likely in future.
The protesters marched to the venue of a dinner to launch the changes and blockaded the building. After one hour, the launch was called off. Guy Gillar from Resistance said, "This is one small victory at the start of our campaign to stop these changes".