EVEN a mathematician would have said it was impossible. How could you
squeeze 75 institutions into 38, and do away with an entire sector of higher
education at the same time? But, there it is: with one or two Victorian
exceptions, anyone who wants a degree in Australia must now attend a university:
a big, complex, multi-campus university.
Gone is the so-called binary system that once split higher education in two.
Gone are the colleges of advanced education, including some that traced their
heritage back to the old schools of mines and the gold-rush days. Gone are all
those practically minded, vocationally oriented institutions that gave tens of
thousands of students access to an education that would otherwise have been
denied them. The colleges have been swallowed up by their long-time competitors,
the universities, or they have merged with one another to create new
Five years ago, before the man known in higher education as ``Mr Nemesis"
came on the scene, anyone forecasting such a structural earthquake would have
been dismissed as a clairvoyant quack. Then John Dawkins took over a greatly
enlarged education portfolio, produced a green and a white paper, and the
The size and nature _ and speed _ of the transformation has been
extraordinary. It took more than 20 years from the release of the Martin report,
which recommended the creation of an advanced education sector, for the CAEs to
become the biggest part of the binary system. By the end of the 1980s, the
colleges were not only more numerous, they attracted many more students than the
universities. They remained, however, basically teaching-only institutions and,
unlike the universities, were not funded to carry out research.
Before Mr Dawkins came on the scene, there were 19 universities scattered
across the country, along with 56 advanced education colleges, ranging from
giant organisations like the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology that
dwarfed many of the universities, to tiny private institutions such as the
Catholic teachers colleges.
Now there are 29 public and three private universities, two university
colleges, three private colleges, and one lone institute of technology in
Victoria, although after a council meeting at the RMIT tonight there could be
two. Of the private universities, one is the financially troubled Bond
University and the others are Catholic-run institutions.
While the biggest changes to the public higher education system have been in
Victoria and New South Wales, institutions in the other states have still
experienced upheaval. In Queensland, where once there were eight CAEs and three
universities, only four universities and two university colleges remain. In
South Australia, a cluster of two universities and three colleges has been
reduced to three universities.
Even tiny Tasmania, which had three tertiary institutions last year, will soon
have only one.
But New South Wales and Victoria are where Whelan the Campus Wreckers have
really gone to work, with some 25 institutions having been demolished in two
years. Across the border at the start of 1989, there were six universities and
15 colleges. A year later, all the colleges had disappeared and nine
universities were left. The NSW Government simply legislated the changes,
allowing little argument about who was to marry whom.
VICTORIA, however, took a different tack and the institutions were assured
there would be no compulsory amalgamations. That seemed rational at the time,
but it ignored academe's penchant for self-serving power plays. The result has
been rounds of negotiations between different institutions that would have
exhausted Messrs Gorbachev and Bush.
Even now the final outcome in Victoria is uncertain, but the 20 colleges and
universities that were there at the end of the 1980s have been cut to five
universities, with only the Phillip Institute of Technology (and perhaps RMIT if
it pulls out of the new Victoria University of Technology) still standing
Mr Dawkins's argument for this outbreak of mass merging was that the
differences between the universities and the CAEs had become blurred, that
bigger was better in terms of economies of scale and opportunities for students
and teachers, and that institutions needed to be more accountable for the huge
sums of public money spent on them.
In its white paper outlining the reforms, the Government said that
institutions would be free to manage their own resources without unnecessary
intervention, ``while at the same time remaining clearly accountable for their
decisions and actions". They would be free to establish their own priorities
and develop their strengths, to accredit their own courses, to develop ``a
broader base of funding support" and to introduce more flexible staffing
The big question is why some of the most powerful education organisations in
Australia allowed Mr Dawkins to have his way.
Opposition to the Dawkins' plan was certainly fierce, with the vice-chancellors
of Melbourne and Sydney universities leading the attack. Yet the opponents ended
up looking like students at their first flagwaving protest and almost
everything Mr Dawkins wanted was accomplished.
Australia now has a ``unified national system" of higher education that
requires institutions to be of a certain size if they are to receive
Commonwealth grants and money for research. All members of the UNS are in
competition for research grants so that staff in the former colleges are,
theoretically at least, as eligible as their university counterparts. The
emphasis, however, is to be on research that is linked to the Australian economy
so that universities might become powerhouses of process and product
FEW of the universities approved of any of this but Mr Dawkins succeeded by
splitting the enemy camp. The colleges backed his plans because, unlike the
universities, they had nothing to lose and a lot to gain.
They wanted the status and the extra money that came with being a university.
And many of their senior staff, most with bachelor and master degrees, could
look forward to calling themselves professors and to engaging in research.
Whether most Australians, however, will be any better off now the wreckers
have gone home is still far from certain.