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The Age

The remaking of higher education is almost complete

Author: Geoff Maslen
Date: 25/03/1991
Words: 1146
          Publication: The Age
Page: 13
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 universities.

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 rumblings began.

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 entirely alone.

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 arrangements.

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 innovation.

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.

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