The
Age
produced
a front
page
splash today with the news that the elite
University
of Melbourne
has raised the possibility that it stop accepting undergraduates in education,
law, nursing and architecture from the end of 2007 and reopen those courses as
master’s degrees. The move is the latest salvo in the range of attempts by elite
Australian universities to mimic their
US
counterparts.

The
plan, which has received backing from Education Minister, Julie Bishop, will no
doubt be popular among bean counting university administrators. However, it will likely be far less appealing
to potential students and business. Having studied in a top eight Australian law
school and a top-20 US law school, I found that the consensus among law students was that
the Australian undergraduate model is far preferred to the postgraduate
US-model. Requiring students initially to undertake a three to four-year undergraduate
course prior to completing a three to four-year postgraduate course is a waste of time
(students would not enter the workforce until seven to eight years after leaving school) and
money (universities would no doubt charge full fees for postgraduate courses in
law, medicine and dentistry, ensuring that students enter the workforce owing
upwards of $100,000).

The
plan is being piloted by Melbourne Vice-Chancellor, Glyn Davis, who noted that
“the professions are
becoming highly complex, with very technical expertise needed [and] to ask that
of 18-year-olds before they have had a chance to get a general familiarity with,
say, science or commerce, makes it increasingly hard for them to do well.”

If
Davis ever
bothered to look out from his ivory tower, he would notice that despite
completing their degrees by the time they are 23, Australian lawyers and doctors
are considered the world’s best (Australian lawyers remain in hot demand in
New
York and
London).
Davis’s plan would mean that lawyers, doctors and architects would probably not
be fully qualified until their late twenties, having studied for a staggering 20-plus
years. While US institutions have many strengths,
Australian universities would be advised not to copy their weaknesses.