A friend asked me the other day why the University of Melbourne was abandoning its 150-year-old traditions and adopting the American model of a very modern university. I had to admit that although I’ve attended press briefings held by Melbourne vice-chancellor Professor Glyn Davis and have read a great deal about the new system of postgraduate professional degrees, I didn’t know.

From next year, Melbourne will begin a long process that will eventually require all undergraduates to sit for a three-year bachelor degree before being eligible to enrol in professional postgraduate degrees such as medicine, engineering, law and so on. At present, students can go direct from school to the university and complete most of these courses in three to five years. Under the new system, students will first have to gain a three or four-year bachelor degree, then apply for a postgraduate course that could taken them another three to five years. An undergraduate enrolling in a full-fee degree at Melbourne this year faces an outlay of $120,000. And this could become the minimum amount students who miss out on a HECS place will have to pay to become a GP, a lawyer or earn one of the other professional qualifications.

Davis, who took up his post at Melbourne after heading Griffith University in Brisbane, gained his governing council’s approval last year to spend $100 million developing the radical scheme. He also appears to have persuaded most of his staff to back the idea, although some will lose their jobs and many the subjects they used to teach. Students only now have started some belated protest actions.

On Tuesday, Melbourne formally launched the project at the university’s Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute. The event began with senior academics parading in their full mortar boards-and-gowns regalia while an orchestra of students and staff performed the theme that will be used in a national advertising campaign. The TV and press ads will call on “the best and brightest prospective students from across Australia and around the world to come to the University of Melbourne for an education that will equip them to be global citizens”. 

And leave them considerably poorer, critics claim.

But, to attract those students and persuade them to spend an extra three or more years gaining a professional qualification, Melbourne will try to lure the top school leavers with $2500 scholarships, as well as no HECS or full fees, plus annual allowances of $5000 for the very best VCE graduates. Schools across Victoria will be asked to nominate their most able students.

Other universities have shown a distinct lack of interest in following Melbourne’s bold example, and Davis will not be the only one watching enrolment patterns next year when school-leavers will decide whether gaining a piece of parchment with a Melbourne University crest on it is worth the price in time and money they will have to pay. As one current student observed: “I’d have had second and third thoughts about going to Melbourne if I knew I wouldn’t graduate until my late 20s and then had to pay off a $200,000-plus debt.”