In 2008, Melbourne University, led by Kevin Rudd’s good friend, Glyn Davis, introduced an American-style model of undergraduate study, subsequently dubbed the Melbourne Model. At the time, students, staff and commentators criticised the move. Two years later, it appears that the Melbourne Model is being shunned by students, with The Age reporting last week that Melbourne University is now less popular than not only long-time rival Monash, but also RMIT and Deakin University. Information obtained exclusively by Crikey also confirms that elite students are turning away from the once-prestigious Melbourne University law school in droves.

Under the Melbourne Model, undergraduate students are able to undertake 17 undergraduate courses — in 2007, students were able to choose from more than 90 different courses.

When the Melbourne Model was introduced, many students expressed dismay at the restrictions on undertaking courses such as law or medicine at an undergraduate level. The ability to undertake the course of one’s choice was considered a preferred model than requiring students to first complete a generalist degree, which, in many cases, is unnecessary to their future vocation. Under the model adopted by other Australian universities, students still have the option to first complete a “generalist” degree should they choose — however, few take it up unless they fail to obtain a high enough entry score to make it into law or medicine in the first instance.

This view appears to be substantially confirmed by the recent Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre preference data.

According to VTAC, Melbourne’s long-time rival, Monash University, received 14,364 applications, RMIT more than 10,000 and Deakin 9978 compared with only 8372. Melbourne would contend that raw first-preference figures are misleading, because it offers far less courses (only 17) than its rivals. In that regard, Melbourne University’s provost, Professor John Dewar, told The Age that the data was actually an “endorsement of the Melbourne Model” given “first preferences for its six ‘new generation’ generalist degrees were up 3%.” Dewar failed to mention that demand for Monash and Deakin increased by 12% and 16% respectively.

However, the true effect of the Melbourne Model is being seen in the huge spike in demand for Monash’s bachelor of law program (on the major courses no longer offered by Melbourne at an undergraduate level). From its inception in the early 1960s,  Monash University was generally considered the less prestigious and favoured of the two institutions (Melbourne almost across the board had a higher ENTER requirement for most courses). As a result, while Monash arguably offered a more “practical” and less theoretical law degree, elite students tended to opt for Melbourne University because of its superior “brand”. However, thanks to Davis’ Melbourne Model, that notion has been turned upside down.

In 2008, the year in which the Melbourne Model was introduced, Monash received an unprecedented 96.3% spike in “first preferences” for its undergraduate law program. This year, demand was up another 27%. Putting it simply — instead of choosing law at Melbourne, top students are heading in their droves to Monash.

Overall, since the Melbourne Model was introduced, demand for Monash’s undergraduate law program (largely from elite students) has risen by more than 153%. (By contrast, Melbourne University spokesperson Christina Buckridge wrote in Crikey on November 9, 2009 that the “Melbourne Model’s … six courses (have witnessed) first preferences up 3%”. This does not compare especially well to Monash’s 153% increase.

That is not to say Melbourne’s undergraduate courses are shunned, general commerce, arts and science degrees at Melbourne remain popular with students, however, it is the elite students, who prefer to undertake courses such as medicine or law at an undergraduate level, who have selected Monash, rather than Melbourne as their first preference.

Speaking with Crikey, a Melbourne University spokesperson defended the Model, claiming that it offered students “more choice”. This appeared to be a somewhat confusing defence given that the Melbourne Model appears to specifically remove the most preferred option: undertaking courses such as law, medicine or dentistry at an undergraduate level.

Some contend that the Melbourne Model is not about improving education, but rather about money. Under changes introduced by the federal government (the Prime Minister happens to be very good friends with the vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, with Davis chairing Kevin Rudd’s 2020 talkfest), universities are no longer able to charge “full fees” for local undergraduate students. Therefore, without the lucrative Melbourne Model, the university may have faced a substantial funding shortfall.

By contrast, universities are still able to charge “full-fees” for half of its places in its postgraduate programs, like the Juris Doctor (the remaining half are offered on a Commonwealth-supported basis). This can make quite a substantial difference. Taking law, for example, under the “old” model, students were able to undertake a combined law/arts degree at a cost of approximately $45,000 over five years. This sum would be repaid after the student has started  employment and earns above a threshold amount.

Under the Melbourne Model, candidates are required to first undertake a three-year “generalist” arts degree (at a cost of approximately $15,000) and then scramble for one of the Commonwealth-supported places in the postgraduate law program. If they were unable to receive one of the Commonwealth-supported place, according to the Melbourne University website, the cost increases to $89,200.

Not only is the cost higher, but the fees must be up-front (unless loans or some other kind of assistance is obtained) rather than after the student starts  full-time employment. In addition, the Melbourne Model would require students to spend at least one extra year of study (six years, rather than five), delaying their entry into the work-force (which would probably represent an opportunity cost of more than $50,000).

Cynics suggest that there was one other benefit from the Melbourne Model. That is, the extra revenue created by the Model allows for higher salaries for people such as Glyn Davis, who was paid $610,000 in 2007 but has seen his pay packet swell to approximately $800,000 this year.

Disclosure: The writer completed a Bachelor of Law (Hons) and Bachelor of Commerce from Monash University and undertook postgraduate law studies at Boston College in the United States (which operates under a system similar to the Melbourne Model).