The Guardian 9 March, 2005

Nelson to welcome dodgy degrees

Andrew Jackson

A new wave of education "reforms" proposed by the Howard government will allow any private business, religious organisation or overseas institution with a single classroom, teacher, subjects and students in Australia to apply for accreditation as a "university".

Dr Nelson used the catchcry of "diversity" to sell the changes: "It is neither necessary nor desirable for all universities to be the same."

"It is important that we consider whether Australia can continue to expect a one-size-fits-all model of higher education to compete with the world's best..."

"In particular, it is worth debating the requirement for all universities to undertake research as well as teaching."

The plan is outlined in a new report, Building University Diversity: Future Approval and Accreditation Processes for Australian Higher Education, which will be the basis of a national higher education seminar in May.

As with all its "reforms" of public services the Howard government in referring to "world's best" is no doubt looking at the USA for inspiration.

The United States not only allows any private institution to apply for accreditation as a university but also the accreditation process itself is carried out by private institutions.

This has allowed countless universities to be set up by corporations, religious cults and internet sites to offer bachelor, masters and doctorate "degrees".

Among the most notorious is Hamburger University in Illinois owned by McDonalds which offers a "Bachelor of Hamburgerology". Another is Brigham Young University run by the Mormon Church which teaches that Native Americans are descended from Jews who were instructed by God in 600BCE to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in fully-enclosed semi-submersible wooden vessels using magic rocks to provide heat and light which offers degrees in "history".

Labor, the Greens and Democrats have all blasted the plan as paving the way for "McDegrees" here in Australia but with John Howard gaining control of the Senate in July there is little to prevent the government bulldozing its agenda through Parliament.

Australia already has a "world's best" tertiary education system. Our universities are internationally recognised as providers of quality education and research. Thus the degrees awarded by Australian universities are internationally recognised and thus graduates will often gain instant accreditation in their chosen fields anywhere on earth.

Before the Hawke Labor government re-introduced fees our Universities were fully publicly funded, allowing any qualified student regardless of socio-economic background access to world-class tertiary education.

In the flood of new private "universities" Australian students will face a bewildering choice of degrees from both internationally renowned and bargain basement institutions offering degrees that may or may not be worth the paper they are written on.

After 18 years of "reforms" carried out by both Labor and Liberal governments we read raw statistics which provide a shocking indictment of the state of tertiary education in Australia today.

Since 1996, 272,000 students have been turned away from TAFE, and an estimated 115,000 to 161,000 qualified students have missed out on university places due to lack of funding.

In universities there has been an alarming trend towards full fee places and away from government subsidised HECS places. Between 2003 and 2004, there was a drop of over 8000 students in HECS places but an increase of over 2500 students in full-fee places.

Many of these degrees now cost over $100,000. At the University of Melbourne a full-fee medical degree costs $210,000. A full-fee veterinary science degree costs $155,000 at the University of Sydney. A Planning/Law degree at the University of New South Wales costs $135,000.

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