Melbourne Uni

Melbourne Uni
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High school was something I just wanted to finish. The other students weren't too bad. We even played lots of games. No, it was schooling itself that I was sick of. I would never need to do titrations or use the chain rule in antidifferentiation in my adult life. The last couple of years of secondary school were not about "rounded" education, but instead headed into highly specific areas. English and the small section of maths devoted to statistics were the only subjects which had any general relevance for my future. The hope that kept me going was that after this stream of pointless crap, there would be the educational utopia of university, where I could study what I wanted.

I placed Science at the University of Melbourne as my top choice and scraped in on exactly the first offer cut-off point. Initially, all looked good. Their science degree was made up of points. You took whatever units you wanted to give you enough points to complete each year. It was a superb, flexible system in which you could take extra units just because you liked the sound of them, or to give you leeway in case you failed or decided to drop out of one.

It was only at the end of the first term that I discovered the reality of the place. Those studying computer science had very limited access to actual computers, just a few hours per week. It was barely enough to complete our projects and certainly not enough to get much hands-on experience. I looked forward to learning more over the break, but we were told that there would be no access at all outside terms. When I asked why, Professor Poole, head of the department, told me that they were concerned that students might break through security. This truly stunned me, on two levels. I hadn't even considered Unix security might be at risk from freshers who'd never touched multi-user computers before.

More importantly, I'd never considered that a university, a supposed place of learning and financed by the government (i.e. us!), would prefer to leave huge, expensive computers lying idle than to contribute to students' learning. No, this university was no educational utopia after all. It was, at least in the computer science department, a place of ultimate greed and empire-building. The whole purpose of the place was to enhance the incomes of the staff and the research budget. This meant that postgrad students were treated okay. Undergraduate students were a blight, to be given as few resources as possible.

Prof Poole's grasp of security was so good that his own password was the concatenation of the names of two family members. He was apparently blissfully unaware of the number of students who logged in to one of his personal accounts in order to play games, yet he managed to write a book on security. Maybe it just said "don't let anyone near your computers"?

The pure bloody-mindedness of the Computer Science department can't be underestimated. I once did a unit called Computer Meteorology. This was a meteorology unit and, because this was not a comp sci unit, we had access to the Computer Centre's equipment. We obtained accounts on the Research VAX, a dual-processor VAX 11/782, because it was their only machine with a C compiler. (It must have been quite new too, given that I found some bugs in its C libraries.) This appeared to be a sweet deal until, with a meteorology project due soon, one of the processors failed, rendering the 11/782 unusably slow for weeks. It was so overloaded that it took about 20 mins to get a text editor just to start up. Having no alternative, I decided to spend some of my precious login time on my comp sci account on the meteorology project. It was almost complete when I suddenly found I had no access to the directory in which I had those files. When I enquired about this, I was told that when Computer Science rules said that Computer Science department equipment was for course work only, they meant their course work only, not work for other departments in the University.

Other universities, such as Monash, had 24-hour terminal rooms and much more access to facilities. Within a few years, RMIT gave students of all departments unlimited access to computing facilities. Melbourne's computer centre provided no facilities unless you had a subject which required them. The comp sci department were so parochial that they were quite happy to try to torpedo students' degrees rather than let them use Computer Science department facilities to complete a computing projects from another department!

Leaping forward to today, we see that Melbourne University is more out of touch than ever. While the academics in some departments were totally hostile to undergraduate students in the past, at least the underlying system was a good one. Recently, we have seen the introduction of the "Melbourne Model". After 12 years of general study at school, Melbourne University wants its students to waste some more time on general study, before and during the studies that are relevant to their future career.

Michael Bachelard suggests that the philosophical heart of the model is the view that students students should not need to decide what their career will be at the age of 17 or 18. No, it is much worse than that. The view manifested in this scheme is that adult or near-adult students should not be allowed to decide what their career will be. If they have already decided, well, they can sit back and waste some more time, just to make the Uni more profitable. How ironic that the vice-chancellor, Glyn Davis, said the university was attempting to define "our own future rather than having it chosen for us", when discussing a system which takes away choice from the students.

This new direction is shaped after the US system, arguably the worst in the developed world. Given the inconsistency of secondary education in the USA, there might at least some small merit in having some general studies at the beginning of a US degree, but given the standardisation of curriculum and the standard means of selection for university here, the same just doesn't apply in Australia. Loading up students with even greater debts before they ever get a professional job is just setting them up for a life of failure.

Some students get years added to their studies, while others still finish in 3 years but with a degree watered down by "breadth subjects". The result of wasting years of their lives on paying for study while delaying being able to enter the workforce and earn money is economic suicide, while the diluted undergrad degree can only be a disadvantage when looking for work in a technically challenging field. I am so glad that I was a student when a degree was a useful, dedicated path to becoming employed.

The only winners in this silliness can be the coffers of the University .... and that's only if students fall for it. The Uni presumably hopes that by significantly devaluing their undergraduate degrees, they will force more students into spending longer there, especially in fee-paying postgraduate degrees. However, the outlook isn't bright. The Uni's Times world ranking has already dropped to its lowest point ever. With nobody believing that the new model benefits anyone but the University itself, it's time to boost the spin budget. Maybe if Pat Freeland-Small had had a decent education, he'd know that "spend" is not a noun?