Australian higher education looks set to move to a US model of generalist first degrees followed by graduate studies for professionals.
Brendan Nelson, the federal Education Minister, said undergraduates could complete their first degree at outer suburban and regional university campuses before enrolling in graduate schools run by research-intensive universities.
Dr Nelson has been arguing for greater diversity, with most of the country's universities focusing on teaching but a few concentrating more on research. He seized on an announcement by Melbourne University that it was considering a switch to the US style of postgraduate professional study to outline a new wave of reforms.
Melbourne's proposal would require all its students to complete a generalist undergraduate degree before enrolling in a professional programme in law, medicine or other fields.
Glyn Davis, the vice-chancellor, said declining federal funding was forcing change. Melbourne now received 23 per cent of its operating income from the federal Government and was no longer a public university but rather a "public-spirited" one, he added.
His plan for a general three-year degree in the arts, business, science or other faculties, followed by a specialised graduate programme, is expected to be endorsed this month by Melbourne's governing council.
Undergraduate numbers would be cut by up to 15,000 as postgraduate enrolments increased. But apart from medicine, where the Government subsidises tuition costs for undergraduates and postgraduates, students enrolled on graduate degrees would have to meet the full cost of their studies. That would mean an outlay of more than A$100,000 (£43,000) for many courses, even though the Government offers loans up to a maximum of only A$50,000.
Professor Davis said he hoped the federal Government would allow the transfer of some Higher Education Contribution Scheme places from undergraduate to graduate courses "to maintain a strong diversity of students entering graduate school".
Melbourne's announcement attracted strong criticism from academic and student groups as well as from professional organisations. The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (Capa) said the implications, when linked to the current fee structure, were alarming. "Already, many students are discouraged from pursuing a university degree by the high debt incurred under the Hecs loan system," said Stephen Horton, president of Capa.
Vice-chancellors from the Group of Eight research-intensive universities generally supported the move. Gavin Brown, vice-chancellor of Sydney University, said his institution was already well down a similar track, with graduate entry in medicine, dentistry and nursing.
"Our guaranteed government funds are less than 16 per cent of budget and inevitably the model will be tuned, retaining equity of access and rebalancing quality and quantity," he said.
Michael Gallagher, former head of the Education Department's higher education division and now director of policy and planning at the Australian National University, said previous equality of access and qualifications' parity of esteem would break down, but he believed most research-intensive universities would follow Melbourne's lead.