AUSTRALIAN universities have taken to privatisation with added zeal since the conservative government led by prime minister John Howard swept into office early last year.
Severe cuts in federal funding to universities, coupled with a relaxing of the restrictions on charging full fees to Australian students, have led to a search for more non-governmental sources of income.
Most universities are drawing up plans to find extra non-governmental dollars, seeking more overseas students and research funding. Some hope that the local students who miss out on normal entry into their preferred course will pay at least Aus$10,000 (Pounds 4,480) a year up-front for admission.
Melbourne University Ltd, the proposed private arm of one of the elite Australian universities, is setting the pace. It has put forward plans for an institution that aims to attract the brightest postgraduate students and young researchers from Australia and abroad. Staff salaries are reported to be in line with the private sector, with professors earning an annual income of Aus$160,000, senior lecturers Aus$97,000 and lecturer/tutors Aus$56,000.
But Melbourne University Ltd suffered a setback this month when it failed to be considered by the Victorian state government for its preferred site in Melbourne's large Docklands development. The acting vice chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Barry Sheehan, said the university was "bitterly disappointed" at being overlooked but would now seek a prestige alternative site for the development.
Another Melbourne consortium of universities succeeded in gaining preferred bidder status at the Docklands. The Tech2000 consortium, which includes Monash, Deakin, Victoria University of Technology, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, commercial bank BZW Australia and Multiplex Constructions, proposes to commercialise intellectual property and research on part of the 220-hectare waterfront site near the central business district.
Ambition and grand entrepreneurial spirit is driving much of the Docklands proposals. The universities will have as neighbours an indoor/outdoor Australian Rules football stadium and a 113-storey, 560-metre silver tower that aims to capture the title of the world's tallest building.
Monash University's acting vice chancellor, Peter Darvall, said the development would provide new opportunities for development in research, technology and policy formulation.
"The bid is about harnessing the abilities of some of the most creative researchers in this state around a central, dynamic precinct,"he said. "It will make a significant contribution in the fields of multimedia, sports technology, telecommunications, the environment, meteorology, transport, trade and public policy."
In another development, a Queensland business consortium has revealed plans for a Aus$60 million private university in the far north of the state. The proposal includes a university for up to 3,000 students. The target market is international fee-paying students from Asian nations, but full fee-paying local students will also be sought.
"While the majority of students envisaged will be from overseas, the university will tap into a growing tendency for Australian students to travel for their education," the consortium said.
Although a 19-day student protest squat in RMIT's finance building has now ended, a wider campaign by student groups against the federal government's new deal for higher education will continue until Christmas. At the 30,000-student Monash University, a tent city with a permanent population of about five students is into its second month.
Situated outside the vice chancellor's building, the protest is a highly visible, if not representative, reminder that the shift to privatisation is not pleasing all on campus.