Bond U. Breaks New Ground

A university built to be an alternative in an egalitarian society is criticized for being exclusive. EDUCATION: AUSTRALIA'S FIRST PRIVATE COLLEGE

THE Harvard University of Australia? ``If I did not have a vision of Bond University in 100 years time being as important within the Australian culture as Harvard is within the American, I shouldn't have this job,'' says Donald Watts, Bond University's kinetic vice-chancellor.

The doors to the first private university in Australia opened only in May. But almost everyone from Mr. Watts to the students echoes this unswerving self-confidence, epitomized by Alan Bond, who is probably Australia's best-known entrepreneur. His Bond Corporation paid half the school's A$220 million (US$165 million) construction costs.

``I'm getting the best law degree in Australia,'' says Louise Hourigan, who transferred from Queensland University on a scholarship. But such chutzpah isn't shared across the country.

While some see Bond University pioneering a new era in education, detractors dub it an exclusive school for ``dumb, rich brats'' and a threat to public education.

Since 1974, Australians haven't paid directly for college-level schooling. The state funds higher education at public institutions for all who qualify academically. Paying A$36,000 (US$27,000) for Bond's undergraduate degree runs contrary to Australia's egalitarian culture, not to mention the views of a socialist Labor government and its union supporters.

``Bond University stands for the principles of unfettered greed, unlimited consumption, and the ostentatious display of wealth. Those aren't the principles that will sustain life on this planet,'' says Ray Cavenagh, deputy president of the New South Wales Teachers Federation.

Watts responds that 10 percent of Bond's students are on financial-need scholarships. He finds it odd that a private university wasn't launched long before now. Private secondary schools are well established here and attended by 30 percent of Australian youths.

And Bond provides an alternative to the overcrowded and underfunded public universities, says Watts. ``There are 20,000 young people who qualify but can't find a place in the education system now,'' he says. ``As Bond University picks up students, that will increase the number of places in the public system and make a considerable contribution to the removal of privilege.''

Federal education minister John Dawkins is well aware of the problems and has embarked on a major reform program. To eliminate duplication and consolidate resources, many of the nation's 40-odd colleges of advanced education will be merged into the 20 public universities.

Schools are being encouraged to seek private funding, and federal-tax concessions are being offered to coax industry to form joint-research ventures with schools.

Over the next three years, the government plans to pump A$870 million (US$650 million) into the system and create 49,000 new places for students. And, despite the biggest campus demonstrations since the Vietnam war, the government has started to levy a A$1,800 (US$1,350) per year tax on students to be paid back after graduation.

If you tally up graduate taxes, books, living costs, and lost income, the cost of attending public university isn't much less than that of attending Bond.

``The fees here are well worth paying if you figure there's an opportunity cost - income lost while you're at school - wherever you go,'' says David Milhouse, who's working for a master's degree in business administration. The Bond MBA course can be completed in one year, as opposed to two years at public universities. Similarly, other degrees can be obtained in two years, rather than the normal three years at public universities.

Mr. Milhouse says Bond's courses stack up well against North American business schools he investigated. As for Australia's public-university MBA programs, Milhouse says: ``I wasn't very impressed. As a general manager for a technology transfer company, I interviewed many MBA graduates who couldn't read a balance sheet, do rudimentary financial analysis, or use a computer.''

Bond students are enthusiastic about the quality of teaching. ``The attitudes are unbelievable here. The amount you learn here in a day is like what you'd learn in a week at another uni,'' says a law school student who transferred from the University of Western Australia in Perth.

There's an initial blush of euphoria in any start-up operation, says associate law professor Dianne Everett. Bond has managed to attract top teaching talent from the public sector by paying more and promising fatter budgets. But Ms. Everett says the real attraction lies in teaching in an environment where students and teachers are better motivated because students, not the government, pay the bills.

``In the public sector, the administration catches the funds that fall from heaven - the government. If you fund from the bottom, from student fees, you reverse the process of responsibility, creating a more direct relationship between students and teachers. That makes for a better education system.''

Watts calculates the university will be generating enough funds by 1993 to start paying off construction costs, cofinanced by Bond Corporation and EIE Corporation, a Japanese conglomerate.

Carved out of a pine forest in Australia's Gold Coast resort area, the sheer magnitude of the 212-hectare (524 acre) university complex is impressive. There are five major schools - law, business, science, computer science, and humanities and social science.

Most of the campus still looks like a construction site. When finished, it will be a small sandstone city that includes a hotel, stores, restaurants, science research park, and a lake linked to a river system.

The first semester has drawn 325 students, at the low end of expectations. As facilities are completed, Watts hopes to pull in about 450 to 500 students per semester. Forty percent will come from overseas. ``In four years, we plan to have 4,500 from around the Pacific Rim. We have the potential to grow to 10,000 early in the next century,'' says Watts.

But the university has been having trouble getting operational financing. It's trying to secure a A$50 million (US$38 million) loan at commercial rates from a state-owned insurance corporation, but is running into political flak. ``We're not afraid of competition. But private means private. We don't want them dipping into the public purse,'' says Frank Hambly, executive director of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, a policy group of public-university presidents.

For similar reasons, Bond students have also been denied Austudy - a federal means-test living allowance for university students. Watts threatens to take the government to court. ``It's outrageous discrimination,'' he says. ``Austudy isn't money for Bond, but for young Australians attending an accredited university.''

Whether or not Bond gets ``public'' funding, the university's success in becoming Australia's ``Oxford of the Southern Hemisphere,'' as one Fijian student put it, will ultimately rest on its graduates.

``The onus on the first batch of students is to perform in the marketplace. And that's the only way a Bond degree can be measured,'' says MBA candidate Milhouse. ``If we succeed, so will Bond.''

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