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Disappointment Down Under

July 11, 2008

Ever since Australia’s government announced plans to welcome an American college into the country’s fold of domestic universities, people have questioned whether the new operation would live up to its advance notices.

Now in its second year, Carnegie Mellon University’s branch campus in the South Australian city of Adelaide is facing renewed scrutiny.

Recent media reports in Australia revealed that the government in Australia has now spent $227,000 for every student enrolled at the nominally private institution, compared to around $14,500 for each student enrolled at any of the city’s other three established universities, with relatively little yet to show for the infusion of public funds. Adding to the criticism is the fact that Carnegie Mellon – established in 1901, the year of Australia’s own nationhood — is among the world’s most affluent academic institutions. Carnegie Mellon’s $1.1 billion endowment is many times the equivalent for any of Australia’s better-heeled colleges, most of which complain of being perpetually strapped for cash.

In what was seen by some as a case of praising with faint damns, the foreign minister who helped smooth Carnegie Mellon’s way, Alexander Downer, recently told The Australian newspaper that the American venture “has got off to a slower start than I would have hoped for.”

The new university had, however, made an “OK start,” Downer added.

“Things do seem to be looking a bit unfortunate,” says Mike Metcalfe, an associate professor of management at the nearby University of South Australia and a former policy advisor whose work with the state government during the 1990s helped set the political stage for Carnegie Mellon to become the country’s first wholly foreign institution of higher learning.

Carnegie Mellon became Australia’s 40th university when it opened in May 2006 amid promises that its graduate-level programs in information technology, public policy and entertainment technology would improve the prospects of the country’s least-populous state refashioning itself as a regional higher-education hub in the spirit of a Singapore or Dubai.

For its part, the American institution would only improve the reputation as an international academic player, while offering the same programs for the same tuition cost (around $32,000), as it would in Pittsburgh, for a cohort of potential students who might not wish to study within the U.S.

Not only would a prestigious institution like Carnegie Mellon bring new students to the remote city, it was argued, the university’s niche programs —aimed for the most part at attracting elite, high-spending foreign students drawn from the ranks of the Asian civil service — would also offer new opportunities for those already working in Adelaide, particularly those holding management roles in the city's state-service and entertainment sector.

With this in mind, the state government contributed around $25 million to the operation’s start-up costs, including its new buildings in the city’s downtown area.

Since then, however, a lack of prospective students has forced the operation to close its much-vaunted Entertainment Technology Centre, while enrollments in its business programs, administered by the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, have remained relatively modest.

Heinz-Australia has now completed three intakes, totaling 105 students, about half of them full-time, drawn from 19 countries, including Australia, with enrollments for the current year up by a third on 2007. The school says it is on track to meet its own target of enrolling 200 students within the next two or three years.

Those improving numbers would greatly reduce the per-student cost in relation to the school’s public funding, he points out, in keeping with the university’s long-term aim of doing academic business at no further cost to the Australian taxpayer.

To date, the majority of Carnegie Mellon’s short-course non-degree offerings have been in Australia with some custom offerings last year in Singapore. Executive education, as well, continues to be an important strategic focus for the school, according to executive director Timothy Zak.

Responding by way of e-mail from the United States, where he has been vacationing, Zak points out that a number of graduates from those courses have already entered top-ranked PhD programs, along with many others having benefited from an exchange program now operating between the American and Australian Heinz schools.

Such programs have enjoyed “phenomenal success,” he says, “based on participant feedback.”

Nor has their been “a country yet that I’ve visited over the last 18 months, from the Gulf States to China and the Pacific Rim, that hasn’t inquired about the desire for short course offerings,” Zak adds.

But Metcalfe, the former policy advisor with the state government, believes the country’s newest university continues to have what he describes as an unrealistic view of its appeal to potentially lucrative Asian students.

“People in general here have underestimated Asia as a key to the growth of higher learning in Australia,” the University of South Australia educator says, mentioning the continued growth of many top-tier universities now occurring in Asia itself, “and we’re talking about some of the world’s top universities here, unlike any of those in Australia. In Asia nowadays, you hear people saying, ‘Oh well, my kid hasn’t done very well, so perhaps we’ll send him to Australia,’ rather than they’re going to send him to Australia because that’s where the elite kids go.”

Carnegie Mellon had banked on a “very different proposition,” says Metcalfe, whose own institution is reviewing its strategies for attracting the same class of lucrative fee-paying Asian student courted by its American rival.

For now, the American venture is looking to improve and expand the links it says it has already forged with governments, industry, and other organizations in Australia and throughout the Asia-Pacific.

Launching a new higher education presence in any region requires “fertile ground” and a significant commitment to have a chance for success in the long-term, the Heinz chief executive acknowledges.

Nevertheless, says Zak, “Australia’s ongoing efforts to build an innovative and high-impact higher education sector make it a viable market for any international institution interested in establishing a presence outside of its home country.”

 

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