Merged Monash

Engineering and the mergers

There was much trepidation about the mergers across within the university and resistance to the idea was strong. The Faculty of Engineering was no exception. It was almost universal, recalls Brendon Parker from the Department of Materials Engineering; ‘members of the Faculty were not happy at all’. But, the Faculty had no option other than to accept that the merger would eventuate. Even Peter Darvall, Dean at the time of the mergers, acknowledged that there was little he could do despite his own opinions. ‘I, in the Committee of Deans, had voted against amalgamation’, he said, ‘but I learned the hard way the principle of cabinet solidarity … not to merge, was not an option.’

‘There was a lot of fear and loathing involved’, remembers Darvall, ‘I can remember standing out in front of a lecture theatre full of academics in the Faculty at Clayton saying why we had to do it, and they all knew that I was not myself convinced.’ According to some from within the Faculty, it was the wrong thing to do for a number of reasons. The biggest concern was that this merger would damage Engineering’s hard earned reputation for high-class teaching and research. In merging with Monash, Chisholm and Gippsland were expected to start acting like a university, to do research and produce students of a certain calibre – expectations that were impossible to meet so quickly. ‘I said it’d take us 10 years to recover from those mergers,’ commented Bill Melbourne, Head of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the time. ‘I was wrong, it’s taken 15 years.’ 

Concern about how to sustain an equally high standard of research and teaching across three different schools of engineering was at the forefront of the minds of many of the staff members resistant to the merger. This concern was particularly acute in relation to the reality that post merger, there were three different engineering courses at three different campuses that all resulted in the awarding of a Monash University degree. But, the content and focus of each of these three degrees was vastly different. How would standards be set, achieved and maintained? This problem resulted in ‘a lot of heartache, some curriculum changes and some changes to the titles of degrees’, reflected Brendon Parker.

In May 1990, Dean Peter Darvall wrote a memo to the University’s Registrar about the approval of degree and diploma courses offered by Monash University College Gippsland. Darvall noted that he wanted the testamurs for the degree to distinguish between a degree in engineering earned at the Clayton campus and one earned at Gippsland. At first, degrees from Caulfield and Gippsland were titled Bachelor in Applied Engineering. The word ‘computing’ was later added to the end of all Caulfield courses. These separate degrees were reluctantly accepted by the Institution of Engineers. This acceptance was critical as without the approval of the Institution of Engineers, these degrees would not have the national or international recognition the existing Bachelor of Engineering at Clayton had. ‘There were some pretty vigorous discussions’, recalls Darvall, ‘about titles and privileges and curriculum settings. Emotions ran high.’ Bill Melbourne noticed that for the first time he had disgruntled staff – ‘dozens of them’.

In 1997 after nearly a decade of running three separate courses, Mike Brisk who was by then Dean of Engineering at Monash, decided to homogenise the three courses in order to raise the standard of Engineering students and rebuild the Faculty’s reputation for research excellence, a legacy of Foundation Dean Ken Hunt. In practice, this meant that while the Bachelor of Engineering would still be offered at Clayton, Caulfield and Gippsland it would for the first time since the merger, be the same course, with identical content and entry requirements across the three campuses. This had particularly harsh implications on the Caulfield and Gippsland campuses whose entry scores were considerably lower than at Clayton. Failure rates at Caulfield campus in particular increased dramatically after the course content was standardised across the three campuses.

It was, reflected Tam Sridhar, then Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, ‘a bitter, bitter experience.’ While the homogenisation process was positive in that the same engineering course was taught across all three campuses, it also meant that the same course was being taught to all students, despite their different levels of capability. ‘Therein was the seed of its own destruction’ remarked Sridhar.

Eventually the Gippsland Campus proved an unviable option for the Faculty and the course was withdrawn. Similarly, the three engineering departments at Caulfield – Civil, Mechanical and Electrical Engineering eventually relocated to Clayton, amidst much anger and dissatisfaction from the staff. Bill Young recalls when the Department of Civil Engineering from Caulfield merged with the Department of Civil Engineering at Clayton, staff numbers were cut from around 36 to just 21. The degrees, staff and students at Gippsland and eventually Chisholm were incorporated into the Faculty structure and layout at Clayton until one uniform degree structure finally prevailed.

Reflecting on the mergers overall, Robin Alfredson a former staff member of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering commented ‘I’m not sure why it happened in the first place, I was never informed.’ He mused, ‘there was quite a concern both with Caulfield and the Gippsland programs, and there were several years of uneasy co-existence there, but eventually the programs faded and Monash Engineering survived.’

(Updated Jun 8, 2011) Printed on: