AUSTRALIA: A jewel in Monash's crown?

Although Professor Ed Byrne only took up the post as Monash University's eighth vice-chancellor in July, he has twice visited its South African offshoot in Johannesburg and is convinced it will come to be seen as "the jewel in the Monash crown".

"I believe the campus in South Africa will train many of the African leaders of the future and it may well turn out to be the most important thing Australia has done as far as education is concerned for the African continent," Professor Byrne says.

He returned in November after travelling to Johannesburg with almost the entire Monash council, part of a scheme for the council to visit the university's overseas offshoots every few years.

"We spent a very thorough few days speaking with staff and students, meeting with government leaders and the heads of other academic institutions," Byrne says. "It was clear that support for the campus was very high while the students felt their education was superb. I think the campus is a major contribution from Australia to the region, especially as quite a high proportion of the students come from other sub-Saharan countries outside South Africa."

Yet the prospects for a campus on the other side of the Southern Ocean were not always so bright. In the late 1990s, when former vice-chancellor David Robinson was pushing ahead with his plans to establish a Monash outpost "on every continent", academics in Melbourne were threatening rebellion.

Facing cuts to their numbers and watching as millions of dollars went on establishing the Johannesburg campus, academics held protest meetings and called stop works. All to no avail and eight years on, according to Byrne, Monash has spent A$130 million (US$115.5 million) creating a higher education showpiece that now enrols nearly 3,000 students and expects to more than double that number within five years.

But Jeffrey Bender, Monash branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union, is far more cautious about the future of the campus although he says that staff, while strongly opposed to its establishment, now accept it as a fact of life.

Bender says the South African government wants the Monash campus to offer a more comprehensive suite of programmes such as engineering and science. That would cost money and the union would question any plan that included pouring millions more into the South African offshoot.

Despite charging students fees, even though many are on bursaries and scholarships, the Johannesburg campus still runs at a loss that Monash must make up each year, he says. Had not fee levels been substantially increased for commencing students next year, it was likely the campus would continue to lose money "into perpetuity".

But Byrne says the annual loss is declining and, as enrolments expand, he expects it will move into surplus: "The present three schools - humanities, IT and business - are thriving, a health school is about to start and we will extend that to other schools in due course," he says.

"We have research strengths within the existing schools and have set up a water research node in line with Monash's strength in Australia while our accident research centre has a node in Johannesburg and the and new health school will have a research node in global health."

Located in Ruimsig, a burgeoning suburb 25 kilometres north-west of the Johannesburg city centre, the campus is architecturally eye-catching. Its main buildings are located along a paved avenue while around the perimeter of the 40-hectare site, student accommodation quarters are being built that currently hold some 850 students.

"The schools here are extensions of the faculties in Australia," says Professor Simon Adams, deputy pro vice-chancellor in charge of international affairs. "And we are subject to the Australian quality assurance agency and to the quality assurance authority here in South Africa."

Adams is one of only three Australian academics working on the Monash campus as the majority of staff are locals. Yet the students are drawn from 44 countries and most are from outside South Africa.

"One of the things that really attracted me as you walk around the campus is the powerful sense of being part of an African university with a multitude of languages," he says. "From a professional point of view, it is very rewarding to work in that environment."

Although students pay fees, Adams says the university is not a private for-profit institution but rather "a private university with a public purpose": "We will not repatriate funds that are generated here back to Australia but will continue to invest resources in developing the campus."

"That is different from the business model of say Bond University which set up a campus here but pulled out of South Africa, or the other private providers whose aim was to generate income for their parent organisations."

Byrne's belief the Johannesburg campus will be a training ground for Africa's future leaders may be occurring already. Adams says students who graduated from the university three years ago are now playing key roles in governments, agencies and non-government organisations across the region.

"What we're trying to do here is not educate them so they can then leave for other countries but to help transform the places they come from, to go back to their own countries and make a difference," Adams says.

"That's why we have such a strong community programme, a strong volunteer outreach scheme and I think that changes the students' mindset - it's connected to what they do academically and it becomes addictive to the Australians who come here as well."

The community outreach approach extends to bringing youngsters from the nearby Zandspruit settlement in the university bus to the campus each Saturday. There they take classes in mathematics, science, computing and art run by up to 700 university student volunteers. Academics also work with the settlement's community organisations to help improve conditions there.

"People come here from the [Melbourne] campus and it's like `Wow!' they suddenly find themselves involved and working in the local settlement, doing things that are connected to teaching and research," Professor Adams says. "It restores your faith in what education is all about. If education isn't to change the world and make it a better place, then what the hell is education for?"

* Australian universities operate almost 900 programmes in overseas countries although 70% are in Singapore, Malaysia, China and Hong Kong. Thirteen universities have established offshore campuses or study centres while the remaining 24 have arrangements with existing institutions in the host country to prepare students for study in Australia, or they run degree courses under the Australian university's academic control.

A decision by the University of New South Wales to create a campus in Singapore proved costly when the campus suddenly shut down in June 2007, after only one semester. It was among Australian higher education's worst business failures and led to the university facing a $17.5 million loss on the venture