Government ratchets up applied research agenda

Couldn’t agree more minister

The medical research lobby did not lose any time yesterday in welcoming Health Minister Peter Dutton’s announcement of a review of the Independent Medical Research Institute sector. Research Australia could do little else, given the proposed $20bn Medical Research Future Fund makes the government the best friends the laboratory lobby has ever had. “With a growing and diverse medical research industry in Australia a continued focus on improvements to the industry including IMRI’s is essential,” RA said. This review looks like Mr Dutton’s version of Industry Minister Macfarlane’s review of the Cooperative Research Centres and reflects his determination to ensure research money is spent on government objectives – one of which is medical research.

According to Mr Dutton, the review “will consider the business models used by Australian IMRIs, research infrastructure platforms and the translational impact of research as well as opportunities to improve collaboration and partnerships both within the research sector and across clinical settings, universities, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, private equity and philanthropic bodies.” Which means it will go anywhere and ask anything that takes its fancy.

But the IMRIs can take comfort from the review’s head – Graeme Samuel. The former chair of the National Competition Council and the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission is nobody’s creature. And it is certainly better to have National Health and Medical Research Council chair Warwick Anderson inside the oxygen tent.

The mystery of the vanishing bill

The higher education deregulation legislation was not on the Senate agenda yesterday. Gosh, I wonder why that was and please do not tell me that it is only because the government’s climate change legislation had priority. The government would buy time if the only matter before the senate was a motion to endorse motherhood. Minister Pyne now has a fortnight unto both chambers sit to come up with something Clive Palmer might accept.

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Nothing to do with UNE

John Cassidy’s admirers at the University of England must be upset that the NSW Independent Commission against Corruption has found the institution’s former chancellor “engaged in corrupt conduct in connection with the sale of the Tattersalls Hotel in Armidale.” But I’m sure both of them will get over it. The Commission’s judgement is here. ICAC has not referred its finding to the DPP and as Mr Cassidy is no longer chancellor the question of UNE taking disciplinary action against him did not arise. But this did not stop the university yesterday making its position plain, “from the university’s perspective, it is important to note that the commission ‘…did not consider it necessary to make any corruption prevention recommendations as the investigations did not raise any systemic issues.’ Mr Cassidy was the chancellor of UNE from 2003 to 2008 and has no active involvement with the university.”

Calm and courteous

As rumour mongering magnifies Murdoch misery (sorry) acting Vice Chancellor Andrew Taggart has met with National Tertiary Education Union members to talk through concerns. This is a smart move – now resigned VC Richard Higgott used to make his often uncomplimentary opinion of the union known and Professor Taggart obviously intends to demonstrate times that calm will now prevail. As to the Western Australia Corruption and Crime Commission inquiry into Professor Higgott, those who know what the inquiry is about are staying schtum and leaving the CCC to get on with it.

On the money

It’s not just here that economically relevant and job generating degrees are the go; across the ditch the New Zealand government has moved oversight of higher education and training from cabinet’s social policy committee to the one charged with economic growth. This upsets the Tertiary Education Union, which worries that education is properly about social equity and opportunity rather than the economy. I suspect they will have to learn to live with disappointment.

Clever calculators

A volume of variables is unstated in the Labor Party’s “university degree repayment calculator” but as a way of scaring students silly (more likely their parents) it is hard to beat. According to the calculator a woman who graduates in medicine from a university which charges the equivalent of full international fees will pay $282 000 under deregulation. A bad number and one which Christopher Pyne needs to get off the agenda, and fast. He had a go in Question Time yesterday, explaining how HELP assists low SES students, pointing to the intended 80 000 sub degree places, mentioning the proposed expansion of the University of Sydney’s loan scheme as an example and quoting Monash VC Margaret Gardner and economist and MP Andrew Leigh. The PM also focused on the equity of the loan scheme in response to Amanda Rishworth (Labor-SA). In responding to a later question Mr Abbott also quoted  Mr Leigh (Labor-ACT) whose previous support for fees paid for by student loans is well known. Mr Abbott did the best he could in quoting Mr Leigh a one time Australian National University academic. “Labor thought ANU was a union,” he said. It amused government members, but it did not neutralise Labor’s question, “why does the prime minister want to saddle young Australians with a debt sentence?” Unfair perhaps but undoubtedly effective.

Hooray for Hollywood

In the US a university selection website reports that six of the top ten film schools are in California – who would have thought.

Winners of the week

If the exercise of raw power makes a winner then the week went to Clive Palmer who has vetoed Chris Pyne’s package without offering any policy alternative, indeed without offering any idea at all, other than saying higher education should be “free.” But if winning is about working on ways to synchronise policy and politics Bridget McKenzie won the week. The National Party senator from Victoria was charged with assembling the government members’ report of the Senate committee on the deregulation legislation – a job requiring the safest of hands, given the way the report had to make a case for change without giving the various university lobbies every expensive initiative they want. Senator McKenzie did both in a document that disappointed impossible optimists for an absence of paradigm shifting ideas but provided Minister Pyne with a credible case for his legislation. However if it takes the power of personality to hold a team together under pressure Belinda Robinson from Universities Australia won for the way the coalition of universities did not shatter. With Mr Palmer running riot the risk was that lobby groups would break ranks and try to save something for themselves. That none did is a tribute to UA’s leadership. But in the end power is about acquiring more power – which Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane is doing by building a research policy that requires universities to work with industry on applied research and specifying the fields the government favours. Research mandarins are watching what the minister is doing with alarm – and the ability to scare serious people is about as scary as it gets.

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And the goanna goes to …

On Wednesday new ACPET chief Rod Camm committed the Australian Council for Private Education and Training to acting against spivs and shonks in the industry who are responsible for misleading advertising, poor teaching and enrolling people in courses they cannot complete. What, like the private provider that is allegedly offering incentives to people in country NSW to enrol in publicly funded courses they manifestly are not up to? That sort of behaviour is what ACU VC Greg Craven was alluding to when he described the prospect of private providers accessing public higher education funding as like “hungry goannas in the Melbourne Cup.” In some cases this is an insult to innocent lizards everywhere.

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Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au