Australian research plods on

Plus, training reform: it’s harder than it looks

First sighting

Ian Jacobs takes over as VC at the University of New South Wales next Monday but he is already around the Kensington campus making friends – some of whom he might even keep as he makes changes after Fred Hilmer’s eight year term.

One shot in the locker

Speculation continues on what Christopher Pyne can do to stitch together enough votes to get a bill, any bill, tbrough the Senate. But given the essence of his plan is deregulation, is there any point if all that passes gives universities a bit more (or at least not less) money from Canberra and yet another inquiry, or even a fee regulator? Nick Xenophon complains the government is given to “six minute policy making,” more like sixteen weeks, or 60 months for that matter, in the case of the perpetual debate over university funding all governments indulge in. As Australian National University VC Ian Young put it late last week; “I think we’ve got one shot at this if we’re going to get this sort of reform, and so I think the notion that we can sort of go away, have a review, we’ll get consensus from everybody and come back and have another try at it – I really think that’s wildly optimistic.”

ANU-Tomb

The sell of silence

A story by the energetic Rosie Lewis in The Australian the other day outlined how supporters of the Medical Research Future Fund Action Group are upset that the government is not selling the proposal hard enough. Um, the MRFFAG last issued a media statement on December 9.

Harder than it looks

Anybody who thinks Australia is on its own in struggling with the balance between deregulation and quality control for voced qualifications and outcomes needs to read Josie Misko’s new paper for the estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research. Ms Misko has waded through swamps of mainly European and North American reports to demonstrate how hard it is to define what students need to know and how difficult it is to connect what training provides to what industry needs and how challenging it is for the state to oversee quality without burdening providers with bureaucracy.

While operational approaches vary there are common themes across jurisdictions. These include classification systems that are created with input from industry and stakeholders and comprehensible and transferable across jurisdictions. While European Union states still emphasise a government inspectorate approach to quality control, self-regulation by accredited institutions is favoured in the US.

Two stand out points should interest new training minister Simon Birmingham as he consider the way his predecessor Ian Macfarlane slammed public sector regulators and encouraged industry to set the agenda.

First, there is no universal answer to quality control. “A picture also emerges of governments relinquishing central control in countries with traditional qualifications systems and governments tightening control in countries where systems have been reformed, with the aim of making them more flexible and market-driven,” Ms Misko wrote.

Second, assuming employers know best what training their workers needs is one thing, getting them involved in its delivery is quite another. “Involving stakeholders in the design and assessment of qualifications is a feature of many systems at the national level, where it is sometimes legislated. However, it is important to note that stakeholder involvement may be constrained by the ability and availability of stakeholders to meaningfully participate in these activities. Identifying the type and extent of involvement that can be reasonably expected from industry, community or student stakeholders may be an important step in ensuring they can provide valued input into the design of qualifications, especially in systems where these stakeholders have no formal legal role,” she concluded.

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Who would have thought it

CMM’s What a Surprise! Correspondent reports that Reynol Junco from Iowa State has found a correlation between low marks and time students spent fooling around with Facebook.

Staying stable

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb argues that while boosters bang on about Australian science being above world average we do not look as good when compared to the countries where most of the work is done – in North America and western Europe. He might be pessimistic, at least on the basis of SCImago’s new analysis of journal citations in the Scopus database. The study reports raw figures for citations of documents (excluding self cites) for the three sources as similar in recent years, which shows Australian researchers doing ok. But then, Australia is way behind on the H-index (number of articles and their citations). While the European figure is a little over 1200, and nearly 1600 for North America it is just 600 for Australia, which is 11th in the world.

On raw output of citeable documents in 2012 Australia was 12th in the world behind (in descending order) the United States, China, the UK, Germany, Japan, France, India, Canada, Italy, Japan and South Korea. We scrape into the top ten on the H index, behind the US, UK and Germany, France, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Overall, Australia’s journal output has not budged as a share of the world total for 20 years, sitting at around 3 per cent. Share of global papers in the government’s targeted research growth areas is also relatively stable. Australia published 2.3 per cent of the world’s medical research papers in 2003 and 3.4 per cent a decade later. Oil and other energy research has also increased, from 1.12 per cent to 2.35 per cent. But comparable data for agriculture demonstrates a decline, from 4.69 per cent to 4.53 per cent.

Naturally  the standard demurrers about rankings apply and there is enough data to support all sorts of arguments, still Australia’s apparent relatively unchanging performance seems clear.

Academics in the way

There were reports last week that UTS academics were being advised to stay off campus next Monday, lest they get in the way of celebrations for the opening of the new Frank Gehry designed building. But what I did not get was how dismissive management is of the people who will actually use the new facility to do the university’s real work. Here’s how acting business dean Tracy Taylor told staff to stay away; “if you have no choice but to be on campus on 2nd Feb (e.g. it is impossible to reschedule or relocate a meeting, you have a conference to attend, etc), please ensure that you discuss as soon as possible. If it transpires that you need to be on campus that day, please try to limit your access to (building CB08), avoiding it altogether where possible. Indeed, please note that you might be denied access to the public spaces at particular times.” As a UTS staffer put it yesterday; “it seems that staff are not wanted at the opening…. its reminiscent of the hospital episode of Yes Minister and/or evidence of the increasing irrelevance of academic staff to university branding campaigns!  In the old days, the opening of a new building would be marked by an academic procession.” But not at UTS now.

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Time saver

The National Health and Medical Research Council provides advice for applicants on the time chief investigators need to spend on grants. There are four suggestions including, “replace “if other application is funded” with “if other app funded” and this gem “internal column widths can be adjusted to suit – however the table must still remain within left and right margins as per formatting requirements.” The advice comes after research by Adrian Barnett (QUT) and colleagues found it took 38 working days to complete an NHMRC application last year.

Assessing influencers

The first institutional league table of the year is in – the annual index of think tank performance from the University of Pennsylvania. Unlike some of the teaching and research rankings this is relatively stable. This year, just like last, only two Australian organisations are in the global top 150. As per 2014, the Lowy Institute is 54th (down from 45 last year) and the Centre for Independent Studies is stable at 101.

Of course you can argue that the case-making and partisan platforms that are large part of what many independent research bodies do is not appropriate for education institutions, yet Australian universities host many such organisations – they just aren’t up there with the leaders.

Even in the Asia-Pacific region Australia is home to only four of the top 60 policy centres, the Australian Institute of International Affairs (first of 60), Lowy (fifth), Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (eight) and Centre for Independent Studies (11th). We don’t make it onto the list for education analysts at all.

Not worth finding

The University of Bristol is in the market for an “associate dean of eureka moments” and no I am not making that up. Stripped of guff it seems they want somebody who knows about medical teaching and research to run the School of Social and Clinical Medicine, presumably from their bath. It will take a rare scientist to use this job title when introducing themselves at conferences.

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