Conor to Kim: university is for all who are able

Plus deregulation: less stalled than stuffed

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“Time for the sector to debate how we keep our best & brightest scientists,” the endlessly energetic National Tertiary Education Union announced yesterday. Looks like the comrades consider deregulation is done-for and a new cause is required.

King calls it

For weeks Labor’s Kim Carr has talked around the edges of demand driven funding in the deregulation debate, emphasising the importance of completion rates and the need for universities and government to adopt compacts that reflect national priorities and local circumstances. It is enough to alarm astute observers and on Monday ACU VC Greg Craven warned Senator Carr in Campus Morning Mail, that “universities will fight to the death for the demand driven system.”

And now Innovative Research Universities head Conor King has called it, with a robust defence of demand driven funding. Senator Carr, “has rarely hidden his support for the protectionist argument,” that not everybody who makes it through Year 12 at school is right for university Mr King says. “Labor is now at the point of walking away from one of the few unchallenged policies of the Rudd-Gillard Government and from the essence of the Hawke Government achievement in doubling school retention and expanding universities.”

Scathing stuff, which gets more scathing. “At heart the protectionists are fighting a rear guard action to defend universities against the expectation that they be a place of education for all, not just for the bright and the socially well off. It is a strange argument that says that very high achievers can advance their knowledge only when surrounded by the few others like themselves with exclusive access to the most learned staff. It has never been true of Australian universities.”

This is an explosive issue for Labor. Senator Carr has done very well in denouncing the Pyne package, uniting with the union, exploiting ambivalence over reform among vice chancellors and outright opposition among activist academics. But university managements loathe compacts and the one thing that unites them is support for demand driven funding. If both are the price of increased public funding many will decide deregulation looks less loathsome.

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The lady lectures

Julia Gillard spent the week lecturing on politics, gender studies and development at the University of Adelaide, where she says, she “had a wonderful time.” So much so she will do it again later in the year. I wonder how many others among the legion of Labor politicians with campus appointments, notably Bob “three chairs” Carr are actually engaging with undergraduates.

Debate less stalled than stuffed

Not all university lobbies are watchfully waiting for something to happen (CMM yesterday). I hear one organisation is convening a political strategy session to consider keeping deregulation alive. If only on life support. There is gathering gloom out there as policy people contemplate politicians deciding reform is just too hard. Cross benchers are, well, cross, as well as confused and convinced universities are incapable of making a common case. Some in the government wonder whether trying again would be worth the political pain. And despite Universities Australia going quiet, experienced observers are braced for VCs starting to argue their own interest. “It’s a bloody mess the likes of which I don’t think we have ever seen,” one veteran said yesterday.

ANU new 1

Customer rarely recognised

The Commonwealth Ombudsman, who also looks after international students, has a new checklist of elements that should be in terms offered to international students. It’s all such straightforward stuff – “do you have timeliness standards for handling complaints?” “does a senior manager have overall responsibility for complaints?” – the fact the Ombudsman thinks international education providers need to have them pointed out is a worry. But as the outrageous roguery in for-profit training demonstrates consumer rights are not always recognised.

The Hon Member for another planet

Andrew Wilkie (Ind-Denison) asked a question in the Reps yesterday, inquiring of Education Minister Chris Pyne that because life, if not deregulation, goes on why wouldn’t the minister come up with the $400m the University of Tasmania needs to restructure. Because, the minister replied, the money was going to come (presumably in part) from sub-degree programme places U Tas would access under deregulation, which Mr Wilkie voted against.

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Winners of the week

Are few and between in what was a scrappy few days, with universities wondering what happens next. Still the equally irrepressible and astute Greg Craven was out in front on Monday, making the case for deregulation and explaining how the Chapman-Phillips model can make it politically palatable. There is a bigger role in making the case for change for the unaligned (in terms of university lobbies) Professor Craven if he wants it. Conor King, executive director of the Innovative Research Universities, also had an admirably outspoken week, defending demand driven funding against all comers. And Chief Scientist Ian Chubb had a ripper – with a great speech on Wednesday. While the magic pudding club focused on funding references in his address there was much more to it than that. Professor Chubb has worked for years to put science at the core of public life and with nine months or so still in this job I reckon he will have a few more goes yet. Senator Ricky Muir also spoke frankly and well on higher education this week, in an ABC interview, which demonstrated while he is modest he is no mug. The senator said he did not like deregulation, which would bring hikes in student fees, but he recognised reform was needed. So he called on Labor to release its higher education policy, so there was an alternative to the Pyne package – which is pretty much all we need to get the debate moving. And finally Mark Hutchinson had a good week, confirmed in the chair at the ARC Centre for Nanoscale Biophotonics at the University of Adelaide. He has acted in the job since Tanya “photon girl” Monro left to become DVC R at the University of South Australia last year but now it’s his in his own right.

Impact achieved

While the government is keen on industry-linked research how to measure and thus reward output is not clear. An Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering paper on impact is due but the Australian Research Council is not keen on including impact in research metrics. As ARC chief Aidan Byrne told Senate estimates in February nobody nowhere has cracked the code of assessing impact quickly and easily. But while few will argue with that, it may not be enough to stop Industry and Science minister Ian Macfarlane from requiring measures of all the applied research he wants to see. Which makes very interesting indeed Catriona Manville’s report on impact in the UK Research Excellence Framework for 2014, where it accounted for 20 per cent of the REF result. The Brits used a case study approach, which, as critics claim, was certainly labour intensive and time consuming, There were over 6000 case studies and nearly 2000 impact templates were “assessed and graded”. However the general view is that the exercise was worth the effort, being accurate and useful. What will most interest advocates of impact here is the way REF is changing university cultures. “Institutions and individual academics are adopting a new focus on the current and potential impacts of their research,” the report suggests.

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