No super solution to student debt

Plus the $330bn question: what would we do without science

Scene set

“Excellent progress on new Uni of Adelaide med & health sciences building. Currently pouring level ten (of 14),” VC Warren Bebbington tweeted yesterday, urging us all to watch it on webcam. CMM can hardly wait for live coverage of the paint drying.

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Super no HELP with uni fees

So was Liberal Senator Chris Back off on a frolic of his own yesterday when he suggested allowing young graduates to use their super contributions to pay FEE HELP debt? It looked like it, with Education Minister Simon Birmingham moving away from the idea fast by mid-morning. “We have to be mindful that the primary purpose of superannuation is to support people’s retirement income and to prepare people for retirement, and to alleviate the long term burden on our pension system,” the senator said.

The Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees also pointed out that the point of super was for compound interest to build up small starting balances

Andrew Norton, always game for a challenging reform to HE funding, did not think it was much of an idea either, “we need to remember that graduates can reasonably hope for an average 5-10% annual return on their superannuation investments, while they are only paying 2-3% on their HELP debt, he told CMM.

What’s worse, Mr Norton suggested, “this scheme could be rorted.”

“People could salary sacrifice into superannuation, halving or more their marginal tax rate, and then use the money to repay HELP. There would need to be a tax on withdrawals from superannuation to avoid this, but that would increase the negative impact on retirement savings.”

And focusing on the great Australian obsession with house prices HE policy expert Conor King warned that using super to reduce study debt would increase disposable income, which people could use to pay higher mortgages. That’s what new graduates need – higher home prices!

So that’s that? CMM suspects it isn’t. Senator Birmingham says that “the sustainability of the student loan system is one thing being considered,” (CMM January 14) – so the more unlikely ideas that are out there the better whatever he comes up will seem.

But Labor’s Kim Carr probably put the idea back in its box yesterday; “just another Lib proposing to raid super for something else. They’ll never get its importance for working people.”

However the pudding is sliced, there is nothing magic about funding higher education – either the taxpayer or users will be paying more at the end of the year.

As Mr Norton suggests; “if the government wants to save money on HELP, there are simpler ways of doing this: lowering the thresholds, recovering from deceased estates, and introducing loan fees for all loans.”

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Record time

A Queensland correspondent reports that Bond University has reached an agreement with professional staff for a new three-year contract. Staff will receive a 3 per cent pay rise this year with two per cent increases to follow in ’17 and again in ’18. Last month Bond academics picked up a 4.5 per cent increase for this year with salary reviews to follow in each of the next two years (CMM December 17). Ken Richardson (ex UoQ planning director) negotiated the deal for the university – which was done in two meetings totalling four hours, plus emails. “Is this a higher education record?”, the correspondent asks.

Advocating to the end

Ian Chubb will spend his last day as Chief Scientist doing what he did on the first – speaking up for science. But in these pragmatic times, where the emphasis is on science in the service of society, rather than the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, Professor Chubb is taking a very practical approach. He’s launching the second of two reports on the economic benefits flowing from developments in the physical, mathematical and biological sciences and a summary of them both.

On the basis of scientist and industry expert estimates of science’s impact, with flow-ons measured in an economic model, the research concludes that 14 per cent of production in the Australian economy in 2012-13, “uses inputs that embody knowledge discovered in recent advances in the mathematical, physical and biological sciences.”

Advances in research on 23 disease groups also meant disability adjusted life years lost declined by 18 per cent to 34 per cent.

All up science drives $330 bn in economic activity a year, the research states.

“While Australia’s contribution to those advances is relatively small in absolute terms (Australian-based researchers produce around 3% of the world’s scientific publications), this does not mean that 97% of the economic, health and environmental benefits described in the reports could be obtained purely by relying on international scientific efforts. Australian science is crucial to Australia, just as it is crucial to Australia’s access to the science conducted in other parts of the world,” the summary report concludes.

In launching the reports Professor Chubb is careful not to reduce everything to economics. “The economy is not an end in itself. … It is the Australian people who make it work – and sometimes we don’t do it according to the model, or the theory.”

But like it or no, “the economy provides the context in which we set out to make our future, and it must be designed to support what we want or choose to do.” This is the sort of statement Professor Chubb has used to help make the government’s case for applied research for the last two years. And he makes it again in this speech;

“Without advances in STEM over recent decades: our economy would be far smaller, our industries far less competitive, our jobs greatly depleted and our incomes less secure. We would suffer, and some of us would die, from conditions we can diagnose and treat today. Without them, our challenges must defeat us. With them, we have at least a chance.”

Its hard to imagine stronger case as he passes the standard of STEM to new chief scientist Alan Finkel.

Sky high price

Community opponents of Sydney’s second airport will be paying the outrageous $39 publisher Reed Elsevier demands to read Kevin O’Connor (University of Melbourne) and colleagues’ article on gateway airports. Professor O’Connor reports that Tullamarine’s share of Australia-Asia traffic increased from 15 per cent to 25 per cent in 2013 while Kingsford Smith’s share dropped 10 per cent to just 35 per cent. So why does Sydney need a second strip, critics will ask.

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VET a hard sell

All week university’s have banged on about their enormous intakes of amazing students, while quietly adding that a “few” places remain for people who did not make it on the basis of their ATAR or any of the early/special entry schemes they all offer. (At the University of Sydney, for example, only law, medicine, dentistry and the Con were sold out yesterday). Even so Australians have drunk the campus cool-aid and believe that anything other than a degree is second best.

Last year Maggie Yu and Galina Daraganova  found 56 per cent of mothers with sons below year 12 age expect them to go to university, 71 per cent for daughters. And their kids listen to them, 49 per cent of boys and 56 per cent of girls have university expectations. And this isn’t tied to class. Some 47 per cent of mothers in the bottom socio-economic quartile think their kids will go to university (CMM August 25).

Which leaves TAFE way behind in the status race, leaving the trainers to (as NSW did yesterday) forlornly announce; “university isn’t for everyone.” It isn’t – but it will take years for the VET sector to sell itself as a viable alternative. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen when governments convinced the country that school was not the end of education – but training is now seen as second best.

Debt forgiven

The last case of a student going to law for a refund of fees because they were not happy with the course that CMM can remember was at Southern Cross U in 2013. But Josh Mitchell reports in the Wall Street Journal such cases are the go in the US, where a ‘90s law, “forgives debt for borrowers who prove their schools used illegal tactics to recruit them, such as by lying about their graduates’ earnings.” Can’t happen here? That rushing sound you hear is litigation funders searching for cases that could apply to the victims of for-profit voced shysters.

Time out from training

A reader praises Bowman and McKenna’s history of VET reform (CMM January 19) but suggests they left a bit out – when the states and commonwealth explicitly agreed to marketise training. More research, he says is needed. Ok, but give the authors a rest – too much on training can be more than enough.

Win at Waterloo

The University of Waterloo is quoting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s take on its success. Here’s what the Canadian PM said about UoW at the Davos Conference of politicians, plutocrats and pontificators. “Why does Silicon Valley look to it as a great source of brilliant minds and brilliant ideas? It has high intellectual standards of course. And it values entrepreneurship. But diversity is its indispensable ingredient. Their students come from everywhere.”

Waterloo does not mention this in its (really well packaged)  brand attributes statement but not to worry, the endorsement is gold – at least while Mr Trudeau is top of the polls. And no, he did not study at Waterloo but an hon doc seems a certainty.

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Dolt of the day

Is CMM who yesterday named Fairfax education blogger as Erica Servini. The name is, as her legions of admirers know, Cervini. Thanks to the reader who pointed out the error.

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