HR lobby warns universities: flexibility is the future

Plus Uni Melbourne’s now not so secret plan and ATAR presents political opportunities 

“To follow knowledge like a sinking star”

It’s a line from Lord Tennyson‘s poem Ulysses, but it could be a motto for  the University of Melbourne, where the great and the good have chosen ten “great books to read before you die,” presumably as distinct from the infinite collection one will have time for in the afterlife. VC Glyn Davis (and they don’t come gooder or greater at Uni Melb) picks the poem, “an outstanding piece of literary art,” he says. CMM is sure the VC does not relate to the lines; “I mete and dole/ Unequal laws unto a savage race.”

Campus Morning Mail

New ways of working

The long anticipated report from the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association on university workforces in the future is out. It presents a challenging case for those who believe the old 40 per cent teaching, 40 per cent research and 20 per cent service model for academics and existing workforce categories for professional staff are immutable. However the report does not put all the emphasis on workers to adapt. As AHEIA points out; universities need to provide better career frameworks that support mobility in and out of public and private industry, and across professions. This includes an accreditation model that requires academics (both teaching and research) work in and out of industry with a performance framework that recognises and supports industry experience.”

For the people negotiating enterprise agreements perhaps the most significant factor in the imminent era of change is that things will happen differently at each institution. While the report does not state it, industry-wide job descriptions and conditions will not be possible.

“While change will be required of all universities, we believe the impact and application of this change at an institution level will be anything but uniform. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. Our expectation is that each university will have a unique response to these external drivers of change as they seek to differentiate their value proposition in what will become an increasingly diverse market,” AHEIA’s report predicts.

With the new enterprise bargaining round beginning this year the implications are obvious, the existing workforce models will not last. “All universities need to consider the design and skill requirements of existing and new job roles, with a view to introducing flexibility that is responsive to employer and student demands,” AHEIA head Stuart Andrews says.

Outcomes of ATAR outrage

Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities lobby reminds us t the moral panic over university entry scores is a perennial. “The growing irrelevance of the ATAR in a demand funded system is driving debate about the use of ATARs to measure suitability for higher education. There is nothing like loss of purpose to focus attention at superficial charms,” he wrote in 2013. Quite right. But then again the erosion of the ATAR can remove unwanted attention on universities that do not have heaps of applicants with high scores. Australian Catholic University VC, Greg Craven, suggested in The Australian yesterday that the clipping of the cut-off coin was now such that universities would have to be helped to “fix the mess.” He suggested Education Minister Simon Birmingham could appoint either the Higher Education Standards Panel or the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency. Unless of course the minister decided to make it plain that under demand driven funding universities can enrol whomever they like – but that he will take a very dim view of high attrition rates. Funding penalties for universities that lose a specified per centage of students each year could clear VC minds wonderfully, while leaving the minister occupying the high ground of protecting standards.

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State of the TAFE takeover

Now that the annual ATAR story is out of the way it is time for the “feds want to take over TAFE yarn.” This was first seen when Paul Keating was PM and last got an outing last winter, when Simon Birmingham was junior minister. There is a less a gap than a chasm between a paper proposing it and the feds taking a proposal to the states. Unless of course it is a ruse to make a GST hike look like a feasible idea.

Uni Melbourne’s new plan

CMM is interested in what the University of Melbourne is up to with the Flexible Academic Programme (yesterday’s issue). So is the campus National Tertiary Education Union, which yesterday reported to staff on FAP. Apparently the programme covers, “sessional engagement, new types of academic roles, definitions, classifications and career pathways and academic promotion, performance planning and performance development framework systems” and is being worked on in the university chancellery “in considerable secrecy.”

What especially alarms the union’s Rebecca Muratore is that management may not go public until there is a strategy ready to sell, “with a fully worked out media and communications plan including a carefully planned message to staff.”

“It is likely that by the time the detail of these changes are released for staff consideration, university senior management will be so invested and intent on getting the changes through, genuine consultation with staff will be the first casualty,” she warns. Will management prove her wrong?

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Who knows

“Do 18 year olds make better course choices than politicians,” asks demand driven funding reviewer Andrew Norton, in response to claims too many people are studying for degrees which will not generate jobs.

“Yes, demand driven funding is leading to more growth in some disciplines than the labour market warrants. But on the historic evidence, I am not convinced that it is worse than the realistic alternatives. Our much-maligned 18 year olds spot and respond quickly to real skills shortages; the old system did neither in a reliable way. Some young people’s course choices look to be misjudgements, at least if they are looking for work. But on that they have been misled by the actions and words of politicians and officials, the very people who would have run a non-market system of distributing student places.”

More and better particulars required

Staff at James Cook University fear 75 staff are for the chop in the new round of cuts, sorry “change proposals” (CMM yesterday). But JCU replies that the number of job losses is expected to be lower”.

Over at UWA on Tuesday UWA DVC Dawn Freshwater was careful to tell staff that the university savings strategy, involving the loss of 100 academic and 200 professional staff jobs was still a proposal (CMM yesterday). But the WA branch of the National Tertiary Education Union suspects that the process is pretty much in place. “It is now clear that academic staff will be assessed against four criteria, before faculty managements make recommendations regarding those who do not meet the required standards. … This looks more like UWA using an alleged financial crisis to dismiss academic staff on performance grounds, without going through the procedures prescribed in the collective agreement, ” NTEU state secretary Gabe Gooding says.

As to the selection of professional staff, “it remains unclear how selections for the 200 professional staff facing dismissal will be made.”

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How to improve the ATAR

The New South Wales VCs, chaired by CSU’s Andy Vann have weighed into the ATAR debate, pointing out that it is a rank not a score, dates from a time when undergraduate places were rationed and which universities do not debase. “No university is interested in setting students up to fail and all universities work very hard to ensure that students have a good chance of success in their chosen course,” Professor Vann adds.

However he added, the NSWVCC is working with the state’s University Admissions Centre, “to provide a more flexible and transparent system.” Which is rather the point. That the credibility of the ATAR is eroded by university-run bonus schemes is all but universally assumed and does the ATAR brand a great deal of damage. The South Australian VCs acknowledged this a few years back and cleaned up their schemes, with the result that University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington now speaks up for the ATAR as an indication of a student’s capacity for university study. “An ATAR tells us a student can sit in a classroom for two years and do assessments satisfactorily. It’s a reasonable predictor of success at university,” he told CMM (January 21).

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