Brian Schmidt sets a high stakes agenda at ANU

Plus the heat is on at UNSW and spin has a shelf-life at James Cook U

Hot topic

There was a safety alert at UNSW the other day when a contractor copped an electric shock to his head from an electric heating mat with crook wiring. CMM had never heard of such a product but apparently they are used at the university to warm feet. But in summer? And why, the work and safety editor asks, was the victim lying down? Clearly, the editor says, they did not get the UNSW memo (CMM September 7) about the dangers of sleeping at work.

Campus Morning Mail

Australian National (and local) University

Brian Schmidt is game to have a go. In his inaugural address yesterday the new ANU VC told a full house, “we should aim to have each of our areas of research sit beside the best departments in the world, and without exception be in the top 100 departments in the world.”

Yes, “aim” is not “will” and “sit beside the best departments in the world” can mean whatever a spin-merchant wants. The vice chancellor also made it plain that ANU could only deliver if the feds provided the cash that the national university requires to serve the commonwealth. “We are at a cross-roads. We could be a very good regional Australian university. Or, we can now re-assert ourselves as the national university and one that stands alongside the very best universities in the world,” he said.

But what will be remembered @ ANU is that Professor Schmidt committed to top 100 rankings for all research areas.

The other elements of the address also ticked all the boxes for a university, which may present itself nationally but still has to keep constituents quiet. Thus he assured staff that all disciplines matter; “we bring our unique combination of discipline strength across arts and humanities, social sciences, engineering, medicine and science, interdisciplinary inquiry and innovative application to the challenges facing contemporary Australia.”

There was also a nod to government’s applied research agenda, but one which pure researchers will not see as a sell-out. “We will improve collaboration between business and universities – not just because the government say this is important – but because it is interesting! “ Neatly done vice chancellor.

And he appealed to the egos of everybody in the audience by committing to making the ANU the national choice for elite undergraduates across the continent.

“My commitment is to work with you to deliver the most interesting student cohort this nation has ever seen – but I will need your help. It means getting out and telling prospective students why they can and should come to ANU. It means making the experience of our students here different to anywhere else. It means showing in everything you do that ANU is extraordinary.”

Professor Schmidt also addressed the ANU curse, that a large, loud and particularly parochial audience expects it to be both an elite national research institution and a community college. “The Australian National University is also central to the life of the national capital. As your vice chancellor it is my ambition that we will nurture an intellectual and cultural environment in Canberra worthy of a great nation’s capital city,” he said.

Vice Chancellor, your time starts now.

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Spin has a shelf-life

James Cook University is getting behind the Townsville Bulletin’s Let’s Get To Work campaign, announcing it will bring forward its $4 million “Verandah Walk” project by six months to create jobs and help stimulate the economy, the paper on Tuesday.

James Cook University is set to add to the wave of retrenchments plaguing Townsville, with plans to slash at least 30 jobs from its Townsville campus as part of a multi-million-dollar cost saving drive, the paper yesterday.

Don’t read on

Researchers at ANU are conducting an on-line community survey on mental health, which includes a warning to prospective participants that it includes “sensitive questions”. But there is a solution; “if the survey upsets you, we suggest that you stop filling it out.” Brilliant.

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Reprioritising at UNSW

Ian Jacobs estimates the University of New South Wales will need an extra $3bn by 2025 to fund his ten-year plan. Some 60 per cent of the dosh will pay for people, with the balance split between physical and digital infrastructure. As to where the money will come from, no worries – “a plan has been developed for generating the funds required,” he tells staff. Three quarters of the cash will be new income and “alignment of strategic and project funds.” The balance will come from “reprioritising existing resources.” So that’s $75m per annum for ten years being “reprioritised”. CMM wonders how many jobs, and from where, that translates to.

TAFE safe

The Productivity Commission reports the extraordinary expansion of contestable funding in VET. In 2014 $2.4bn (46 per cent) of government money for VET was allocated via competition with $1.5bn going to non TAFE providers, this was a 222 per cent increase on the 2005 figure, at an average increase of 13.9 per cent a year. However, in the same period overall completion rates increased by an average 7.2 per cent per annum. Of course this is comparing apples and aardvarks but it goes to the heart of the culture shock, which is all attributed to crook private providers rorting the system. What once was a public sector near-monopoly is now a market and large numbers of Australians who see education like health as a public service do not like big buckets of money going to private colleges, even if the honest for-profits are doing an ok job. Overall the cost of training has come down with the cost of government funded pass hours (time taken in units completed) dropped from $15.54 in 2013 to $13.66 in 2014 – it was $22.39 in 2005. Will this change public opinion which CMM suspects is set in stone against all private providers? Not a chance. Yesterday Labor training spokeswoman Sharon Bird said, “TAFE is not just a training provider, it is a national asset.” The best the prime minister could manage in Question Time yesterday was, “we are undertaking substantial reforms which are storing integrity to the vocational training sector and that is a complex task.” If the government manages to sort out the VET FEE HELP mess alone it will be as good as it gets. The case for further deregulation is already defeated this side of the election.

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Adelaide appointment

The University of Adelaide is looking to enhance relations with state Labor, appointing Lachlan Parker, now media manager to the state attorney general as deputy comms director. A former ABC radio journalist, Mr Parker also served on the staffs of former and present premiers Mike Rann and Jay Weatherill. Mr Parker follows the indefatigable Kate Husband, veteran of more dawn media calls and late night live crosses than one comms person should ever have to handle.

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