Chief Scientist sets sail

Plus Group of Eight wins big in export education and Deakin U  new sell for students

Austrade at work

DFAT official Robert Owen-Jones gives evidence to the joint parliamentary trade committee inquiry on innovation. “I will apologise on behalf of my Austrade colleagues. I am not sure where they are.”

Campus Morning Mail

How high the boom

Australian sales to international students boomed in the decade to 2014 with enrolments expanding by 52 per cent to 347 000 and income increasing by 70 per cent from $2.8bn (in 2014 dollars) in 2004 to $4.7bn ten years on.

“From an export industry perspective this is a remarkable achievement,” Frank Larkins and Ian Marshman write in a  comprehensive analysis for the L H Martin Institute.

While not all universities have done well in a competitive market, with the “financial viability” of some programmes “deteriorating” over the decade, the authors demonstrate the winners have won big with spectacular financial growth among the Group of Eight. The authors report Go8 institutions kept market share stable while increasing revenue per head by 27 per cent. At price-making University of Sydney income per equivalent full time student increased from $12 500 in 2004 to $35 600 a decade later. In total, Sydney and the other three leaders, the universities of Melbourne, NSW and Queensland grew revenues, by $150m.

In contrast, some 14 universities either had overall revenue declines or dropped income per head over the decade. The authors nominate Murdoch U for the lowest revenue per equivalent full time student load in 2014 at $7854, down nearly $9000.

Larkins and Marshman, both University of Melbourne policy paladins, also analyse the four diversified strategies adopted across the system. Universities in strong positions have grown on all three key performance measures, increasing sales, fees and return. A second group has reduced numbers while increasing revenue and rate of return. A third has dropped enrolments and income but improved margins. The final strategy has gone for growth, pursuing increased numbers while accepting reduced revenue per head.

“The wide variations appear principally to reflect university profile difference in terms of onshore-offshore activities and portfolio structures of course offerings. The outcomes highlight the impact of a deregulated overseas student market on university practices,” they write.

The report also demonstrates how dependent institutions are on international income. Seven universities, Monash, Uni Melb, Uni Sydney, CQU, UTS, Macquarie and Federation U, earn 20 per cent plus of total revenue from international students, with RMIT earning 30 per cent of income from export sales.

Larkins and Marshman are entirely correct to call education exports a “remarkable achievement.” But what happens if the market slows, or stalls?

Something to Tweet about

Twitter launched its “moments” rolling news service yesterday and the Chief Scientist’s Press Club speech made the cut – without even a “ten cute cats in labcoats” story!

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Deakin delivers

Deakin University is investing in a digital portal to offer “graduate employment services” to its students and alumni. “Graduate employability is the defining challenge for universities in Australia and across the world, PVC Graduate Employment Dineli Mather says.

When launched (“soon,” says DU) Deakin Talent will offer career education, talent development and connections with employers.

This is smart stuff, universities all bang on about how employers prefer their graduates to Nobel laureates but by providing practical help Deakin will demonstrate that it actually does care about its students. As VC Jane den Hollander put it in June; “For a wide range of reasons – including the increasing number of university graduates with oversupply in some areas and diminishing employment opportunities in others – universities will need to take the employability of their graduates much more seriously.”

Finkel’s ship-shape speech

Chief Scientist Alan “Frank” Finkel was on-form yesterday with a stump speech at the National Press Club. In lesser rhetorical hands this sort of address is of the ten-bullet points-that-take-time-to-read but-don’t-actually-announce-anything kind. But Dr Finkel was out to engage and enthuse. He engaged with an explanation of why 17th century Swedish naval construction is not a model for modern science. And once that was down the slipway he enthused by urging us to consider what Australia can do if it gets the science and innovation agenda right. As to his “bottom of the harbour” reference while it referred to the Swedish warship Vasa that foundered in 1628 CMM wonders whether audience members might have thought it was a comparison between the present R&D tax concession and tax avoidance schemes in the 1970s.

When it came to questions Dr Finkel was informative, polite but neutral in his answers.

He acknowledged the impact of changes to climate research at CSIRO but hoped that “with effort” Australia’s effort would continue. He spoke about tax incentives for research without giving anything away, although he did acknowledge, “there is reason through our consultations to doubt that it’s always doing as intended.” And he said a decision on the “extremely well-done report” South Australian report on a nuclear waste dump was above his pay grade. But not his discretion.

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Paying for all the innovation

The federal parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Trade and Investment Growth (above) is mulling over submissions and taking evidence (Parliament House today) for its inquiry into research and innovation. Yes, another inquiry– although this one is more focused on the practicalities than banging on about the “ideas boom”.

The committee’s hearing for officials demonstrated the depth and breadth of thinking going into creating an innovation strategy. For anybody who needs cheering up about how we are governed read its transcripts instead of listening to Question Time.

But submissions to the committee demonstrate that all Canberra’s bureaucratic brainpower cannot come up with a one size fits all solution to connect researchers with industry. For example the Australian Technology Network proposes; “support (for) more targeted resourcing of industry-focussed research, with a more strategic market-led approach to government support for key technologies in areas where Australian industry can commercially take advantage.” The ATN proposes focusing funding on “specific industry problems where individual companies do not have scale to address.”

In contrast, the University of Melbourne sees research-rich institutions (like, gosh, Uni Melbourne) as driving research and development and proposes a range of accelerators, translators and incubators.

But how to pay for all the ors? Uni Melbourne presents an obvious, if not easily implementable idea, “modify the R&D tax incentive to improve collaborative research outcomes and ensure optimal return on public investment.”

There is a good deal more of the same in the generality of submissions from government, universities and publicly funded agencies – business groups did not bother.

But some advocates of basic research did, sticking to lofty, but losing, ground at least while the Turnbull Government is in office. Thus the Australian Academy of the Humanities argued;

“Basic research gives the research and innovation system its core capacity. It provides the platform for multidisciplinary approaches to problem-based research, and ultimately enables Australia to identify opportunities in its global engagements and also to prepare for and respond to unforseen societal challenges. Incentives to encourage the commercialisation of research are needed, but this should not be at the expense of the vital investments needed to support basic research.”

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Back to basics

While the cause of basic research isn’t on the political agenda just now things will change if Labor wins the election, at least if shadow education minister Kim Carr has anything to do with it. Yesterday the senator pitched it strong at Science Meets Parliament, warning that changes to block grant funding “reflect the government’s approach to research funding generally. It wants to emphasise outcomes that bring a quick dollar, which is not conducive to the outlook of science.”

Senator Carr went on to use CSIRO chief Larry Marshall’s climate programme cuts in making a case for basic research.

“I do not need to tell this audience that basic research and applied research cannot be separated as easily as Dr Marshall has appearedto imply. Nor do I need to remind you that abandoning basic research inevitably undermines our ability to do applied research effectively. … Resources will always be finite, even in the most generously funded budget. But it is a false economy to try to deal with that fact by concentrating on applied research only.”

CMM suspects many in the audience lapped it up, but somehow did not hear the bit about finite resources.

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