plus UniMelbourne academics fear for free speech

Chief Scientist promoting PhDs

and Peter Coaldrake’s informed optimism

Too kind

Amanda Lohrey will work on a new novel at ANU as a visiting fellow. CMM thinks this is a very good move, her 1998 The Reading Group is a fave. However our is–that-wise corespondent? reports Ms Lohrey says she is happy to talk to students and read their writing, which will not get in the way of her’s at all.

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Accountability on the agenda

Simon Birmingam should be very pleased indeed with the Innovative Research Universities response to his discussion paper on the future for funding undergraduate education. Not because the IRU accepts the possibility of big funding cuts or embraces his flagship courses proposal, it doesn’t. But what its paper does do is deliver more than a nupathon on anything that isn’t more money.

In particular, the IRU gives the minister big ideas to work with. It does not outright reject an increase in student borrowing to fund courses, pointing out an 8 per cent increase in the student contribution would mean 14 per cent saving to government and a 19 per cent hike for undergraduates. The IRU adds members are “interested” in the idea of universities being allowed to charge their own fees with a reduction in government funding per place.

The group also argues that with more revenue universities would need to meet set specified student outcomes. This could apply to a version of the government’s flagship plan. “Funding tied to outcomes needs to be carefully structured, to avoid incentives to simply to achieve the notional outcome and to treat each university fairly, a system of university by university targets could achieve this, providing a balancing factor to the incentive for enrolments of the demand driven system,” the IRU suggests.

Inevitably there are ideas which cynics will suggest are special pleading – restricting funding for demand driven sub degree places to universities until the end of the decade and targeted funding for regional and outer-metro universities to increase undergraduate access for disadvantaged people, but what can you expecrt from cynics.

But by putting a HECs hike on the table plus a potential cap on the demand driven system, while still allowing the government to claim it continues committed to access, from Senator Birmingham’s position, what’s not to like?

Mon July 25

International school

The first ever American Educational ResearchAssociation funded conference outside the US kicks off at the University of Canberra this morning. Speakers from Melbourne (Vic) to Madison (Wisc) and from South Africa to Switzerland will address aspects of school leadership.

Promoting PhDs

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has a message for deans of science, but one which is adaptable to every academic audience. PhD students are not just “academics in utero” and (except for the plagiariasm) we should follow the Germans and value the potential of people with doctorates to work across the economy.

In a speech to the deans he also pointed approvingly to Canadian and French schemes which place PhD candidates in companies to work on relevant projects.

He went on to explain how he wants to see a re-setting of incentives for business to work with universities. and opportunities for people with doctorates via the five key programmes in the National Science and Innovation Agenda. “I can promote good programmes and celebrate success,” the chief scientist says.

Less ready and more capable

Dr Finkel also has names people who bang on about ‘job ready’ graduates should consider. One is Alfred Hitchcock, an engineer who used his skills to make movies. The other is Kellie Parker (no, that was Tippie Hedren), a Curtin U trained occupational therapist who now runs a bunch of Rio Tinto operations in northwest WA online from Perth.

“ ‘Job ready’ graduates might not be adaptable, and run the risk of being left behind in the ebb and flow of technology driven disruption. ‘Job capable’ graduates will ride the tides, as you would want them to do.”

As a statement of the article of faith that holds education rather than training for specific tasks is what drives growth his speech is hard to beat.

“As long as a perfect match of discipline training to career is the social expectation, we will work very hard to fall forever short of a goal it is simply pointless to pursue. What we offer instead is something worth having: the capacity to adapt to change – and the appetite to bring it about.”

It was the Chief’ Scientist’s now standard inspiring address but what was also interesting for policy people was another indication of how Dr Finkel intends to encourage an appetite for change. He set his priorities for the year as the Research Infrastructure Roadmap (CMM July 21), “supporting the ARC in developing impact measures” (presumably for ERA 18 (below) and increasing the availability of work-integrated learning.

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Alarmed academics worry about speaking out

The University of Melbourne has continued with its plan to (CMM July 14) introduce an “appropriate behaviour policy” which includes a statement on academic freedom of expression some staff worry is weaker than present protections. The campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union worries that the university now defines academics’ right to speak their minds to matters “on which they have scholarly expertise.” Nor does the right to comment “abrogate an employee’s employment obligations.” This, the union says, can expose academics whose criticism of government policy is a risk to the university’s profitability. While the old academic freedom of expression policy is still on the books people fear it will be subordinate to the new policy. As one senior UniMelb academic put it in a Saturday email to VC Glyn Davis;

“the university is not a profit-generating institution and therefore limiting academic freedom in the name of ‘profitability’ is misguided and indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what an academic institution is and should be. … If the changes to university policy related to academic are not reversed they will only serve to further alienate academics from university management while galvanizing opposition to future policy changes.”

However, according to a spokesperson for the university, “the university operates with a fundamental commitment to the protection and promotion of academic freedom, embedded in policy adopted by council … .

The appropriate behaviours policy remains in draft but we are considering the feedback in relation to areas of ‘scholarly expertise’ in the context of the existing academic freedom policy.”

Keeping research assessment excellent

The Group of Eight response to the bureaucracy’s plan to impliment the Watt Review of research funding is mainly positive. But, as with the Innovative Research Universities submission (CMM June 21) there are aspects the Eight considers less worthy than unworkable. The main criticism is the proposal to stop using the Australian Research Council’s Excellence for Research in Australia as a funding driver. “The previous use of ERA in the allocation of (part of) the sustainable research excellence block grant was cumbersome and opaque and the current reforms seem to be a missed opportunity to include ERA performance in a simplified and more meaningful manner.” While the Go8 acknowledges the debate is highly technical this issue is a big deal. The sustainable research excellence grant is essential, if inadequate, to the funding of indirect costs research activities. And using it to allocate block grant funding is also important for ERA, which will include an impact dimension in the next, 2018, round. “Without this element ERA is nothing more than a ranking exercise, and a marketing tool for unis which they will exploit shamelessly,” a research metrics maven tells CMM.

No rush to judgement

It’s all quiet on the University of Queensland administrative reform front with insiders saying management is doing what it committed to and looking to save by reducing the persiflage of process before starting to count heads ( CMM July 10). A restructure plan is not expected until later in the year. This does not stop staff in HR and finance, the first two areas nominated for review, worrying what will occur but people with broad experience of restructures says UoQ does process better than most, which is reassurance of sorts. The university is also recruiting for a new deputy director position in HR client services who implement the portfolio’s new operating model.

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Unis have to do it for themselves

Peter Coaldrake and Lawrence Stedman are the rarest of policy thinkers – after decades of observing and explaining schemes and dreams, plans and programmes to create a sustainable system for higher education in Australia they are still out in the marketplace of ideas optimistically illuminating what hasn’t worked, but more important how to find what might.

The second edition of their book Raising the Stakes: gambling with the future of universities brings the policy debate right up to date, dealing with deregulation and setting out the system’s circumstances as of budget night. Coaldrake (QUT’s VC) and Stedman (the university’s principal policy advisor) set out the way everything (due to demand driven funding) and nothing (cash is doled out on the basis of ancient deals and politically convenient arrangements) has changed in university finances in the last few years. As such theirs’ is the one guide to HE that policy veterans and new recruits to the policy debate alike need read. But the great strength of the book is the authors’ (admittedly and understandably restrained) optimism.

Certainly it is optimism tempered by an understanding of the interface between higher education need and political reality. Thus they warn;

“even if an enlightened government did give priority to public expenditure on higher education, experience has shown that the expansion of student numbers always takes precedene over efforts to meet rising institutional costs.”

And they see no answer in more of what got Australian post secondary education to the state it is in now;

“efforts to centrally manage higher education through compacts or crude incentives factored into funding formulas are misguided and likely to be counterproductive.”

However they still see a solution, if universities choose to run their own races to reform.

“Rather than categorising institutions into neat boxes or rewarding or penalising institutions with simplistic measures, we need to allow the emergence of different ways of adapting the university ideal to meet society’s changing needs within the resources society provides, whether these be public or private, campus-based or on-line, research intensive or otherwise.”

It’s really worth reading, which is why CMM has six copies to give to the first haf a dozen readers who email stephen4@hotkey.net.au this Monday morning.