ACOLA report: reform research training to link with industry

Plus an end to ordeal by thesis

and, the real cost of HECS

Master honoured

Pritzker Prize winning architect Glenn Murcutt is the new chair of the prize’s jury. Professor Murcutt holds a chair at UNSW, where many of the buildings must give him the screaming meemies.

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An end to trial by thesis

Despite its high academic quality Australia’s research training system does not connect with industry, according to the much-anticipated review by chemical engineer John McGagh and colleagues for the Australian Council of Learned Academies. “This situation is extremely concerning for a nation that strives to develop a vibrant knowledge based economy,” the review team warns. Especially, as they report the government invests $1bn a year in research training.

And they call for a radical change to the award of higher degrees, away from the tradition of ordeal by dissertation.

“The current assessment process for research degrees does not necessarily align with the aims of contemporary higher degree training. … Many stakeholders considered that the Australian research training system would benefit from greater emphasis being placed on the assessment of the candidate and the skills gained rather than focus predominantly on the assessment of the thesis.”

Dr McGagh and his colleagues also propose a range of measures that variously improve support for research students and better connect their training to industry, including a national placement scheme run by an independent organisation.

“With a majority of higher degree graduates moving into careers outside university research, providing candidates with an opportunity to collaborate with industry partners can help improve their future employability while giving industry an insight into the benefits of employing researchers,” they write.

Above all the review recommends that government, industry and universities get on with it, suggesting no need for more reports and calling for a strategy based on this review and its predecessors. This will be the hard bit. There are many recommendations, having universities benchmark their higher degree supervision against international providers, for example, that will unsettle many people and will take a national approach to impose.

O’Neill’s law of parish pumps

Proving all politics is local Greens MP for the seat of Melbourne, Adam Bandt was on his local university campus yesterday, campaigning for more trams and no university fee increases. Perhaps world peace and free goats cheese is today.

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HELP where needed

When Conor King does not understand a public policy document it must be less obscure than opaque. However the Innovative Research Universities executive director says there are four points in the Parliamentary Budget Office’s report on HELP debt that he does not get.

First, Mr King wants to know what the PBO thinks is the share of the $11.1bn it says student debt costs the Commonwealth annually between the five HELP schemes. As to where the debt will be in 2025 he suggests that on the PBO’s assumptions university students’ share under HECS HELP will be $6.6bn

Second, he wants to know what the HECS HELP debt will be under the existing programme and if the feds cut university funding and allow universities to increase fees. He suggests the existing programme cost will be $4.5bn in a decade, plus $1.8bn to cover the cost of the proposed government cut to university funding.

Third, the IRU chief wants to know how much the PBO thinks the government would save by a “major reduction” in Commonwealth Grant Scheme funds for universities. “Any assessment of the HELP programs should surely allow for the reduced call on direct Government funding.  The saving has to be at least equal to the cost the loan increases to replace it,” he argues. On this one however he does not offer his own estimate.

Finally, he asks why the PBO assumes the Commonwealth would borrow all the costs of HELP when it is the difference between the indexation of annual debt and the government’s borrowing rate that “drives much of the growth in the apparent cost.”

Overall he asks why the PBO thinks “higher education is less a first call on revenue than any number of other programmes, whether those are newly created like the National Disability Insurance Scheme or redevelopment of long standing expenses such as major defence expenditure.”

Mr King is keen to keep his members out of the frame, by speaking up for the original university based HECS scheme.

App of the Day

While Mark Zuckerberg was banging on about bots being the new something or other yesterday the University of Queensland was getting on with business with its food and coffee ordering app.

Fair work

The National Tertiary Education Union is offering to review the contracts of university staff on fixed terms to see if they are employed “incorrectly or unreasonably.” The questionnaire is here. Job security is a big theme in the enterprise bargaining round, just starting.

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Community concerned

While ANU brands itself as a university for the continent it also serves a very provincial community, which has a proprietorial perspective on whatever management wants to do. Former VC Ian Young discovered this when he first tried to save money on the music school and now successor Brian Schmidt faces the same sort of strife over proposed cuts to the School of Culture, History and Languages. Yesterday ABC local radio morning presenter Genevieve Jacobs  talked for a good 15 minutes to academic Peter Friedlander about problems with management’s plan. (Ms Jacobs twice mentioned that Professor Schmidt was invited to appear but was travelling.)

In Canberra, faculty funding and the alleged failures of university middle management actually matter outside the university and opponents of the change are working hard to explain their side of the argument.“We reach out as much as we can to the community,” Dr Friedlander said. It’s working.

Anybody interested in the argument over the financial viability of SCHL should read Miguel Galsim’s new story in student paper  Woroni. It’s an excellent analysis, pulling no punches but free of the outraged opinionating, which often passes for news reporting in old and new media alike. Mr Galsim is studying international relations but obviously does not need a media degree for a career in what is left of journalism.

More money for maths

Education Minister Simon Birmingham has kicked in another $2m to the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute for industry internships for maths PhD students and training in bioinformatics. The funding will be announced in his lunchtime speech releasing the ACOLA report (above).

Revist Brideshead? The Brits never left

A major new statistical analysis from the UK Institute of Fiscal Studies finds: “graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities.” Ye gods if education does not ensure equal opportunity what hope is there for ordinary Brits?

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Same problem, reverse solution

While some in the science establishment deplore the government’s new funding focus on applied research, in Canada they are addressing the oppositeissue. From Toronto policy maven Alex Usher   reports that the Trudeau Government is assuming that pure research is what mainly matters so that; “$ to universities for research → a miracle occurs → productive high-tech economic future.”

“While that is one type of innovation, it is far from the only one. What about process innovations or business model innovations, to name but two? Why focus on the “big breakthroughs” when so many incremental innovations are possible? Why focus on only one part of the value chain (and possibly not a part Canada is particularly good at) when there is value in so many others?, the erudite Usher asks.

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