Allocating student places and who pays how much for them

Kemp-Norton Review is a Christmas gift for policy wonks

Bloody bolshevik!

“It is not yet adequately understood that a university education is not, and certainly should not be, the perquisite of a privileged few,” said some bloke called Robert Gordon Menzies in 1957. (Thanks Swinburne).

Vintage astrophysics

Brian Schmidt has joined the board of the Australian Wine Research Institute. When not working on astronomy and astrophysics at the Australian National University the Nobel Prize winner makes pinot noir outside Canberra. Gosh, imagine the research synergies: did opening a bottle of cosmic sparkling create the big bang? How long should you cellar reds in a black hole? The ARC opportunities are endless, or they would be if the government had not confirmed its election promise in MYEFO yesterday to “redirect” $103m from the Council to medical research.

Still some money for serious science

Not that the Australian Research Council is completely skint. It has just announced funding under two programs that should appeal to ministers who want “relevant” research. New ARC Centres of Excellence receive up to $4m pa for a maximum of seven years, with 12 of the shortlisted 22 getting up. The big institutional winners are Monash with three and ANU two successes. Overall G8 universities picked up nine of the 12. The biggest institutional winner is the extraordinary Tanya Monro from the University of Adelaide. Her Centre for Nanoscale Biophotonics received $28m from the ARC plus another $16m in funding from other sources.
The second program is the Industrial Transformation Research Hubs. Monash won two and the University of Wollongong one, for steel manufacturing, of which there was once a lot more than there is now a few kms from the university’s Illawarra campus.

Creating competition through regulation

Yes, it can be done, according to Universities Australia, thanks to demand driven funding. According to the peak body; “the establishment of a more competitive market and increased student numbers is likely, perhaps paradoxically, to lead to more innovation and higher quality offerings as universities are forced to compete in a fee-capped system on features other than price.” While universities are not allowed to compete on price for undergraduate places this may not be an argument corporate competitors that are should use with the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission.
But where markets in education operate they work; thus UA rebuts the criticism that employment policy is being left to 17 year olds picking where they want to study. “A market based solution is more likely to provide better long-term outcomes than central planning for and allocation of student places at the discipline level.”
Overall UA’s submission to the Kemp-Norton review of demand driven funding sticks to the sensible centre – it is too early to decide graduate outcome and program quality and demographics dictate an end to rapid growth in numbers. And it acknowledges the elephant in the tutorial-the ad hoc public funding of vocational masters. Extending demand driven funding to all graduate programs would place “unacceptable pressure” on the budget. But without public funding graduates in relatively low income disciplines, say teaching and nursing, cannot easily complete professional training. “Providers should be able to negotiate an appropriate mix and range of postgraduate and undergraduate programs that are eligible for funding under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, perhaps through a voluntary cap-and-trade system for undergraduate and postgraduate places,” UA accordingly argues. Sound familiar – it’s certainly like an idea University of Melbourne VC Glyn Davis floated the other month.

But two is just showing off

Minister Pyne is probably the best advised higher education minister since John Dawkins convened the purple circle to end the binary divide back in the 17th century. For a start there is chief of staff Meredith Jackson, former marketing director at Monash and Griffith. Mr Pyne’s higher education advisor is Don Markwell, Rhodes Scholar, political scientist and DVC at the University of Western Australia, Warden of Trinity College, University of Melbourne and a fellow of Merton College, Oxford. Then there is advisor Helen Baxendale, political scientist, ANU cricket captain, schoolteacher and newly announced Rhodes Scholar. One Rhodes Scholar advising a minister is impressive but a pair provides serious firepower.

ATN’s pragmatic proposal

The Australian Technology Network’s submission to Kemp-Norton is like the lobby’s members, heavy on practical information, light on for expensive idealism and very focused on outcomes.
Demand driven funding has allowed ATN members to expand in areas where Australia requires skilled workers but without a reduction in quality, it argues. The network wants more commonwealth supported postgraduate and sub degree programs to meet skill needs identified by the Australian Workplace Productivity Agency, funded “by means of a transparent process in line with labour force requirements or in areas of national priority,” it adds. Granted working that out may be harder than it looks but it is the only incidence of ATN not accepting that extending the existing system involves accountability and requires hard decisions.
For a start, ATN suggests universities are accountable for the quality of their courses. “The ATN believe that it is individual universities who are ultimately responsible for the students they admit and their ability to support and service the needs of their students to maintain quality is crucial.” And if anything else is needed, pray then, why did God create TEQSA?
And it argues that students should pay for an expanded system; “ the ATN would support a 10% increase in the student contribution as a way to moderate the impact on the taxpayer of maintaining and strategically expanding the Demand Driven System.”
Given the Innovative Research University’s suggestion of allowing universities to go to full fees for designated disciplines is a consensus emerging for an increase in what students pay? I wonder if the Commission of Audit will read this.

Shining star

RMIT’s vice chancellor Margaret Gardner will replace Ed Byrne as VC of Monash University. A stellar success for a shining star of higher education.

Seriously smart Swinburne

Swinburne University has used the Demand Driven Funding Review to back the status quo. Good-o, who hasn’t? But recognising the chance to expand the agenda it has put the case for less extension than transformation of how Canberra funds training in sub degree and masters programs. As with other institutions it makes a  case that more Commonwealth supported sub-degree places can increase access without jeopardising quality. (Another way is to maintain meaningful minimums for entry, but I digress). More important, Swinburne suggests Canberra continue to fund postgraduate places, “in key national priority area and areas of skill shortage where postgraduate qualifications are necessary –for example in health sciences, information technology, engineering and teaching.”
The problem is the way Commonwealth Supported Places are allocated , “over time, each university’s allocation of sub-bachelor and postgraduate CSPs has grown up through a series of ad hoc decisions, with no overall consideration of the effect on the whole.” Swinburne makes the point, doubtless for no other reason than community service, by setting out which institution gets how many of both. The University of Melbourne leads with 5000 – nearly twice the campus in second place, the University of Tasmania at 2800 (go figure). I can understand why elite ANU only has a couple of hundred but why ACU (big in teaching) has less than half the University of Western Sydney’s 2500 escapes me. As does why Swinburne @ 950 is 1000 short of Monash.
So what to do? Swinburne suggests a competitive round for allocating places – which is easier, said than done, as its submission makes clear. “The Commonwealth would outline clear, new, future-focused criteria for success in securing an allocation of postgraduate places,” which could mean whatever a minister wanted it to mean. Even so, it puts an unavoidable issue on the Kemp-Norton agenda. The Demand Driven Funding Review has the potential to be a very interesting read indeed.

Through the pearly gates

I was praising CSU for graduating its first class of graduating dentists yesterday, which means I must congratulate another dental school’s first set of graduates. Yesterday some 53 of the pearly white professionals received their degrees from the James Cook University dental school, which opened in 2009.

What’s that Skip, there’s a press release!

Apparently cuckoos, spiders and orchids in Australia are masters of deception, according to a press release promoting Macquarie University research. I’ll believe it when I stop noticing kangaroos in trench coats.

Submissions in Santa’s sleigh

Something exciting in the New Year. In its Kemp-Norton submission Universities Australia promises a discussion paper on funding models in the new year. Yes, I know how sad that makes me sound.And what would make for a really happy Christmas (no, really) would be having all the submissions to the review, which aren’t confidential to read. But will we. Yesterday somebody close to the review said there was nothing doing. But the minister’s office says submissions will be released. Gosh let’s hope public service Santa is loading the sleigh.

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