Unmentionable on the agenda: could a university go broke

Perhaps that is what it would take for editors to pay attention to the Pyne revolution

Highway robbery

Thanks to a close (the closest!) reader of the budget papers for pointing out the government is ripping money out of education to benefit infrastructure. Some $3.5bn will be ransacked from the Higher Education Investment Fund and deposited in the Asset Recycling Fund.

Deborah nails it

Only Adelaide radio yesterday caller Deborah told Education Minister Christopher Pyne about her daughter, a recent arts law graduate who could not find even unpaid legal work. “There is an abundance of graduates and there are just no jobs. And that’s for someone who has studied for four years,” she said. Mr Pyne offered the obvious encouragement, “we have to build the economy, that’s why we have to invest in infrastructure, in apprenticeships, in skills, in universities, because we need to grow the economy so that there are more jobs.” But surely he should have said that universities that want to charge their own fees will have to come up with degrees that meet market needs, that shovelling people into degrees like law, where there is all sorts of anecdotal evidence of a graduate over-supply, will not work. Because this is the point, if we end up with higher graduate unemployment, as well as debt, deregulation will fail. Sure the evidence is that over-time graduates get ahead faster than less educated people but Mr Pyne has put an enormous amount of faith in universities not to offer the same old courses, but at higher prices. Perhaps he will take comfort from a Moody’s report from last November showing tuition costs at nearly half US colleges were stagnating beneath growth in the CPI.

Revolution ignored

What has to happen in higher education for the media to pay attention? While print and broadcast rounds people, as well as social media reported, analysed and argued about the Pyne Revolution yesterday it seemed to be all but ignored in general budget analysis. It is a sad lesson for every university lobby that wants to run opinion campaigns in print and broadcast media – either editors (and readers/viewers) do not understand how higher education works, or they don’t care.

Now for the hard part

Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities lobby has astutely summarised the challenges for government and universities in deregulation, especially ensuring students get value for the more money they will pay. While the IRU has opposed uncapped prices in the past Mr King suggests everybody will adjust, “there was considerable opposition to the demand driven system when first announced which has since faded. We need to learn from the experience that sensibly staged changes give providers, potential students and government the time needed to take advantage of changes and avoid problems.” But some problems might be an unavoidable part of the new arrangement as Mr King starkly stated; “the more open system will see providers flourish, others struggle, and some simply choose to finish up. The quality system will need to be sufficiently robust to work with this, not to prevent failure but facilitating provider entry and exit, ensuring students are not adversely affected.” A private provider giving it away may not be a big deal but a university going broke in whole or part – now that would be something to see.

Coping with competition

Yesterday Charles Sturt University VC Andy Vann warned of a budget brain drain from the bush over time as deregulated fees, and the scholarships they fund, kick in. “The universities with the highest fees will likely be the Group of Eight research intensive metropolitan universities and therefore they will have the most funds to entice rural students to the cities – and we know we are much less likely to get them back to the regions once they have left,” he said. Unless of course regional universities undercut the metro majors on price and concede nothing on quality – thus holding, perhaps increasing their market share. In these early days I suspect the Group of Eight has many people spooked.

Very cross Carr

Labor spokesman Kim Carr was outraged by the budget, suggesting that elite universities will increase fees to $200,000. He is also upset that the government has “run up the wide flag on the government’s responsibility in terms of the public good to fund universities properly.” “This is the universities using student’s fees to subsidise research,” the senator said. Um, which is different to what happened under Labor, how? Senator Carr also told ABC Radio yesterday that Labor opposes upfront fees, which is interesting but irrelevant, given the expanded HELP loans scheme. I wonder what Labor will do in the Senate.

Source of savings

Here’s a way for the Australian Research Council to stretch the research dollars it has to distribute after (another) nasty cut – stop subsidising journal publishers. The ARC requires all publications resulting from research it funds to be publicly available but it also allows institutions to pay publication fees to appear in prestigious journals. The National Health and Medical Research Council does the same. The reality is they don’t have much choice – there would be rioting in the labs if researchers were forbidden to publish in the journals they rate, which are invariably the ones that demand payment. But what is to stop the research councils from negotiating a rate with the big publishing houses for research they fund? Other than inertia that is, that and the way publishers used to setting fees to suit themselves would fight any attempt to negotiate a national rate for publication charges. It works for the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme.

All sorts of strife at CSIRO

CSIRO chief Megan Clark was quick off the blocks with the bad budget news yesterday – that $110m in cuts, with an efficiency dividend to follow, means there are more staff cuts to come on top of the loss of 300 FTE positions already announced. Another 420 jobs will go over the next 12 months, with a possible 80 more to follow by 2018. But from where? Dr Clark’s statement is carefully imprecise, with work on radio astronomy, urban water and sensor developments marked for unspecified cuts. CSIRO will also “exit investments” in neurosciences, “and clinical medicine unrelated to nutrition.” The detail is expected in the annual directions statement due today or tomorrow.

Recycling the story

What possessed the University of Western Australia to announce the first stage of its new teaching and learning plan, Education Futures just hours before Tuesday’s budget lockup? It was widely and unsurprisingly ignored, which means the university could probably launch it again without anybody noticing it wasn’t new.

Satisfaction certain

Greg Craven is very pleased with the result of the staff survey at the Australian Catholic University. According to the vice chancellor some 1300 (74 per cent) staff members participated in the 2014 Myvoice survey. Professor Craven reports staff satisfaction is up in areas from accommodation through salary and conditions to colleagues’ attitudes towards work. Funnily enough there is no detail on areas where things are not going as well. Perhaps this will be revealed when the full survey results are released in July.

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