Jay Weatherill’s not-so-big Adelaide idea

Plus Group of Eight calculates calm on course costs

Ave VC

Macquarie University hosted a debate on the achievements of the Emperor Augustus last night as part of its 5oth year celebrations, (no, I don’t see the connection either). Now let’s see a bloke, who claimed to be protecting the old order while establishing a dictatorship and expanding an empire. Born two thousand years too early, if you ask me. He would have made a great vice chancellor.

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Study now, pay later

The Group of Eight has bought into the student debt debate with modelling on which sorts of students will pay how much back under three options. While the paper’s findings do not diminish the underlying arguments against increased payments the research is an enormous improvement on claims that student loans will be like a home mortgage (with the median Sydney home price now $807 000 it would be a hell of a degree). The paper suggests deregulation will deliver a range of prices, as occurs in the markets for fee paying master and international students. Prices will fall between university break-evens (after the Canberra cut in funding for public places) and the price international students pay. This puts the cost of a three year science degree at around $33 000 and a four year bachelor of laws at $65 000.

The headline finding is that the budget proposal to tie student debt to the Commonwealth borrowing rate will lead to some low-income graduates paying twice to liquidate their loans what it costs higher-earners, who pay back faster.

But given Minister Pyne has all but admitted that plan is a dud what is more interesting is the Go8 modelling of the Chapman and Higgins loan options – an interest rate on student debt at CPI below repayment threshold and then at bond rate, or 25 per cent surcharge of debt and then loan at CPI. The paper applies both to three different work-income scenarios. In terms of equity the G08 argues the surcharge is the go; “(it) would equalise interest costs across all graduates, regardless of income, and thereby remove the regressive aspects of a real interest rate.

Need to know

So all Minister Pyne has to do is change debt repayment options and the political problem goes away, right?  Wrong. Prospective students do not have a clue what is going to happen to fees in 2016 and short of the Dewar report on course funding being released and acted on by the feds quick smart no university will dare publish prices during application season for 2015. The absence of information will really hit kids from the country, without family experience of higher education and already worried by what it could cost. “University is already prohibitive for many rural and regional students who must relocate and travel long distances from home – ongoing fee uncertainty is just adding to their burden,” Sarah Taylor from the Country Education Foundation said yesterday.

But what does she really think

Christopher Pyne, you know, he can go and grab a box of Kleenex because all his education reforms are going down the gurgler; it’s as simple as that.” Senator Jacqui Lambie (PUP-Tasmania). ABC Radio, AM yesterday.

And what he is going to do about it

If the Senate refuses to pass Mr Pyne’s cuts to funding for Commonwealth Supported Places he will go looking elsewhere for cuts – and that will most likely mean research block grants.

Jay’s big idea

You have to hand it to Jay Weatherill, he neither won a majority of votes nor seats in the South Australian election and yet he is premier. And in office he is working very hard to look like he has a plan to save the state’s post-Holden economy and if he can nail the Liberals in the process, so much the better. One part of the process is floating innovative ideas, like asking universities to amalgamate operations. I’m guessing he means Uni Adelaide, Uni SA and Flinders rather than the various private providers.

This comes out of talks between the three universities and the government about better linking research and industry – a “connector” company is on the way. But it’s less a gap than a chasm between this and mergers.

“Merging comes up every six months,” says University of Adelaide Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington. But while putting three commercial arms together may make sense, “our three universities are large by international standards and combining them would create a monster.” And a monster that would not make money. Professor Bebbington points to Adelaide’s strategy to replace large lectures with small group teaching adding that if Australian universities don’t do this international students will take their business elsewhere, specifically to the US. “A merger to get economies of scale is exactly the reverse of where we need to go,” he says. Nor are mergers ever easy. “You have to put different cultures together-you rarely save money and you dilute strengths. My hair is grey from working on the merger of the University of Melbourne, Victorian College of the Arts.” So that’s that? Not quite. Professor Bebbington says he “is very happy to discuss rationalising courses at an institutional level – but behind the scenes first.”

It’s unanimous

University of South Australia VC David Lloyd agrees with his frenemy up North Terrace that mergers aren’t on. “I think it is always worth considering how the university sector increases cooperation, by mergers or other partnerships, but we need to be clear about the expected benefits and have a clear outcome in mind. We need to be careful to not assume that any merger will of itself automatically deliver improved outcomes for students, business or the community,” he said. Flinders chief Michael Barber is also sceptical, saying that while talk of mergers has occurred in the past no one has ever made a good enough case. “While Flinders University is always open to a conversation about the best options for the future of higher education and students in South Australia, our starting point is that we are strong and growing in our own right,” Professor Barber said yesterday.

Living with disappointment

So why did the premier, an avowed opponent of Christopher Pyne’s deregulation plan float the merger idea now? Here’s a hint. Mr Pyne was quick off the mark yesterday announcing it was a dumb idea. There is a Uni SA campus in his electorate and the main Flinders site is a bare 30 minutes away. The last thing the minister will want is an argument over amalgamation on his patch now as he deals with fiercer foes, (who would you rather argue with, a platoon of premiers or Senator Lambie?). “The higher education reforms I am proposing are what SA universities need, not forced merger,” Minister Pyne tweeted first thing yesterday.

Chance and significance

Vann’s Law of Ranking Outcomes (up is brilliance, down is methodology) is still being demonstrated around the traps as people explain their university’s ARWU performance. But a research chief at a university which has moved strongly up the rankings over the last few years suggests I am making too much of marginal movements, which in the case smaller universities could be random variation and/or the result of an updated list of highly cited ISI Web of Knowledge scholars (a significant input). But, he also says there is no doubting that some of the changes are significant – on the upside Curtin and UTS which “has been increasing for a number of years.” On the other, Flinders decline is also significant and so is the University of Sydney’s – which is due to the absence of ISI fellows on the new list. I wonder if this is why Uni Sydney is starting to talk next year’s ERA rating exercise, as an alternative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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