Big bucks and where they come from

Hint: For universities Canberra cash is king

Bah humbugs of the season

Not really. Campus Morning Mail is off to have a beer and read a book on the beach. I will be back in January. Thanks, many thanks, for reading.

Amusing, ironic, achieving

All university recruitment advertising isn’t abysmal (just most of it). This one from Monash sets a Himalaya-high standard. It’s a bit long but otherwise is brilliant, just brilliant. I wonder if Universities Australia could get vice chancellors to do a version promoting higher education in general with the same wit and charm. Um, no, silly idea, forget that I wrote.

Big bucks

Education Minister Chris Pyne released the 2012 financials for the 39 universities in the public system yesterday and entertaining reading they are indeed. Inevitably numbers like these they can support all sorts of cases – remember Michael Spence explaining how his University of Sydney is skint during pay negotiations? So it is, if you consider a net operating surplus of $136m (admittedly on revenues of $1.7bn) a sign of skintness. While there are undoubtedly all sorts of devils in the details most universities appear comfortably in the black – although some are not earning much of a return. The only institution which seems in imminent strife is Victoria University, $6.5m in the red on $466m income. 
Overall the system is still utterly dependent on Canberra – sure just 43 per cent comes from direct government grants but another 14 per cent comes from HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP payments. Yes this is money students are expected to pay back – but Canberra issues the cheques and carries the debt for years. Granted 22 per cent of income comes from fees and charges, but we are a long way short of international students becoming anywhere near as important to universities as the federal minister

Cooly crushing cavils

From snowy Ontario the cooly calculating commentator emeritus Gavin Moodie writes to explain why I am a dill in thinking price controls prevent a market in undergraduate courses (CMM Tuesday). It’s worth quoting at length (so I will!):
“Public universities have infinite flexibility in setting prices for commonwealth supported coursework places. First, the commonwealth sets maximum fees for commonwealth supported coursework places: universities are allowed to charge any fee up to the maximum. … That gives universities great but not infinite price flexibility. Infinite price flexibility comes from universities being able and seeking to attract desirable students by having negative fees, or awarding scholarships. Since these may be infinitely big, universities have infinite flexibility in setting prices for commonwealth supported coursework places. Let us also recall that universities were given the flexibility to charge fees up to maxima which were increased by 25% in 2005 and that after a few universities found that charging lower fees did not affect student demand for the programs with lower and in some cases no fee, they all soon charged the maximum for all programs. The UK government tripled fees at English universities to a maximum of £9,000 and again, this greatly increased price flexibility has not increased price competition.  This is because a properly designed loan system such as enjoyed by Australia and the UK insulates students against price signals. Since in these circumstances student demand is price inelastic seeking price competition misunderstands the nature of these markets and is pointless.”
Now a caviler could claim that a price cap plus a loan system that takes cost out of the purchase decision does not a market make. But not being one I won’t.

Down to the wire at UWS

Last week union members at the University of Western Sydney knocked back the pay component of the heads of agreement of a new enterprise deal management had offered – which presumably took the university’s offer of $1500 for all eligible staff if a deal was done by year’s end off the table. But the two sides kept talking, for four and a half hours on Tuesday and met again yesterday afternoon. And while all that was occurring, the university awarded long-serving VC Jan Reid an honorary doctorate on the ever of her departure (Barney Glover from Charles Darwin takes over in March). After her long struggle a decade back to transform UWS from a confederacy of colleges to a unitary university this blue must seem small beer – but I’m willing to bet she is still glad to be out of it.

But wait there’s more!

“Got your ATAR? You might get bonus points with UniSA. Call us to find out,” (the University of South Australia stops short of offering prospective students a set of steak knives, via Twitter yesterday). I am guessing this is not the style the three South Australian vice chancellors had in mind when they agreed to adopt standard bonus mark schemes earlier in the month.

One size does not fit all

And if the above doesn’t convince you that Gavin Moodie is a wonk’s wonk have a look at the new paper he co-authored with Leesa Wheelahan, Emmaline Bexley and Nick Fredman for the estimable National Council for Vocational Education and Research. The snappily titled  “Vocational education’s variable links to vocations” demonstrates that the nexus between training qualifications and employment is complicated indeed. “Mid-level qualifications have one of three main roles, and these roles are different for students in different age groups: as a labour market qualification — entry or upgrade, as a transition to a higher-level qualification, for widened access to higher-level qualifications.” There is also a distinction between what diplomas provide for people who want to enter industries where skills are regulated and those where they apply generic training. The overall implication of this is that colleges need to design and offer their own qualifications to suit the different purposes they serve but not to go it alone, “tertiary education institutions are mostly limited to following rather than initiating structural change in the workforce. However, they can play an important role in supporting structural change, if this is being led by the social partners,” the authors argue.

What blue, pussy cat?

Deans of education who hoped Chris Pyne had forgotten them after the Gonski school funding fight are set for disappointment. “We will focus on teacher quality at university so that we produce the best possible teachers who then go into the system,” the minister said on Sky News the other night. For a federal minister anxious to focus on anything other than money for schools it’s a cost-effective fight and they should prefer for a blue. Deans are pussycats compared to premiers.

No peace among persons at Swinburne

Yesterday the Swinburne University branch of the NTEU lifted work bans on processing student results. According to union official Josh Cullinan management is threatening a lock out, which would stop all students, including those who the union has exempted from the ban, receiving results. So to ensure this does not happen all students will get their results. But don’t think this is a concession, oh no. Mr Cullinan wants staff to come back from the Christmas break and work according to the union’s academic workload model policy, which is here, while industrial action is underway. What is going with all this worker’s collective stuff?  Deals on new enterprise agreements are being done at universities across the country but it seems as if the NTEU is using Swinburne to remind managements of how much trouble it can make if inclined. 

Publishers dig in

The open access community is in uproar as publishers demand universities drop articles from their open access archives that also run in commercial journals. Yes, the publishers own the copyright but the articles are generally the work of publicly funded scholars who provide their research to the journals without charge. Major public funding agencies require research they support to be available within a period of time after publication. I am guessing this move is designed to stop academics posting work to their university’s site before then, so that journals remain the first source of important new work. As Paul Keating nearly once said, “never stand between a publisher and a bucket of money.”

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