Birmingham silent on deregulation but still proposes market reforms

Plus education delivers for the people who need it most

Light speed silence

Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne was excited by his announcement yesterday morning that the Australian Synchrotron will be administered by ANSTO. The Synchrotron community was less so. It took until 6.50 last night for the announcement to appear on the Synchrotron Facebook page, but not on the website.

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Education Works

The really good news today is that higher education works, that the class warriors who claim demand driven funding clips the coin of qualifications and prepares graduates for jobs they will not get are wrong – dead wrong.

A paper by Ian W Li (UWA) and colleagues from Curtin, Flinders and UNSW finds that education works as exactly as intended, it is an engine of social mobility for people from low SES backgrounds. In a paper for Curtin University’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education they report research finding;

“graduates from low SES backgrounds were found to have comparable employment outcomes to the graduates from more privileged backgrounds. … Specifically, the estimated effects of the graduate being from a low SES background on the probability of being employed, and being in a job of good quality were statistically indifferent from the graduates from more advantageous SES backgrounds.”

Inevitably there are inequities – given the challenges they start with students from disadvantaged backgrounds have to be smarter and more determined than others to succeed. And women in STEM suffer; “female graduates from STEM fields are markedly less likely than their male counterparts to report that they are in a job for which their STEM qualification was a pre-requisite or very important,” the authors warn.

Indigenous Australians also continue to be under-represented in higher education and there is evidence of discrimination against people of NESB backgrounds. That the study is based on results from just four universities in one state is also a counsel of caution.

But for all the qualifications the research shows that education does the job. “The positive labour market outcomes experienced by graduates from low SES backgrounds and from regional or remote areas indicate that the increased higher education participation rates by these groups have borne fruit and contributed to sustained success in the labour market. From this perspective, participation in higher education for these groups could be further encouraged.”

Want a reason to get up and go to work this morning? This is it.

There is nothing like a dame

Just why Chief Scientist Alan “Frank” Finkel channelled Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific in a speech about the Cooperative Research Centres the other day eludes CMM. But he did, delivering an address to the CRC Association Conference the other day titled “celebrating the great dame in her 26th year.”

Dr Finkel explained why there is indeed, nothing like a dame. “Governments have gone and gone; reports have been read and pulped; while the CRCs just power on.”

He went on to ask his audience to join with him in writing the script for the programme’s future, about how CRCs can grow, how they can build more multi-national links and how the show will still be on the road in 20 years. Or thrice then – South Pacific opened in 1949.

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Policy plus

Last night at the Universities Australia conference Education Minister Simon Birmingham delivered what UA chief Barney Glover had earlier asked for – a speech rich in policy. Not policy of the magic pudding kind, which met university funding aspirations, but policy of the incremental kind that sets down markers of what the government wants and will pay for.

In fact, on funding the minister ducked the debate – stating that there will be a new reform package to support access and innovation at a price the budget can afford and which voters understand. While there was the hint of a hint that it will be in the next term, if the government wins, there was not a word on how much money will be in it, or where the cash will come from.

However Senator Birmingham also renewed his warning that the government expects course entry scores and information to be transparent. “Universities enjoy enormous benefits and opportunities from having a demand-driven system but for this market to work effectively it, like all markets, needs transparency of accurate and timely information to prospective students. I have said a number of times that I respect the autonomy of higher education providers.  But with that autonomy comes responsibility.  I will defend the defensible but if I need to act, I will,” he said.

And this could extend to a transformation in the way Australian universities present to students.

“ The QILT (Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching) is an area I am particularly keen to expand to give students better information on which to make choices. This could include more transparent and timely information on fees and courses; provide more detailed survey information such as the student satisfaction survey on which institutional data will be available in the coming weeks; and more real data on employment and income outcomes from various fields of study.”

This, as CMM suggested on Monday, sounds something like allowing prospective students to compare universities directly on a range of objective measures. Just like a league table.

Now that’s a policy.

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Impact enforcers

Chris Pyne and Simon Birmingham have announced the praetorian guard to enforce the research impact and engagement agenda as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda. Co-led by Australian Council chief Aidan Byrne and Dominic English from the Department of Education and Training, the committee “will help to develop a process that uses clear and transparent measures of non-academic impact, and industry and end-user engagement, to assess our nation’s university research performance and inform future funding structures.”

Members are: Graeme Whickman, Ford Motor Company, Shanny Dyer, Wavefront Biometric Technologies, Ken Boal, Cisco, Lesley Johnson, UTS and Griffith U, Ian Jacobs, UNSW, Belinda Robinson, Universities Australia, Scott Bowman, CQU, Anne Kelso, National Health and Medical Research Council, Mark Cully, (Chief Economist), Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Alan Finkel, Chief Scientist and Shearer West, from the University of Sheffield.

They are appointed for two years, which should see impact and engagement incorporated into the next Excellence for Research in Australia exercise. Especially as Professor Byrne has an idea on how it should happen. “I think the general preference from within the sector is to follow the ERA methodology, which has proven success, using a broad range of indicators and expert review,” he said last night.

Business as usual

The Australian Higher Education Industrial Association’s formal release of its report on the future of university employment yesterday (http://campusmorningmail.com.au/504013-2/ CMM February 4) generated a scathing response from the National Tertiary Education Union. “This was a missed opportunity to take a serious look at workforce planning in higher education sector, where it seems to still only be the NTEU saying that excessive workloads and the increasing reliance on casual staff doing more than half the teaching and research staff on rolling short term contracts undertaking much of the research is unsustainable.” So it will be business as usual when bargaining begins for the next set of enterprise agreements next month.

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Unknown experts

The  terms of reference for the National Research Infrastructure Roadmap are out. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, supported by an “expert working group” will make the map. Most of the objectives they have to reach are straightforward, the infrastructure equivalents of motherhood – world class this and that. Except for one; “determine areas where capacity building of the national research infrastructure system or decommissioning of existing capacity will be of strategic benefit to Australia’s research effort. That should be fun.

But, who you ask, is in the expert working group?, Not a clue CMM replies. Curious, that the terms of reference are released without the experts being named.

Saini steps up

University of Toronto vice president Deep Saini will succeed Stephen “the people’s friend” Parker as vice chancellor of the University of Canberra as of September 1. Professor Saini took his doctorate, in plant physiology from the University of Adelaide but moved to Canada to build a career in university administration.

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