Plus what dark matter is doing at Stawell

Resigned Reaction

Budget reaction was restrained yesterday. Research lobbyists complained about the cuts to the Sustainable Research Excellence programme, which funds indirect research costs, just as they would have been outraged if SRE had continued uncut and NCRIS and Future Fellows not been restored. And opponents of deregulation pointed out that the cuts to Commonwealth funding per student place, which Christopher Pyne’s plan intended university-set fee increases to make up, is still on the budget books But overall not much was said, as if everybody was too exhausted to argue.

And yet argue they must. University of Sydney VC Michael Spence explained why in a message to staff yesterday; “(the) federal budget confirmed that there is still no viable solution for the problems that threaten the quality and competitiveness of Australia’s higher education sector. The federal government remains committed to the higher education reforms it proposed last year, while the federal opposition continues to oppose those reforms but has yet to make any concrete policy proposals.”

Dr Spence added that higher education had to stay on the political agenda in the lead-up to the next election, a call already made by Uni Adelaide’s Warren Bebbington.

While there is no sign cross bench senators are changing their minds Chris Pyne has used the budget to re-start a debate that just weeks back looked lost for a generation.

ANU new 2

Not much money makes medicos merry

CMM is waiting for the lab to analyse the data but it seems there are actually researchers who are not grumbling about the budget. In fact the Medical Research Future Fund Action Group is very pleased that the government is pressing ahead with the MRFF, kicking in $3.4bn from a terminating programme and health portfolio savings. What’s more the MRFFAG still says the fund will reach its $20bn capital target by the end of the decade. CMM remains sceptical of treasurers to come respecting the fund’s virtue, but for now the medical research lobby points to the first release of money. Granted its only $10m and medical researchers always want more, but it’s a new funding stream, which is something other researchers did not see.

Over and OLT

The Office of Learning and Teaching published the reasons for its demise, scheduled for June next year, with a statement that appeared unheralded on its website late yesterday. The “key elements” of the Promotion of Excellence in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education programme the OLT now manages will continue, with $28m budgeted. However “universities will be invited to bid to host the new institution” which will manage the money. But, and it is a very big but, the money will now go “to substantial sector wide initiatives, rather than supporting small scale demonstration projects. The redesigned programme will make strategic investments in a targeted number of collaborative initiatives that support systemic change and are likely to have the greatest potential impact on the higher education sector.” This is a substantial change from the existing OLT practise of distributing small amounts of money to many universities, to the extent that it sometimes looked like a policy of every institution winning a prize.

Motherhood message

Governments always bang on about stopping waste, except when they create it. The budget papers state the government will save $5m from advertising for the higher education deregulation package, which for the moment is beyond  explaining. But the saving will go to a new “parental awareness campaign”. Which will? “Raise awareness of the positive effect parental engagement has on their children’s achievement in education.” $5 million dollars, ye gods.

Turn to the dark side

Thanks to the University of Melbourne for pointing out budget funding for the Stawell Underground Physics Lab. The SUPL can’t be cavernous ($1.75m does not buy much excavating) but ANSTO and its university partners, Melbourne, Adelaide, ANU and Swinburne plus international organisations will use it for a direct detection dark matter experiment. Who says the government is not interested in pure research! But why Stawell and what does it all mean?

There’s always a next election

Unlike the MRFF, the proposed Murray Darling Medical School missed out in the budget, again. Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities have long wanted to create a medical school serving southern NSW and eastern Victoria, with staff dedicated to planning and lobbying on its behalf. This drives established city med schools with regional operations nuts and to date the feds are unimpressed. But the partners persevere with Pyne-like optimism. Maybe at the next election … .


Over to ASQA

Buried in the existing programmes and new committees that Training Minister Simon Birmingham got to reannounce for the budget is $18.2m over four years for the Australian Skills Quality Authority to “prohibit inappropriate market practices and protect vulnerable students, taxpayers and the reputation of the national vocational education and training sector.”

ASQA even gets eight more people to help do it, taking its strength to 213. In contrast, the higher education regulator, TEQSA loses 11 heads dropping to 60.

Senator Birmingham obviously understands private VET providers are on the nose, especially in Victoria, and he speaks loudly and often about stopping for-profit trainers profit-gouging public funding by enrolling students in training courses they cannot afford and are unlikely to complete. He will doubtless be looking to ASQA to get busy.

Scholars soldier-on

Thanks to John Blaxland (ANU College of Asia and the Pacific) for pointing to budget funding for official histories of Australia in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the Timor intervention. The Iraq volume will make for especially interesting reading, how did the Howard government convince itself Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction?  Since Bean’s Homeric history of the First AIF, Australia has a fine history of official but independent-scholarly campaign narratives. The authors of these new ones have a great tradition to maintain.

Murdoch movements mean not much

The insurgency at Murdoch U continues with suggestions that imminent resignations reflect no confidence in the new regime. Some names mentioned were certainly associated with former VC Richard Higgott but by no means all and others are said to be taking voluntary redundancy rather than leaving in ire. But what all at Murdoch are watching for is what Provost Ann Capling (a strong Higgott ally) will do and say when she returns from research leave next month.

All bull

The University of Western Sydney is holding its annual UniSchools Steer Challenge, with teams from 16 schools each being a Poll Hereford steer to rear for 100 days. A rapid increase in world demand for beef is inevitable, the university says, making the challenge “as relevant as ever”. Which provides CMM’s Segue Correspondent an unmissable opportunity to dismiss campus rumours at UWS that the university is considering a name change to Greater Western Sydney U (or some such) as a load of (apologies) bull.   “The university has no intention of changing the University of Western Sydney Act. People refer to the university in a number of ways, UWS and Western Sydney University included,” a spokesperson said last night.

Off your bike

In a study of bicycle travel in Copenhagen, Andy Choi (UoQ) and colleagues estimate the cost of bike riding journeys as a sixth of car travel. Until, CMM suspects, some dill driver hospitalises a passing rider by opening a car door onto them.

One shot flu stop

CMM was scared silly by Stephen Soderberg‘s Contagion (2009) about a flu pandemic and so was very pleased last night with news that US-Australian-Chinese researchers, co led by the University of Melbourne’s Katherine Kedzierska, have found research that stopped a 2013 flu strain in China, could put them on the path to one life-long shot which might protect against all future flus.  Then again, just stopping the 2013 strain, that had a 90 per cent contagion rate and 30 per cent mortality, was pretty good. The research report was published in Nature Communications last night.

Education not what it once was

Peter Evans-Greenwood, Kitty O’Leary and Peter Williams from Deloitte warn universities are not producing graduates with the skills needed in the brave new world where many, or most, tasks are handled by cyber serfs. Even worse for education providers, employers are looking for people who are curious and innovative rather than formally qualified to the max. “While demand for a quality education (beyond secondary school in particular) continues to rise, both employers and students are dissatisfied with the nature of the education that institutions are providing. Employers complain that educators aren’t providing students with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace,” the Deloitters  declaim.

And this is not a content problem; higher education’s process is no longer relevant. “The current educational paradigm is built on building stocks of knowledge, transferring those stocks to individuals, then certifying that the knowledge has been successfully transferred.”

So what’s to be done? “Educators need to turn their attention to creating environments and platforms where students can learn what they need to learn when they need to, and instilling in them the habits of mind, attitudes and behaviours that will enable them to thrive in today’s (and tomorrow’s) knowledge-rich environment. The biggest challenge facing educators, however, is in forging a new relationship with students and industry, a relationship built around knowledge flows and one where the educator and student or firm work together to optimise how they navigate knowledge flows to identify and use knowledge.”

And if they don’t, well new institutions will. Does this send like the experience of a harried casual teaching big classes to kids stretched by work commitment? Probably not, but 18 year olds aren’t going to be all of the emerging audience.

What it does sound like is competencies – about acquiring skills rather than learning about life. There does not sound like there will be much room for historians, or poets. Which is a problem – how are we going to entertain the robots when they take over?

Right or wrong, the Deloitters vision is a ways from arguments over what the feds are or are not funding in the budget out years.