An alternative to ATARs

Back in April University of Adelaide Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington suggested the problem with arguments over university entry scores was that they took attention away from the real issue, which is how to prepare students from low SES backgrounds for higher and further education while still at school. “The largest problem universities have in admitting more students of low socio-economic status is that such students tend to leave school poorly prepared for university. … If funds intended for disadvantaged students are actually used for support and remedial programs that expressly focus on such students – then we might level the national educational playing field. We would ensure students of ability whatever their background or circumstances could enter university well prepared. Truly, that would be an impressive social reform,” he said. He got a a chance to implement just that yesterday when Kim Carr announced $9 million for the three South Australian universities to spend on improving higher education participation on students from low SES backgrounds. The money will go to programs assisting students, “throughout the entire student life cycle, from early primary right through to senior secondary.”  South Australia’s share is part of a $50 million national program which must have been authorised, but funnily enough, not announced, before the writs were issued.

But the entry argument isn’t over

Andrew Norton’s Grattan Institute paper on open entry yesterday makes a strong case for staying cap-less.   However, while the erudite Andrew supports demand driven university entry Group of Eight policy wonk Mike Teece warns it has failed to substantially increase low SES enrolments, making it an expensive way to help a few poor kids into uni. Fair point, however Norton points out a cap would create chaos and be inequitable in that a 60 score “does not represent a clear dividing line between likely academic success and likely academic failure.” It would also end the way student demand rather than officialdom shapes what universities offer.
Not surprising, universities keen to grow as well as those that do not get the pick of the brightest students endorsed Norton’s findings yesterday.  The Regional Universities Network argued it was an equity issue as there are only half the graduates in the bush as live in cities.  And very urban Swinburne weighed in, with acting VC Jennelle Kyd supporting open access, “the creation of a competitive market amongst Australian universities has been a breakthrough. It’s allowed innovation to flourish and genuinely new models of delivery to be created.”  (The bit about a market puzzled CMM, what with their being no price signals for undergraduate courses).
Funnily enough, advocates of an ATAR floor kept their heads down yesterday. As one observer suggested to CMM this might be because there is something of a contradiction in the Group of Eight’s wish list. On the one hand UNSW VC and Go8 chair Fred Hilmer demands a cut to government red tape but on the other he advocates a return to caps on student places, which would tie universities in knots as Canberra and campuses struggled to work out who would get what.

 Pundit watch

This morning’s examiner of the electoral entrails is Dr Damon Alexander of the University of Melbourne who was consulted by the Wall Street Journal, no less.  According to Dr Alexander the polls overstate Labor’s support and the marginals favour the Coalition. “When people walk into the ballot box I think it will be a little bit uglier for Labor than what the polls point to now,” he told the WSJ. In contrast, Marcus O’Donnell (journalism program convenor at the University of Wollongong) suggested (on The Conversation website) why “Kevin Rudd is popular and Tony Abbott isn’t,” “Rudd speaks to his audience. Abbott reads to them.” Makes you wonder why anybody bothers with polls.

 What will they make of it in China

Ian Young at ANU can’t take a trick.  As CMM reported yesterday, he has sent the new teaching model for the College of Arts and Social Sciences back to the drawing board, following uproar at the proposed size of classes.  Not enough, says National Tertiary Education Union chief Stephen Darwin, “the proposed review must also consider the actual reason which prompted it – the chronic underfunding of the College which meant it simply had no tutorial budget for 2014.” In particular Mr Darwin demands Vice Chancellor Young end, “his obsession with building a massive budget surplus.”  Gosh I wonder if there is anything else Professor Young could use the surplus for. What about, and it’s only stab in the dark you understand, a higher pay offer in the enterprise bargaining round now going nowhere.
CMM bets Professor Young can’t wait for his student recruiting trip to China next month, with ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and University of Canberra VC Stephen Parker, if only for a bit of peace. But he may not want to tell his hosts about bolshie education unionists, in case the Chinese decide they don’t want to send students to Canberra – lest they get ideas.  

 Selling the dismal science at UWS

The University of Western Sydney ran an advertisement yesterday promoting its economics expertise.  The copy was commendably clear stating that not only can one study for a career in economics at UWS, one should, because, “UWS has a long and proud history of teaching excellence in Economics (sic).”  This struck CMM as thrice strange. For a start, it appeared in the higher education pages of The Australian, which though universally admired, are not always the first source of course information consulted by prospective undergraduates. Second, UWS has dispensed with the services of some, perhaps most of its economists. Back in July UWS business dean Clive Smallman told CMM (when I was The Australian’s High Wired columnist) that the faculty had implemented a change plan last year “in response to falling demand for economics and business degree programs.” Some 24 staff were gone or going and the departure of a further six was being negotiated. The casualties included two very prominent economists. Steve Keen (who is gone), perhaps the best-known economist in the country thanks to his famous predictions that sooner or later the Australian property market will slump. John Lodewijks, (who goes on December 20), is a senior scholar with a long list of scholarly publications to his credit. And then there is the actual amount of economics UWS offers.  The university is preparing to teach a new Bachelor of Business and Commerce, which includes an economics major but does not, for example, include economic history, now back in favour as a foundation discipline. So why the hardish sell? CMM sought an interview with Professor Smallman, who did not respond.  But Professor Lodewijks did, in an understated way; telling CMM he was “very surprised” by the advertisement.

 Elasticities of time 

They know about more than economics at UWS – they’re dab hands at time travel too. A media release dated yesterday announced Liberal education spokesman Senator Brett Mason was to address a university forum at the Parramatta campus at 6pm on July 25. There was no information on where to park your Tardis if you want to travel back through time to attend.  The release was issued at least twice via social media, apparently without anybody noticing.

All in the timing

University of Tasmania Vice Chancellor Peter Rathjen has a plan to “boost” Launceston’s economy and “justify the university’s long-term presence in the region.” Professor Rathjen wants to establish an allied health and sport science precinct on the university’s Newnham campus.  But what would happen without it? The VC made no predictions but did mention, “the viability of small and regional university campuses around the country was threatened – a number of closures have already happened or are imminent.”  Everybody clear on that? The university is ready to stump up for the project and only needs $40 million from the feds. Gosh that’s only $8 million per Tasmanian electorate.

Mine disaster

Back in 2008 the diggers and dealers of the golden west were upset with the way Curtin University wanted to run Kalgoorlie’s Western Australian School of Mines. They still are. Back then graduates of the school and sundry fossickers did not like the way the university was offering some courses in Perth, instead of everything in Kalgoorlie. They are still upset, apparently because the split school approach stops students bonding with the industry. According to The West Australian WASM graduates held a protest Tuesday night. Dealing with dissent appears to move at a geological pace at Curtin.