Campus Morning Mail Wednesday: Tick the boxes

In breaking news

“A University of Canberra lecturer is helping his students focus in class by using a stick throwing game.” – UoC media release 

 Complete confidence, as long as the right boxes are ticked

The Canberra Times reports ANU VC Ian Young says he had no advance knowledge of the decision to expand the size of what once were called tutes in the College of Arts and Sciences, which he has now referred to a review. CMM wonders how this must make CASS associate dean Royston Gustavson feel as he appears to be carrying the can for the plan. Rather than Dr Gustavson, DVC Marnie Hughes-Warrington has carriage of the investigation. CMM asked the university whether the VC has confidence in Gustavson but was courteously advised that nothing was being said about anything, for the moment. But some of the questions Professor Hughes-Warrington wants answered indicate a certain caution when it comes to confidence.
For example; “I have asked the college executive to provide the panel with evidence to demonstrate: sound academic and corporate governance of the proposal, as demonstrated through documentary evidence showing consultation and approval through existing CASS governance structures, clear project management and clear and persuasive evidence base, consideration of risks, and consultation where needed with other parts of the university.” Gosh, I wonder what she will conclude if all these boxes are not ticked.
 ANU is a puzzle. While management mishandles (again-remember the 2012 music school mess?) cost-cutting on undergraduate teaching the university is going to a degree of trouble to engage with them. Students are invited to a forum on Friday to talk about administrative processes that drive them nuts. CMM wonders how many will turn up, but at least they were asked. This fits with the way the executive handled the recent review of costs. Staff suggestions were treated respectfully and replied to in a public brief. There were also open seminars to discuss how and where to make cuts. It was a well-planned and a model of conciliatory courtesy.

 Pundit of the day

Monash academic Andy Lake points to poor Australian performance in personality politics. “Globally, personality politics isn’t about personality: it’s about what happens when changing political systems, media businesses and public sensibilities collide. On this count, data suggests that Australia falls toward the bottom of the pack in the world of ‘celebrity politicians’. ” What was Mark Latham’s line about politics being show biz for plain people?

Battersby bridles

David Battersby is ever vigilant in defence of the University of Ballarat (soon to be Federation University, which the vice chancellor is confident people will not call FU). Yesterday afternoon in the city’s paper,  The Courier, Andrew Ramadge reported cuts to 15 of the dual sector institution’s TAFE courses (mainly in business and health) . At 9.30 last night Professor Battersby responded on Twitter, “cutting 15 courses from over 300 and most will (sic) low enrolments to have detrimental impact on UB? Not great reporting.”  Maybe not great but it was good reporting, a seemingly straight account of a story that matters to the community. There is a difference between news about UB and media releases. 

  Long memories

On Friday University of Sydney Dean of Law Professor Joellen Riley resigned from the National Tertiary Education Union via the Sydney Morning Herald. The union was not representing staff who are sick of strikes and want a pay deal done with management, she claimed.  Not all of them, at least according to another senior professor, anthropologist and union activist Linda Connor, who returned fire yesterday. It was standard stuff on the financial component of the now stalled enterprise negotiation; the university is rich and can afford a “fair pay” offer. But what really upset Professor Connor is the way management now wants “academic staff to teach more and research less.” This charge dates from the University’s 2011 attempt to variously retrench under-performing researchers and force others into teaching only roles. It was a bitter fight, which went on for months and was especially divisive in the Faculty of Arts, where some targeted staff had solid research records, including anthropology. “This is the University of Sydney with the oldest, and very esteemed anthropology department in the country – we should be a research leader, “ Professor Connor told CMM (wearing a different hat) back then.  In the end around 20 academics were offered voluntary redundancy after six months of strife and another 90 or so switched to teaching only, after six tumultuous months. Was it worth all the trouble? Too early to say given the fight obviously isn’t finished, at least as far as Professor Connor is concerned.

 A cheap dollar isn’t everything

But it certainly helps. Yesterday’s HSBC  report that a high $A hurts education exports will not surprise anybody in the industry. But what will cheer them up is the bank’s prediction that the $A will drop to US86c by fourth quarter 2014, down from a $1.09 peak last year. Not that the dollar drives everything, Australia’s comparative advantages in education standards, climate and quality of life go some way to compensate for the currency. Research by Steve Reiman from Hobsons Asia Pacific shows prospective student inquiries grew, despite an ever-dearer dollar for five quarters in 2011-2012. And visa and work rights settings that encourage students also assist.

 UNSW treading carefully

CMM has no clue about claims concerning research at the University of New South Wales on a skin cancer drug made on the Monday night edition of ABC TV’s 7.30 Report. However there is no doubting the sense of the university’s textbook response. Senior management participated in the program, and could point to process dealing with concerns raised.  The university also issued statements calmly setting out what UNSW has done to date and addressing allegations it claims it first heard about in the program. Most important, the university bit the bullet, stating clinical trials were on hold but admitting no fault, “the decision was made to err on the side of caution until concerns regarding some of the science … have been resolved.”
This is entirely wise. A university’s research reputation is too big a part of its brand equity to risk. And inquiries into research performance that do not exhaustively address allegations can spin out of control. A decade back then UNSW Vice Chancellor Rory Hume ended up resigning over his response to an inquiry into research misconduct. There are plenty of people at UNSW who remember this and never want a repeat.

Wish list of the week

The National Union of Students asked members for their top five election issues, which are: “funding for high quality education, secure jobs, fair workplaces, humane treatment of asylum seekers, affordable housing and marriage equality.” Hard to argue with any of them, harder still to see any occurring.

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