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Election disaster for education

plus WA corruption commission’s serious misconduct finding against Murdoch ex VC

UNSW lays down the law on ATARs

and Finkel’s strategy to support super-hero science teachers

MOOC of the morning

The MOOC to mention this morning is the University of Queensland’s IELTS Academic Test Preparation, which includes 80 hours of practise material for people who need to get their English up to speed. For the MOOC as service this is hard to beat, with 200 000 users in less than 12 months. Big for sure but not that big by UoQ standards. CMM hears the university’s suite of MOOCs picked up its millionth student yesterday.

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Waste of time to come

And the loser is education. Whoever the new ministers for science, training and higher education are they will not be busy. Circumstances in the Senate ensure only a minister whose crazy-courage is of Pyne-esque proportions would attempt anything that will upset anybody in the new parliament. With the exception of the irrepressible Kim Carr, neither side ran hard on post-school education in the campaign. No one will want to now. There are always losers in policy change and the aggrieved will find sufficient sympathetic senators to block legislation. The new ministers are going to make a lot of speeches, opening buildings, announcing awards, but they are not actually going to say, let alone do, anything.

UNSW lays down the law on entry scores

New UNSW law dean George Williams has announced a two-hour admission test for undergraduate entry to his faculty, from 2017. Developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research it will be used in conjunction with ATARs, or other entry scores. According to Professor Williams, the law admission test will “test a broader range of skills such as critical thinking and analysis, and will offer a genuine opportunity to people from lower socio-economic and diverse backgrounds who really want to study law.”

The LAT will work on a sliding scale so that applicants with a high ATAR will need to do less well it and the reverse. It is intended to allow students to showcase their communication and analytical skills but does not require knowledge of the law.

They’re ambivalent about the ATAR at UNSW. Back in January then DVC Academic Iain Martin was calling for a debate about what sort of measure of academic potential could be fairer than the ATAR. Then last month his replacement, DVC Education Merlin Crossley, announced a model to empower the ATAR by making its UNSW use transparent (CMM June 9).

But this brilliant move makes the argument is irrelevant. The ATAR remains intact but no longer exclusive. And establishing an independent entry exam establishes the exclusivity of law at UNSW.

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Higgott’s misconduct at Murdoch

The WA Corruption and Crime Commission has “formed an opinion” of serious misconduct in one case and a further two of misconduct in its  report on actions of Richard Higgott when vice chancellor of Murdoch University.

The serious misconduct finding relates to Professor Higgott’s hiring Ann Capling as DVC Education. One of the lesser findings is that he breached policy “by downloading adult material and subsequent attempts to delete it.”

Nor does the university administration and governing senate emerge from the report unscathed. The CCC point to failures of process in the university and slams the governing body.

“The relationship between a senate, usually represented by the chancellor and a vice-chancellor, must be one of trust, openness and honesty. This account is how Professor Higgott, when vice chancellor, did not live up to that trust. He seriously breached Murdoch’s policies. This report illustrates what happens when a vice-chancellor does not act with probity and a senate fails to effectively articulate the parameters within which a vice chancellor should act,” the CCC states.

The report focuses on how Higgott hired Professor Capling, stating that he failed to declare “a close personal relationship of many years standing” as he sought to ensure she became his DVC Education.

“To disguise his purpose he deceived the selection panel and the senate to believe that he was not in a close personal relationship with Professor Capling and was at arm’s length. He gave her substantial assistance not given to any other applicant. He perverted the selection process. … His involvement as vice-chancellor and as chair of the selection panel in the appointment of Professor Capling was motivated by an improper purpose. His actions and misleading statements corrupted the selection process.”

The CCC also found misconduct in the hiring and departure of a former UK colleague Jonathan Baldwin in which Professor Higgott “seriously misled the chancellor” (David Flanagan). Mr Baldwin’s competence was not in question but he left after his relations with colleagues, including Professor Capling, collapsed. Mr Higgott did not explain this to the chancellor and used “family reasons” to explain Mr Baldwin’s departure. Professor Higgott also allowed an outside inquiry commissioned by the university to be misled on the reasons Baldwin left. The commission considers this unconscionable; “in each instance (Higgott) did not perform his duties honestly and his actions were a breach of the trust placed in him. These two matters would constitute a disciplinary offence providing reasonable grounds for termination.’

And then there is the porn; the CCC states there is nothing unlawful about what he consumed, but he consumed it on a work computer in and out of hours and tried to scrub files when told to return the machine. It was, the commission suggests a sackable offence.

The commission mentions other matters, use of credit cards, destruction of documents that are outside the scope of its report. But there is enough in it to demonstrate what happens when process is ignored. As the CCC assesses the Capling and Baldwin matters they; “illustrate with clarity the issues that arise when a transparent process is rendered opaque and when lies are told.” The irony is, as the National Tertiary Education Union’s, Gabe Gooding puts it, “Professor Higgott’s tenure as vice chancellor was one marked by a disregard for the fair treatment of many staff and, ironically, the ruthless pursuit by some senior management of staff for what were relatively minor breaches of the university’s code of conduct.”

For the Murdoch community the Higgott era was a disaster, rendering the university divided, disorganised, despairing and none of it need have happened.

Monday June 27

Later the start the better

The National Library of Australia is in the market for a new director general. Incumbent Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, in the job since 2011, was reappointed for a year in February. Applicants will be wondering whether she will have bedded down the much protested budget cuts when she leaves.

Sydney scheme to link up

The University of Sydney is stumping up 20 awards of up to $25 000 per annum in seed funding for staff applying for ARC Linkage grants and the new CRC Projects, (industry led operations designed to solve specific problems). The programme is intended to improve the university’s applied research success rate, which is now around 16 Linkage grants per 35-40 annual applications. “As government increases its focus on university partnerships with industry, so does the university,” says commercial development director Andrew Tindell.

UofS is not a linkage lion, winning 361 grants over 15 years. This is way behind the University of New South Wales (539), the University of Melbourne (528), the University of Queensland (519) and Monash (381). However Uni Sydney is ahead of the three smaller Group of Eight members, ANU (258), UWA (255) and Adelaide (222). Sydney is also well clear of the leading Australian Technology Network university, QUT, which has won 264 Linkage grants since 2001. But the gap is narrowing, QUT has picked up 79 grants since 2011 compared to UniSyd’s 105.

Preparing for plague

CMM was just about over Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film about a pandemic Contagion when the National Health and Medical Research Council announced $5m for the Centre of Research Excellence in Infectious Disease Emergency Response Research. “History tells us that new infectious diseases will continue to emerge but that we cannot predict when, where or how … this significant NHMRC grant is to establish national capability to respond rapidly when such threats do emerge by undertaking the research needed to inform the public health response”, chair Anne Kelso says. CMM would love to learn more but Professor Kelso’s office has turned down my every request for an interview as if I have, well plague.

More on Massy

Judging from the response to a CMM item there’s a bunch of interest in Bill Massy’s new book Reengineering the university (CMM June 309). So Massy’s Australian associate the Pilbara Group has ten copies to give away, via this link. First in best-read.

Super science heroes

If Chief Scientist Alan Finkel ever gets sick of policy he could go into politics because he has a talent to inspire. His speech to the Australian Science Teachers National Conference today is a cracker, advocating for his audience and explaining how he can help.

Shamelessly flattery does not hurt either. He presents science teachers as superheroes with powers to change the world through education. Sadly, he says, qualified science teachers, like other superheroes are rare, but he’s there to help them, setting out the terms of a three year strategy for his office.

First, he wants an “aspirational awards maths and science programme for schools, “that commit to getting better, regardless of the position from which they start.” Planning this is already underway.

Second he wants a “trip advisor portal” for teachers taking on kids on learning journeys. “A powerful online repository that is easy to access, easy to search – in fine-grain detail – and easy to post reviews.” And he wants teachers to work with him in implementing both. “I promise my utmost resolve for the next three years. I welcome your companionship and advice,” because “superheroes without a challenge are just people running around in capes.”

Killer cover price

Lawrie Zion and a bunch of other academics (at La Trobe, Swinburne, UniSyd and UniCanberra) who once were hacks  report tough times for people retrenched from journalism jobs between 2012-14. While 60 per cent of them continued in journalism of some sort many suffered “precarity (no less) of work” with “significant” income loss “across the board.” How fortunate for those who became academics. Reporters interested in their research can read it for just $108, which is what the journal publisher charges for Zion’s article.

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