Chris Pyne off to an extraordinary start

No ordinary new minister could upset just about everybody so early in office

Pyne creates a problem

It didn’t take long for minister in exile Kim Carr to respond to Education Minister Chris Pyne’s enthusiastic ideas for higher education. For a start the senator suggested the Liberals were like the Bourbons, having learnt and remembered nothing. (Surely not, Chris Pyne strikes me more as your mildly reforming Orleanist monarch, rather than Charles X, the last full blown-Bourbon king of France.) And then Senator Carr tweeted “Liberals opening up a new front in the back to the future culture war – next target students and universities”. Don’t bet on it. Minister Pyne was playing to his cabinet colleagues yesterday  (and maybe Group of Eight VCs)– especially their idea that open access has eroded standards. That and the Liberal (not National) loathing of student unionism. Demand driven funding legislation was adopted with bipartisan support and Mr Pyne will have to phrase the case for any funding cut (which is what it will be) carefully. As to student service fees – he will need to appease the National Party somehow and support for campus life (they mean rugby) was in the party platform.  By lunchtime yesterday Mr Pyne was assuring everybody who would listen that the service fee was not a priority. And if the bloke was really a bourbon he would have mentioned a hike in HECs or the reintroduction of full fee domestic undergraduate places.

Mr Pyne’s (other) problem 

In any case, why is the minister worrying about university student numbers when there is another, immediate, issue on the agenda? According to the COAG Reform Council, on the present trend Australia will not meet the 2015 deadline for 90 per cent of 20-24 year olds to have completed Year 12 or equivalent. Starting university is tough without finishing school. As minister for all of education Mr Pyne’s is the plate this problem is on.

 Tumbril for TEQSA

Mr Pyne kept mentioning and most media kept ignoring his plan to do something about red tape yesterday and that, he made clear, means the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency. With the Lee Dow-Braithwaite review ready to roll out the friendless regulator may not be for the chop but certainly faces an amputation of some of its authority.  Given the review was commissioned by Labor’s Craig Emerson when universities minister, it will be hard for Senator Carr to call anyone a bourbon about implementing it.

The free-est of free kicks

With the National Tertiary Education Union wages push slowing and criticism growing of its election funding for the Greens the comrades enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to go on the attack yesterday. “While Minister Pyne claims that the coalition is concerned with quality in higher education, these announcements are a retrograde step which are likely to negatively impact upon both access and quality,” National President Jeannie Rea said. The National Union of Students also piled in as did the Regional University Network with president Professor Peter Lee pursuing Minister Pyne point by point. Business as usual really, with university lobbies condemning Canberra.

 Research sort of settled

When the administrative orders for the new government were announced last week Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities was quick to notice that while “creation and development of research infrastructure” was located in the industry portfolio, the Higher Education Support Act funds research block grants. The problem is now resolved with university research in Mr Pyne’s portfolio.  Um, except that hit the link on the Australian Research Council website and you end up at a makeshift page for the Department of Industry.

Centralising the sell

On which point, when will the new government sort out its chain of communications? Yes ministers are still hiring staff but there are all sorts of officials who could be updating websites and distribution lists in line with the new ministerial arrangements. As it stands the communication shambles that existed under the revolving ministerial arrangements of Labor’s last year remains.  Unless, of course this is less a stuff up than a strategy. Yesterday afternoon the AFR reported that media requests for interviews with ministers must go through the prime minister’s press office. Seems an excessive response to Mr Pyne’s over-enthusiastic interviews.

Restructure by the book 

The Australian National University is at it again with another restructure in the arts and humanities–although unlike the mess made of music in 2012, this time management is at pains to point out the plan comes after 16 months of consultation and, “will not involve any redundancies, budget cuts or changes to existing degree or graduate programs, including PhD supervision.” One new school is a merger of the existing schools of language studies and cultural inquiry another “expands” the School of Art. A new heritage and museum studies centre in the School of Archaeology is said to be “likely”. If there is a dark purpose here I can’t find it – the process and papers which are the foundation of the plan are comprehensive and the intent appears as stated to, “to make disciplines more visible and more attractive to students in order to increase load and grow programs.”

The ayes have it

But not everything is amiable at ANU. I hear that the Fair Work ballot on a proposal to take industrial action over management’s proposed wages and conditions offer was supported by 95 per cent of NTEU members voting. University management retorts that this means some 10 per cent of the university’s 400 staff voted to take industrial action.

Money isn’t the issue, yet 

Union supporters at the University of Melbourne were out in sufficient strength yesterday for the strike to be seen a success – and there is certainly no sign of any settlement with management as the argument over conditions drags on.  The formal negotiations on pay have not even seriously started, although 3 per cent by three years is now starting to look like the ceiling at universities across the country.

 UA staffs up 

Universities Australia is beefing up its policy resources with the appointment of economist Greg Evans, who will join the peak lobby group in November. Mr Evans comes from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It’s an appropriate appointment – Mr Evans is wise in the ways of the mandarinate and used to umbrella organisations – ACCI like UA represents many competing constituencies.

No rush to recruit

If anybody wonders why the United States is so slow in tapping the export education market news from the National Association for College Admission Counselling explains. “US colleges and universities wishing to use commissioned agents to recruit international students will now be permitted to do so.” The decision follows two years of debate!  So much for aggressive Americans obsessed with money.

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