Christopher’s choice: defeat or retreat

Plus Swinburne’s name up in star light

Take hat, extract rabbit

“As you would expect there is a wide range of opinion on higher education deregulation in Australian universities – even amongst vice chancellors”, Kim Carr said yesterday. A subtle switch from the Labor position, that only the government really, truly supports fee deregulation but one Senator Carr could afford to offer yesterday, with the prospect of Education Minister Chris Pyne facing defeat or retreat. Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon has long made it known that he wanted an inquiry into the demand driven system  before he could consider voting for deregulation and when he was joined yesterday by Senator Ricky Muir that was it – with two more declared nays in the SenateMr Pyne definitely does not have the numbers  to pass his MkII package.  And with that out of the way Senator Xenophon laid out what he wanted to Alexandra Kirk on ABC Radio’s PM programme, “a comprehensive root and branch review, of the like we haven’t seen since the Murray Review in 1957 done for the Menzies government. It has to be a review with terms of reference and panel members that have bipartisan, cross-party support, because otherwise, this will just be a political football.” And he wants it to take up to 18 months, plus another year to push it through parliament. In return Senator Xenophon says he could support a 15 per cent capped fee increase to compensate universities for funding cuts, but only as an interim measure while the review is underway.

So that looks like that for Mr Pyne‘s plan. A second loss in the Senate next month would surely put an end to fee deregulation (but not an increase in student fees) for years to come – what minister would take on such a huge challenge with so little chance of success? As to delaying everything for three years for an inquiry, it is hard to imagine one coming up with anything new. From Bradley to Lomax-Smith and on to Kemp & Norton (plus others) a great many smart people have forensically examined higher education participation and costs in the last few years. And in the unlikely case of a report calling for fee deregulation of the kind that looks like being knocked off now Mr Pyne, or whoever was minister in a second term of the Abbott Government (if such there is), would have to put the armour back-on and have the same fights all over. Last night Senator Xenophon‘s offer was looking less like a compromise than a coup de grace.

If the endlessly energetic minister still has policy rabbits to pull out of his hat he needs to do it soon. Late last night there was speculation the government could abandon its proposed increase to student contributions to the cost of their place if that is the price of the Senate passing deregulation. It would be a major commitment to long-term policy over immediate budget repair if it did. But I wonder what the treasurer thinks of that and how Mr Pyne would deal with the obvious response from sceptical senators, that student fee increases would only be delayed a year or two.

ANU tap into

“Slick” as synonym for “suspicious”

When commenting on ATAR outcomes yesterday Victorian training minister Steve Herbert took the opportunity to urge people who may not have made it into their course of choice to talk to universities and TAFE but avoid offers from “slick marketers” promoting courses. This is something of a thing with Mr Herbert. Before the election he warned of “opportunistic providers” “getting away with delivering tick-and-flick training and providing worthless qualifications.” The then opposition spokesman also promised a VET funding review (CMM November 27). With a Labor and Greens sponsored Senate inquiry into private training providers on the agenda the industry is set for a shellacking from opponents of for-profit voced keen to criticise operators who gamed the previous Victorian system to score course subsidies.

Reporting red-hot rorts

The reputation damage done by scruple-light private operators is why Canberra is keen to be seen caning carpetbaggers, lest they taint all for-profits and cruel the government’s strategy of allowing providers to self-regulate. When Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane had charge of training he promised action against dodgy providers and obviously passed his script to the new minister, Simon Birmingham. The senator was so keen to let us know that he was on the case that he issued a release on New Year’s morning denouncing evil-doers wherever they are in voced. The minister was at it again yesterday, “unfortunately we have seen examples of students being signed up for courses they don’t need, or being offered incentives such as cash or a ‘free’ laptop, without being told of the thousands of dollars in loans they will need to repay,” Senator Birmingham said in announcing a national training complaints hotline. Somehow I’m guessing this will not be enough to placate Mr Herbert or Labor and Greens senators.

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“TAFE,” its Queensland for training

According to Queensland Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk, “the LNP sees it as yet another asset to sell off. Labor views TAFE as a provider of well-trained workers. I’m guessing she thinks TAFE as a synonym for VET.

Here’s hoping

Few know the policy twists and political turns of research and development policy better than Cooperative Research Centre Association head Tony Peacock so his cautious take on the year to come is worth noting by people with projects up for funding. Dr Peacock emphasises ambiguity ahead, suggesting that while the government is committed to increasing industry-linked research how it will happen “is still a bit opaque.” While details on the $400m research growth centres (mining, oil and gas, medical, food and advanced manufacturing) programme is expected soon Dr Peacock suggests that the government may not respond to the CRC Review until the budget. He also hopes for clarity on the future of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme, only funded for this financial year. But the big question is what the government will do to the Higher Education Block Grant Scheme to increase incentives for collaboration between universities and industry. “Given the size of the block grant scheme and its impact on how university-based researchers go about their business, this is huge” Dr Peacock says.

Glass half full

From Canada the estimable Alex Usher reports university applications in Ontario are down 2 per cent, along the same lines as here. But according to the Council of Ontario Universities despite demographic decline in the school leaver population, applications (are) still “pouring in.” It’s just a smaller pour. Be it snowing or sunny spin always sounds the same.

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Baker’s big achievement

Macquarie University medical scientist Mark Baker is the new world president of the Human Proetome Organisation. As one of his admirers tells me this is very big news indeed for a new but essential discipline – one I fear I previously had not heard of. Proetomics is the study of the structure and function of proteins, developing out of the Human Genome Project. Professor Baker is a long-standing and very senior member of the proetomeics research community, long involved in its global association and the author of 120 peer-reviewed publications.

Swinburne sounds bright

When Ian ‘the gent’ Young was vice chancellor at Swinburne he spent up big on astronomy. It’s an investment that has paid off, putting the university’s name up in (sorry) lights for really serious science. As occurred yesterday, with news that PhD student Emily Petroff, using the CSIRO Parkes telescope had identified in real time a millisecond of radio flash waves originating 5.5bn light years away. Whether this is in our galaxy, as some suggest, or not, it is still a bit of a step from here and while nobody knows the cause of the waves, this is pure – the purest – research. The sort of research which some among the Group of Eight, which Professor Young now chairs, have argued in the past is best left to its members. Granted the project Ms Petroff works in is run by an ARC supported consortium that includes five Group of Eight members, one of which is Professor Young‘s ANU – but the find was made by a Swinburne student. The irony, it seems, is in our stars.

Just good friends

The National Tertiary Education Union is upset that I referred to a union-Greens alliance yesterday. It has, the union states ‘no formal relationship’ with the political party. Good-oh, but the NTEU shares a common objective in defeating the Pyne package and last election ran its own campaign in support of Greens candidates.  As Greens senator Peter Whish Wison said in 2013, “the Greens are proud to support and be supported by the NTEU at this election.” But it’s not an alliance.

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