Close enough is not enough

Minister Pyne does not have the deregulation numbers

Plus Warwick “Candide” Anderson explains why medical researchers are in the best of all possible labs

Headline of the week

Yes I know it’s Monday but it will not be easy to beat James Cook University’s “Bum breathing icon’s future in doubt.” Respect. Oh yes, it’s about a turtle.

Numbers don’t add up

There was speculation over the weekend and planted stories this morning that Education Minister Chris Pyne  has, or is close to having, the numbers to pass the deregulation legislation through the Senate. But with Glenn Lazarus and Jacqui Lambie still adamantly opposed he needs all six other crossbench senators. And last night some, including Senator Muir were still silent. There is nothing new on the table – maintenance of the existing HECS interest rate, loan moratoriums for new parents, aid for country campuses – are all well canvased ideas – and at the start of the Senate’s last sitting week they are not enough.

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IRU goes big on applied research

While everybody is focused on teaching and how to pay for it the Innovative Research Universities lobby has big and bigger news for the government’s applied research agenda, with a considered submission to the government’s commercial returns from research discussion paper. The big news is that rather than argue that government research funding should be should handed over to universities the IRU accepts that applied research is what the government wants to fund. It argues for incentive to encourage industry to reach out to universities and calls “for industry research centres that bring together a significant set of industry research users and researchers, including research students.” These should include both the government’s proposed industry growth centres but the IRU also urges a role for a “renewed” cooperative research centre programme. The CRC scheme is now being reviewed by David Miles and is not expected to survive in its present form or funding.

The bigger news is that the IRU is urging an outcomes equivalent of the ARC’s ERA measure of research quality, pointing to the Group of Eight – Australian Technology Network Excellence in Innovation for Australia (2012). The IRU warns that “a focus solely on the relative achievement of commercially driven income is not likely to alter status perceptions greatly,” within universities. However it proposes “the creation of a national research impact assessment to provide thorough base line evidence of the extensive benefits from research.” This is likely to appeal to Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane who in August suggested linking research funding to patents.

Another Darwin Cape Horn bound

Stephen Darwin ACT secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union is leaving Canberra, “for an extended period” in Chile. “Given I’m being awarded my PhD next month, I guess I will be testing how far a pre-deregulated ANU qualification will take me in South America, as well as attempting to dramatically improve the quality of my Spanish!,” he says. Our loss, (and I don’t often get to write this) Chile’s gain.

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 A new age of Kelty and Keating this is not

Whenever a deregulation policy proposal pops into public view the NTEU is there to whack-a-mole it. Friday’s effort thumped the idea of a regulating deregulated degree prices via well a, regulator. There are three variations of regulated deregulation, a price monitor, a cap on individual annual HELP borrowing and a consumer protection function undertaken by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission, or perhaps TEQSA. But the price monitor mole is the one that upset union president, Jeannie Rea.

“Australia already has a price regulator for university fees, it is called the Higher Education Support Act, which specifies the maximum fees universities are allowed to charge domestic students enrolled in undergraduate degrees. The best way to stop $100,000 degrees is to reject the government’s radical policy proposals for higher education including the deregulation of fees.”

In any case, Ms Rea adds, how could the regulator establish “what a ‘reasonable’ or ‘benchmark’ fee for a degree should be?” Quite. One response is leave it to students to decide but the NTEU is not a big backer of consumer judgement. I’m guessing she will respond with a firm and flat no to any other idea to moderate deregulation. Indeed, she can do nothing else. The union’s position is that there is nothing wrong with the present system that more public money will not fix and debating any change at all is a first step down the deregulation road. This will work for as long as the Senate rejects change, but if, and granted it is a very big if, enough senators start working on change to the existing higher and further education funding system the union will have dealt itself out of the discussion, at least while this government is in power. A new age of Keating and Kelty this is not.

Big chief scientist

The Commonwealth Science Council has met for the first time, with everybody agreeing that science is a thoroughly good thing and that there should be more of it, especially “translation of research into commercial outcomes, while supporting pure research.” I’m guessing there will be more of the former than the latter on the Council’s agenda, what with the prime minister setting the agenda, on advice from Industry Minister Macfarlane and only ‘input” from the health and education ministers and Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, who reports to Mr Macfarlane. Professor Chubb also chairs the National Science, Technology and Research officials committee, which includes the heads of the ARC and NHMRC plus secretaries of relevant Commonwealth departments and chief executives of scientific and research agencies. Professor Chubb has previously made the case for the government’s applied research preference.

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In this best of all possible labs

Warwick “Candide” Anderson explains why time are tough for young researchers and why there is not much to be done about it – other than a survey to assess who researchers would like to cut grant applications at expression of interest stage.

And that it is the good news. The National Health and Medical Research Council chief says that fewer than 20 per cent of project grant applications that will score five on the Council’s seven point scale will be funded. While funding has increase from $156m in 2001 to $689m in 2013 so has demand, with successful grants chewing up more money, due to growing annual spends and longer grant periods. Although the budget for last year and this are similar the number of grants awarded fell from 646 to 553.

And there isn’t, Professor Anderson explains, an easy solution. Cutting grants will not work, “it makes little sense to decide that a project needs a certain amount of money to achieve the aims and then to cut this by some arbitrary amount.” Nor will rationing grants, either by individuals or institutions; “restrictions on applications are unlikely to have significant effects on the number of applications if multiple chief investigator applicants used gamesmanship approaches to ‘share out’ CI places.” As for establishing quotas on institutions, this would be ‘nigh impossible’ for universities to impose on staff.

Perhaps the most that can be done, thus the survey, is culling applications at an expression of interest stage, but this will not reduce the work, or still long odds, of those that make the first cut.

But not to worry, “most researchers agree that the intellectual work in preparing a grant application has its own value. We ensure that we are on top of the published literature, think hard about the direction of our research, look into whether new methodology is now available, and talk with colleagues about our ideas and plans. This is the stuff of academia, world-wide.”

Best he can do.

What the doctor didn’t order

While Professor Anderson proposes researchers reconcile themselves to grantlessness the Innovative Research Universities (above) suggest a new approach to funding medical research. “Most discussion assumes the allocation of a much greater pool of funds rather than the potential to reset how such research is supported to achieve good outcomes for Australians.” The IRU proposes more money to turn “basic research findings into new products, procedures and processes that will have significant impact on patients and health service providers” and “support for the development stages of medical products.” Good-o but will the government be game to apply their applied research strategy to the medical research elite? I doubt it, the government has annoyed enough academics already.

Title deflation

The University of Western Australia is reducing ranks, abolishing its 2009 Americanisation of academic titles. Until then it used the common Australian titles of associate lecturer, lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor, professor and professorial fellow which were replaced with lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor and three levels of professor (not, I regret to add, god, call me god and god calls me god). According to then DVC Margaret Seares the move would retain and attract new staff, “aligning our titles with a significant part of the sector in the northern hemisphere will help us to be more attractive as an employer of world-class academics and give our existing staff greater international standing.” “There is no downside to these changes for our academic staff,” she said.

Except there was. The structure was out of synch with federally funded grant applications where eligibility is determined by title, meaning, as the university offers as example, “in some cases the track record of UWA Level Cs have been assessed against Level D standards,” the university now says.

“After considerable deliberation, we are committed to returning to traditional titles across the whole university, demonstrating to the Commonwealth funding bodies that we are committed to alignment with other Australian universities,” DVC Dawn Freshwater told the UWA community last week.

And serves management right for big noting, say some around UWA – that no other university followed its lead demonstrates it was a bad idea. But then again tying grant funding to specific titles with no room for local custom or assessment on actual weight for age output or potential seems a bit bureaucratic. Nor did the move upset all grant agencies. The Australian Research Council says it “is not aware” of any issue regarding UWA titles effecting either grants or Excellence in Research for Australia rankings.

Important ideas, twice terrible timing

Back in August the estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research published two major reports on post school education, which explained where we came from, where we are and set out alternatives to where we look like going. It is first-rate work, which warrants consideration and conferences but it was largely ignored at the time – coming out in the week Mr Pyne introduced his legislation into the Reps probably did not help. So the NCVER is having another go, re-releasing the  two   papers – ready for the make or break week for the minister’s deregulation legislation in the Senate. If there is a competency for political timing the NCVER needs to acquire it.

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Common currency

As soft power goes the Confucius Institutes are hard as. The Chinese government funds them at universities around the world to teach the language and present the country’s culture. As such they are a great deal for universities and an even better way for Beijing to project the party line on the values and aspirations of the Chinese people. Which is why they make academic organisations, notably in the US, nervous, set out in a new paper by Geoff Wade for the estimable Parliamentary Library. Less so here. In June I wrote to the responsible academics at the ten or so Australian universities, which host CI’s asking what they thought of a demand by the American Association of University Professors that universities remove CIs “which function as an arm of the Chinese state.” And none responded. Given the free trade deal I’m not expecting anything to change.

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