Here comes the cavalry: Group of Eight rides against regulation

Plus the Uni of Wollongong is irate at its own

Good questions

Group of Eight Executive Director Mike Gallagher spoke recently at a conference of Thailand’s nine government-designated national research universities, addressing issues including “why does the Go8 exist?” (Good question cynics suggest). Given the Thai’s have official designation as elite universities I’m guessing Mr Gallagher probably had questions for them, like how did they get the big government tick.

Here comes the cavalry

Chris “Custer” Pyne has been out on his own for weeks, fending off attacks on his plan to increase student fees and allow universities to slug them again. After initially saddling up in support some VCs retired to the rear as they realised how much debt graduates could have to take on. But now the Group of Eight elite heavy cavalry are on the field. There is a position statement on fee deregulation in its July newsletter, which argues that unspecified modelling is based on course costs being very high and graduate incomes being unusually low. “Underestimates of graduate earnings are more than just a methodological issue. There seems to be a very limited understanding of the long-term returns to higher education.  This fuels concerns about fees that may be ‘too high’ or ‘unfair’, the Eight argue.

The Go8 also promise position papers during July on private providers, graduate salaries, quality assurance and research funding – all issues fundamental to the deregulation debate. And to explain it all Go8 chair and ANU VC Ian Young, who has led the deregulation charge from the start, will speak at the National Press Club on July 30.

Enlisting for unemployment

Want to know why youth unemployment is going to get worse? Here’s why – according to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, “in 2013, 40, 000 fewer young people enrolled in training courses than in 2012″. The convenient excuse is that they are all enrolling at university but those that aren’t are competing for unskilled work, when they are seeking jobs at all.

Chris Pyne’s  progress

You can’t fault the Education Minister for energy. He started a regional tour on Tuesday at CQU in Mackay before going to James Cook in Townsville. On Wednesday he began at Southern Cross U in Lismore before visiting the Aboriginal Medical Service in Casino and nicking down to Dubbo to talk to Charles Sturt University’s dental school and the University of Sydney’s school of rural medicine. Yesterday he was first at Charles Sturt in Wagga followed by visits to Sunraysia TAFE and La Trobe University’s Mildura Campus – where he met with VC John Dewar. (I bet they exchanged more than pleasantries – Professor Dewar chairs the minister’s working party on deregulating student fees). It was Mr Pyne thought, a good visit “really powerful education forum in Mildura,” he tweeted last night. But as for protesting La Trobe students there, not so much

Content creators

The University of Adelaide signed up with EdX the other week and has now decided that it better get a wriggle on if it is to have some MOOCS ready to go in 2015. UoA is using Rosalind de Sailly to recruit a production team (manager plus three designers) for an August start.

What’s wrong in Wollongong

On Monday CMM wondered whether Paul Wellings, Vice Chancellor of the University of Wollongong would get into a blue with elected member of the university council Michael Zelinsky and the influential local paper the Illawarra Mercury. He hasn’t but his office has. The back-story is that Professor Wellings supported the Pyne package in an Australian Financial Review oped, which Mr Zelisnky criticised in the Mercury. A university spokesperson then returned fire “Mr Michael Zelinsky has obligations to the University Council and that as a Council member he is not in a position to speak for other Council members as per the University of Wollongong Act and the Council Code of Conduct. He has been reminded of this by email via the Council Secretariat.”

This was not especially smart. Mr Zelinsky is UoW gentry, one of seven family members who are UoW graduates – including his father Chief Defence Scientist and sometime university council member Alex Zelinsky. The Mercury is no fan of the Abbot Government, has published other critics of university deregulation, and, what a surprise, is running strong on the story.

A university spokesperson told me yesterday that Professor Wellings has not spoken or written to Mr Zelinsky and that the VC was flat out and off overseas today. The Chancellor is also out of the country. But late yesterday the VC issued a statement, assuring everybody that the “key features” of the income contingent loan system would stay in place if Mr Pyne’s legislation past, that “despite the suggestions of some commentators, students and their families will not be required to raise funds to go to university and local students will not be frozen out of the system.”

Good-oh, but I doubt it will shut critics up, who will now focus on why the UoW administration tried shut down debate.

Hard to do the numbers

The feds have announced $16m in competitive grants from the Australian Maths and Science Partnership Program “aimed at improving student engagement in maths and science courses at university and schools.” Some 15 grants went to 10 universities, with RMIT and the University of Sydney winning three each and the University of Tasmania two. Want to learn more? That’s a bit difficult, the Department of Education lists the winners but provides no detail.

Determined Dewar

While La Trobe staff consult about how many heads will roll in the restructure Vice Chancellor John Dewar is appointing people to run the reconfigured academic organisations. The university announced yesterday that Graham Schaffer will be the inaugural PVC in charge of the new College of Science, Health and Engineering from day one, October 1. Anthony McGrew arrives in January to lead the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce.

Professor Schaffer was the dean of engineering at University of Queensland, where he retains a chair, from 2009 until last year. Professor McGrew is dean of arts and social sciences at Strathclyde University in Glasgow and his experience there ensures he will fit right in as La Trobe staff struggle with cuts – Strathclyde axed a range of humanities and social science programs in 2011.

Booming big-time

International student numbers are up. There were 405,000 full fee payers  in May, up 10 per cent on the same month in 2013 and twice the decadal average. Year to date commencements (170 000) were also up an impressive 18 per cent on the 10 year figure.

Optimists all

University of Adelaide Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington is scheduled to speak on “Deregulation and the Fate of Australian Universities” at a conference on September 30. I suppose he can always turn it into a eulogy if deregulation goes Pyne-shaped (sorry) in the Senate. He is not unique in his optimism. The ever-astute Vicki Thomson from the Australian Technology Network, the acute Conor King from Innovative Research Universities and erudite Andrew Norton are also speaking. There are also opponents of Mr. Pyne’s plan on the roster, including University of Canberra VC Stephen Parker, the only VC who could turn a funding strategy into a rock opera. Sounds like a lot more fun than the usual conference agree-a-thon.

Polyps a-plenty

Carefully spoken Australian Research Council chief Chief Aidan Byrne came close to effusive optimism (well as close as he goes) yesterday in launching the ARC Centre for Integrated Coral Reef Studies. Administered by James Cook University, the new centre builds on the work of its predecessor the ARC Centre for Coral Reef Studies, established in 2005. “The livelihoods of 300 million people depend on reefs and the Centre’s key attribute is its capacity to bring together different perspectives on their problems,” he said. Some $28m funding for seven years will help as well. The centre is a partnership of four Australian universities plus three other research agencies as well as Stanford University, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Worldfish Centre.

Focusing on footy

“Melbourne University Soccer Club has ruled out bidding for a place in the inaugural Women’s National Premier League,” Tim Mitchell reports in the Melbourne Leader. Could that be because the university is focusing on taking over The Demons in the AFL? (CMM Wednesday)

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