Count down to deregulation destruction

Plus the five winners of the week

Hello Professor Strangelove

Opponents of deregulation are optimistic at week’s end, arguing they have the Senate numbers to defeat the Pyne package. And wouldn’t that be a win! Suggestions the government would use higher education as a double dissolution trigger are less curious than comical – there is plenty of polling showing popular opposition to deregulated student fees. But there is no doubt that if the feds can’t increase course fees they will cut university funding. Which, if universities are as under-funded as they claim would amount to mutually assured destruction for the entire sector.

Yesterday Labor’s Kim Carr was talking up the possibility of the government accepting defeat, withdrawing the bill and starting again. As if – knocking off one package would guarantee opponents of reform would have a go at a second and you have to wonder if the minister would give them the chance. But that is more likely than a big increase in higher education funding in coming budgets. This is a classic cold war standoff without winners. As QUT’s Peter Coaldrake told The Australian’s Jamie Walker back in August, cuts without deregulation is “the thermonuclear option”. The Senate crossbench must wonder if both sides are MAD.

Ploy or plea

It looked like Education Minister Chris Pyne would sit in silence for all of Question Time yesterday, until 50 minutes in when Jane Prentice (Liberal-Queensland) asked “the erudite minister” (queue cross-chamber amusement) what would happen if his reforms did not pass. The unusually subdued minister was not all apocalyptic but he specified what would go or not get up if his reforms are voted out of the Senate. The 80 000 extra sub degree places will not exist, the loan fee paid by students at private providers will continue, the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme will go as will Future Fellowships and jobs in programs, including the Australian Synchrotron. And he called on Labor to help stop all this happening by negotiating. Which, on the basis of everything Kim Carr and Bill Shorten have said is not going to happen. It could be a ploy to make Labor look isolated on reform or it could have been a desperate plea. Whichever, it looks like ten minutes to midnight on the reform clock.

Hooray for hearsay

Labor education spokesman Kim Carr, ABC radio yesterday:a number of vice-chancellors have indicated to me – and my sources are reasonably good in the higher education system … the minister thinks that he’s just talking to a few trusted vice-chancellors. The nature of the university system in this country is that people talk to each other.” I wonder who is betraying whose confidences.

Winners of the week

What a week for change agents. University of Melbourne VC Glyn Davis saw his campus confirmed in the Times Higher Education rankings as best in country and 33rd in the world. Given its consistent number one rating for years now Professor Davis’s Tuesday announcement that Uni Melbourne will host next year’s THE conference looks like a safe bet. Warren Bebbington also did well, with his University of Adelaide, rocketing up THE rankings – from 204 last year to 164 yesterday. The vice chancellor also delivered a cracker of a speech on Monday, making the case that whatever happens to the Pyne package the higher education paradigm has changed – that costs, content, competition all mean universities have no choice to change. Swinburne University VC Linda Kristjanson stood above the special pleading over Pyne – by drilling down into the deregulation detail and making a case for putting a ceiling student loans. Professor Kristjanson’s proposal demonstrates that those who argue for ever-more consultation are talking through their mortarboards – it does not take years to come up with constructive alternatives. There is general agreement that some universities would support and most would wear a cap on student borrowings. Mike Gallagher from the Group of Eight had a week to remember as well, on-form with a challenging speech arguing that we are at the end of the Whitlamite era of higher education policy thinking. Love or lament the argument, he made a strong case. As did NSW Chief Scientist Mary O’Kane, who delivered her report on coal seam gas in the state. It was, as usual, scrupulously researched and beautifully balanced – with people on all sides of the debate quoting it approvingly. The only way to assess her evidence is to read it for yourself, which is probably what she intended. Want to know why we need more scientists in public policy? Professor O’Kane is why.

Oh Say can you see?

Jean Baptiste Say held thata product is no sooner created than it, from that instant, affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value,” which is proved by an online masters of technology entrepreneurship from the University of Maryland – a snip at US$20 000. But looking at the content I suspect anybody interested could probably assemble their own equivalent programme via MOOCs for a lot less, or free. Which raises a question for all entrepreneurs- does a brand-name testamur support that sort of price?

Winners are (modest) grinners

THE winners were out early but quietly yesterday announcing Times Higher rating success. The University of Adelaide was first, celebrating a 40 place rise, although VC Warren Bebbington provided a modesty alert, “all ranking tables still have their shortcomings as consumer advice, and I have often said we need better tools to help students choose a university but they are widely read abroad, and cannot be ignored.” Fred Hilmer also counselled caution in interpreting another good run for the University of New South Wales, “obviously it is pleasing to see such a dramatic improvement. But this seems to be the most unstable of the international rankings. Universities alter very gradually over time – it’s difficult to explain these massive changes.” Ye Gods, does the retiring (in more sense than one) VC have some dreadful projections for next year’s performance that he knows his successor will have to explain? The University of Queensland did not beat-up a steady result, simply stating UoQ “holds firm.” Michael Spence was more exuberant about the outcome for the University of Sydney, however promising “to support the brilliant researchers and students of today and tomorrow” is hardly triumphalism. But that is about as ebullient as he gets in public. Even so he is a ratings rager when compared to Monash VC Margaret Gardner who said another rise up the rankings was “well deserved.” And compared to ANU’s Ian ‘the gent’ Young who said being 45th in the world was “pleasing,” “although rankings can be an imperfect science.” Paul Johnson from the University of Western Australia, which moved up 11 places to 157 was also on-song. “We continue to work hard to position the university for success in a challenging time of change.” As for Glyn Davis, VC of the University of Melbourne, number one in Australia for five straight years and 33rd in the world, he must have consulted his copy of Humphrey Appleby’s Book of Announcements, “it is pleasing to note that generally speaking Melbourne continues to trend upwards … .” Talk about understated achievers. People who worry about vulgar promotion under deregulation have nothing to fear from this lot.

One step forward one step back

California Governor Gerry Brown has signed an act requiring state funded medical research to be publicly available within a year of publication. Good oh-says the open access movement, Not so much says anybody who reads Chapter 2.5 (commencing with Section 13989) of Part 4.5, Division 3,Title 2 of the California Government Code,1389.6 (2) (c) “grantees are authorised to use grant money for publication costs, including fees charged by a publisher for colour and page charges, or fees for digital distribution.” Looks like rolled gold open access to me, which allows publishers to recoup some/all of the income they lose from being forced to stop charging access fees.

Taking the long way

Thanks to Education Department Secretary Lisa Paul for the news that we are in “walk to school month,” it must be to encourage kids to reject shortcuts.

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