Deregulation becoming a political platypus

Why the Group of Eight abandoned the Pyne plan

and what Barney Glover wants to do about it

Go8 agenda

“Hope this does not mean the Go8 are now going to be pushing capped student numbers and wanting ALL research funds,” UCQ VC Scott Bowman yesterday on what the Group of Eight wants now. You mean they don’t get all of everything already?

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Sticking with the duck not the platypus

The Group of Eight has called for a review in place of continued attempts to pass a compromised package through the Senate. “As Mark Twain put it, a platypus is a duck designed by a committee and what we were seeing was starting to look like a caricature of the original Pyne proposal,” University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington said last night. He added that the Go8 is also alarmed that the need to adequately fund research was getting lost among the plethora of proposals (see Peter Hoj’s views, below). So what now? Professor Bebbington suggested that as a majority of the cross-bench is not for changing, higher education reform must be taken to the next election. “It is always said that there are no votes in higher education, that universities can’t get traction but you can’t say that about the last year. Having higher education as an election issue will be a refreshing change and a good thing.”

Cheerful CRCs

Fears that the Miles review of the Cooperative Research Centre programme would call for substantial cuts appear to have disappeared. According to CRC Association chief Tony Peacock, “my best guess is that the minister will want to see changes to the guidelines and that industry leadership is likely to be further emphasised”. He urged prospective bidders for the next funding round to be ready to roll if deadlines are tight.

Game over

The nuance of the Group of Eight message on deregulation was rather lost in media coverage yesterday. While the Eight support Minister Pyne’s deregulation package they oppose add-ons being floated in the hope of securing Senate passage. The Eight is unhappy at the idea of a clawback on deregulated fees above a specified ceiling, as per the Chapman-Phillips plans and its members are worried that the possibility of more research funding, dear to their hearts, is disappearing under the weight of special pleading (as opposed to tbeir recommendations in the national interest). So what Go8 VCs want is less the review they are calling for as a shift in the discussion back to issues they can control. While it is clear the Eight are not recanting deregulation the message yesterday was not clear enough to stop stories announcing Mr Pyne’s strongest supporters had abandoned him – which is what his opponents immediately seized on yesterday. “Like rats deserting a sinking ship, the Group of Eight universities have withdrawn their once overwhelming support for university deregulation, depriving Minister Pyne of his greatest cheerleaders,” the National Tertiary Education Union announced, in its usual understated way, yesterday.

Whatever the policy intent, this is the political reality that cross bench senators will see. With university groups calling for a review the only united policy position is that broadly shared by Labor and the National Tertiary Education Union, which reject a market in undergraduate education and advocates joint planning by universities and government. This is a big defeat for deregulation. With the left popular front presenting the only unified position to the Senate there is a very real possibility that retreat on deregulation will turn into a rout. Last week a close student of Group of Eight thinking suggested the mind-set that has led to yesterday’s surrender; telling CMM that there were too many interests in play for the Pyne package to get up and Universities Australia would not be able to keep all its members in the deregulation tent. But who knew the Eight would break ranks.

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Hoj calls for research funding focus in new debate

University of Queensland VC Peter Hoj yesterday made a strong case for a new deregulation debate that distinguishes between funding for teaching and research. “The public good of research should be paid for by the whole country not students. We cannot build a national research effort on increases (in fees) from students. It is wrong,” he told CMM last night. Professor Hoj added that students at elite universities in particular were disproportionately cross-subsiding research.

Treating teaching and research separately would have been a better basis for the deregulation package rejected by the Senate and should be looked at by any review now, he added. “We don’t have a uniform sector but it is rewarded in a uniform way, this is the problem. We need to reward each institution for what it actually does.”

According to Professor Hoj, the Group of Eight has spoken out because it feared the only way the existing deregulation proposals can now pass the Senate is in such a compromised state “that we would be back in a few years.”

“The Group of Eight kept quiet because it was important for universities to have a coherent position but I observed that disciplined stance starting to fall away and how long do you sit on the sidelines and see vacant space filled by others without contributing?

As to what happens now he acknowledges “there is no system-wide position ” and that “it will take quite an effort to rebuild a unified stand.”

Doesn’t look a day over 180

Griffith VC Ian O’Connor shares with staff: ”over the last few weeks many people have directly or indirectly inquired about my age. Some have politely commented that I look ok for my age. Let me simply state that media reports of my age have been greatly exaggerated.” Griffith people who weren’t interested in how old the boss is before are now.

Glover intervenes

University of Western Sydney VC Barney Glover held the line last night, urging all stakeholders, the Group of Eight included, to stay at the table and negotiate. “It is critical that government and the sector work together to consider the full range of proposals with regard to the sustainable funding of Australian universities,” he said. Professor Glover also urged Labor to commit to demand driven funding. “It is entirely reasonable that political agreement on these issues can be achieved. From that common ground the imperative of sustainable funding can be addressed, without any need for costly and unnecessary reviews, nor intransigent debate, he added. This is an immensely significant move, not just because the astute Professor Glover can obviously see the opportunity for major change disappearing. He becomes president of Universities Australia on May 19.

Feds plan  to triple education exports by 202o

The Federal Government estimates the value of international education could triple to $30bn by the end of the decade and this morning will release a strategy for a whole of government of approach to the export industry. Building on the work of the Chaney Commitee, the strategy “outlines an ambitious plan to secure Australia’s place as a world leader in international education across all sectors, with an international reputation for quality.” While maintaining existing markets, “including Asia” the strategy calls for a focus on new markets, specifically Latin America.

The strategy also calls for measures to improve the experience and value of Australian study for international students, including,”competitive student visa arrangements and strong consumer protections,” and “improving access to public transport and health services,” by working with the states. The government promises two rounds of industry consultations this year. Austrade announced a programme of industry discussions on expanding education exports last week.

Fit and proper people

The Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences was quietly launched last year, on the basis of work by the Commonwealth Department of Health, the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Group of Eight. So quietly that this week’s announcement of 115 new fellows is the first word of it heard by all but the most assiduous students of status in the medical research system. The Academy exists to do what the other learned academies do, recognise achievement and promote research although I suspect it will not be as dogmatic in demands for dosh as the other medical lobbies who are still pushing for the $18bn Medical Research Future Fund.

However, whatever the AAHMS does do will be done with status – the first substantive list of 120 or so fellows reflects power in the research system. As usual with medical researchers, multiple appointments make it hard to decide primary institutional affiliations but on my count the institutions which are home to the most fellows are: Monash University (ten), the University of Queensland (nine), the University of Melbourne (eight), the University of Sydney (seven), Baker IDI (five), and the Queensland Institute for Medical Research (five).

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Not more but more with less

The one thing all universities agree on is that they are under-funded by government. But there are outsiders who have other agendas, like the Harper Competition Policy Review, released yesterday.

For example, “while it is difficult to measure productivity in industries such as health and education, given their size and share of the economy, and their likely growth over time, even relatively modest gains to productivity in these sectors could yield large gains to the economy. Also, if we allow productivity in these sectors to stagnate, their growing share of the economy will mean that Australian living standards decline over time.”

So more money without greater output by universities will make us poorer. Ye gods, let’s hope that never gets out.

Zombie nonsense of the morning

The undead award for the day (La Trobe won it Tuesday) goes to the University of Sydney for making its lead news item yesterday a link to a post by public health academic Belinda Reeve detailing how, “a pandemic of Walking Dead-style zombieism would present unique challenges to emergency preparedness.” Yes, I can see how dealing with an entirely fictitious threat would be tricky for first-responders. Yes I know what day it is and no I am not making it up.

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