La Trobe readies for deregulation

Vice chancellors are preparing for the Pyne package

Dewar’s root and branch restructure

Nobody at La Trobe University can say they did not see it coming. For years Vice Chancellor John Dewar has argued that restructuring the university is unavoidable. Still, even for pessimists the plan announced yesterday was shocking in scope, comprehensive in cuts. Yes it is still a proposal; the university’s industrial agreement requires it. But there is no doubting Professor Dewar’s determination to not just cut but to transform La Trobe – $65 million in savings and the hundreds of lost jobs, already announced and to come, are by no means the whole story.

Many of the targets are standard stuff. “Streamlining and simplification” of administration will mean whatever managers with a savings target want it to mean. Others are familiar to university communities across the country where academic structures date from times past – although replacing La Trobe’s five faculties with two colleges, transforming 15 schools into 11 and reducing departments from 48 to 29 is serious change. But the overall intent is designed to deal with deregulation – Professor Dewar could not have known what was coming when he started planning this structure – before the last election, let alone the budget. However, creating five arts degrees and new education courses is about meeting a more competitive market. Using more technology in teaching is probably intended to increase productivity but it will be a waste of time if it does not reduce lectures and increase small classes. And “a greater focus on student support services” translates to a customer focus in a world where undergraduates will expect to get what they pay for from administrators.

The La Trobe community knew there would be an announcement today and the National Tertiary Education Union has briefed members, in detail, on how to respond if management calls them to consult about their jobs. It has also called an all-campus meeting for Wednesday. The NTEU strategy is based on a long fight, which is what Professor Dewar will not want – he says the new structure should be in place by the start of the next academic year. La Trobe is in for a confronting time.

Delayed promotion

The University of Newcastle was very pleased with itself yesterday, announcing top ten ratings for teaching, generic skills and satisfaction in the most recent Course Experience Questionnaire. Um, that will be the CEQ released in December. I wondered if the announcement had anything to do with July round one applications for mid-year entry closing on Friday. But no, Uni Newcastle said it took time for the data to be analysed. While universities got their own stats at the end of the year they only had access to each other’s data in March, after a sharing agreement was brokered (required by changes to privacy rules). It seems Newcastle is quicker getting the information out than everybody else but is still careful with what it states – there is a long-standing gentle person’s agreement that institutions will not make unkind comparisons. You have to wonder how long this restraint will last if deregulation occurs and the government’s proposed on-line university performance product gets up.

Another day another dorothy

As in dixer. Christopher Pyne was asked the standard “can the minister explain how his brilliant policies will help universities and students’’ in Question Time yesterday. He delivered his standard discursive answer, which started on education but did not stay there, (hopping into Anthony Albanese). This upset Tim Watts (Labor-Gellibrand) who took to Twitter; “Can someone ask Pyne what the Latin is for ‘consigning Australian kids to decades of university debt?’” and “Why not ask him to stop treating questions about our kids futures as a chance to have a joke?” But instead of asking the Twittersphere why doesn’t Mr Watts or a colleague ask the minister a bunch of questions about what deregulation will mean for students’ course costs? The fairness of loans came up in a debate on support for apprentices in the House last night but for an issue the Opposition says it takes seriously Labor is giving the government a curiously easy run over higher education deregulation in the Reps.

All somebody’s work

In case you thought German politicians had a lock on academic plagiarism the South Korean government’s nominee for education minister, Kim Myung-soo is accused of using a student’s work in a journal article. The charge is expected to come up in parliamentary confirmation hearings.

Easy wins

It’s not just in the NTEU’s national office and Victorian branch that incumbents face no election opponents. The positive interpretation is that members on campuses around the country are happy with existing office holders. The negative is that apathy abounds all over with offices empty for want of nominees. Ballots were not needed for want of more than one, or any, candidates at universities in Queensland, NSW, the ACT, Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. Results are not in for SA and WA.

Wellings stands up

While most VCs are variously keeping their heads down or endorsing the status quo Paul Wellings from the University of Wollongong has declared for the Pyne package. The minister has “given each university a chance to control the level of funding per student and to have a greater ability to turn its own strategic direction independent of the government,” he wrote in the AFR yesterday. But while it will give universities resources they need Professor Wellings warned that, as occurred with fee increases in the UK, they will need to improve student support. He also noted the impact of increased debt for low and/or intermittingly earning graduates. Which led to a bit of advice to his VC colleagues and the government. “If we can reach agreement on aspects of the graduate repayment system there is a real chance that Pyne’s reforms will increase the competitiveness of the sector while maintaining our ability to offer university education free at the point of delivery.” Sounds like a hint to drop the idea of a market interest rate on HELP loans to me. That Professor Wellings is otherwise onside with Mr Pyne is also interesting – perhaps he senses that, despite all the criticism, deregulation is not doomed.

Yep, that will do it

Romeo Turcsan and Valeria Gulieva from Alberg University in Denmark identify the reasons why universities establishing international campuses can fail, “low student enrolment, wrong assumptions, bandwagon effect, staff immobility, lack of adaptability, brand identity, and funding issues.” Apart from competitors casting curses they seem to have mentioned everything.

Location, location, education

UTS is very pleased with its just completed engineering and IT building, which apparently includes collaborative lecture theatres and classrooms. “More than just a physical difference, the new spaces will facilitate a new way of teaching and learning at UTS.” I think this means people in lectures/seminars can talk to each other and use a bunch of interactive technology – the data arena is a 3D space surrounded by a continuous screen for ”immersive presentations”. It is all part of UTS’ extraordinary build, which is transforming the southern approach to the Sydney CBD. The university has perhaps the best location of an Australian university (well maybe with RMIT), bang on the transport hub for the entire city, next door to Chinatown and in the heartland of Sydney’s bourgeois bohemia. The UTS development program will make it very competitive in the international market, at least for students who can afford accommodation in the area.

What the doctor ordered

Deakin University has struck a deal with professional education provider MediMark, which provides professional education programs to doctors and nurses. The arrangement, “will facilitate independent development and objective appraisal of MediMark education programs by medical experts from across Deakin’s clinical network.” This is important because, “it focuses on the provision of continuing medical education by educators who are independent from the pharmaceutical industry.” While drug companies still provide “unrestricted grants drug companies, content is prepared independently and appraised by Deakin academics.

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