Dollars in the detail: Vic unis reveal financial performance

Plus UoQ’s climate change MOOC

Do you want poison with that poison?

Nicotine encourages alcohol consumption in rats that like a drink, according to Rodrigo M Leao (Universidade Estadual Paulista in Brazil) and colleagues. CMM research over many years of research in pubs suggests this also applies to people.

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 Not what it looks like

La Trobe’s John Dewar (wearing his chair of Vic VCs hat) activated a flashing neon sign yesterday, stating “ATTENTION HACKS! GOOD STORY HERE! It came in the form of his media release about the financial state of Victorian universities just before their annual reports were tabled in parliament yesterday (see below). Professor Dewar’s point was that, and I know you will be staggered to learn this, financial accounts are not always as they seem and apparent piles of pelf can disguise modest circumstances. And if the sponduliks are not so elusive, well this is only because universities are accumulating cash to do good works. “Any operating surplus should be seen as evidence of the prudent management of university resources and the creation of an investment pool for the future,” he said.

Good-oh, but why did something so obvious need saying? Perhaps Professor Dewar worries that surpluses will suggest to some that universities should not be demanding more student fee income. That VC incomes are easily estimated from reports is another reason to stress how prudent their administration is. The irony is a look at the books demonstrates that the profit presses at most universities are printing slowly.

For people who think cash is cargo from Canberra that falls from the sky Swinburne University VC Linda Kristjanson yesterday presented the three reasons why universities aim for a 6 per cent surplus. First, “to maintain and replenish” asset bases they need a surplus of 6 per cent plus on asset value. Second, they need to fund infrastructure when government will not. Third, market conditions change and reserves are needed if trading circumstances change.

They’ll take Manhattan

If media coverage was included in impact metrics (CMM, yesterday) James Cook U would be top of the research pops this week. First Professor Bill Laurance had an op ed in Sunday’s New York Times and yesterday research on fitness by the university’s Dr Klaus Gebel was approvingly reported in the NYT. Coverage of a quality you can’t buy.

 Navitas bouncing back

UWS and Navitas will establish a joint venture college for international students, based in the Parramatta CBD. The pathway programme, which will feed completers into UWS degrees, will initially teach business, communication, engineering and IT. According to Navitas’s announcement to the ASX, the UWS International College will “be aligned with the UWS’s own highly successful UWS College,” which will now focus on domestic students. The parties are committing $2.5m each to the JV which will be governed by a board with equal representation. It does not seem likely to replace the $25m loss to Navitas from Macquarie U going its own way in the pathways business last year, but it’s a start. While the Navitas statement quoted UWS VC Barney Glover there was no university announcement last night.

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Heated discussion

Having no wish to see heads explode I hope the climate change sceptics who write for the oped page of The Australian do not happen across the University of Queensland’s new MOOC (via edX), “making sense of climate science denial.” Apparently “in the scientific community, there is little controversy, with 97 per cent of climate scientists concluding humans are causing global warming.” For an optional $100 course completers will receive a certificate “to verify your achievement and increase your job prospects,” except with the 3 per cent of apostate scientists. As of yesterday some 4500 people had signed up for the course.

Dollars in the detail

Like the genre in general, the really interesting bits in the university annual reports, tabled in the Victorian Parliament yesterday, will take a while to find. It is also impossible to create a meaningful performance table due to differences in accounting conventions, investment cycles and corporate circumstances. Sure, Federation University’s $2.8m surplus would barely buy the council’s coronets at the University of Melbourne (2014 revenue: $2.1bn) but so what? Similarly Swinburne reported a $20m decline in its surplus due to new MIS costs – which will pay dividends in years to come. “It was a reasonable result in a year of significant change and transition,” VC Linda Kristjanson says. This all means there will be tut-tutting today by people with points to make and space to fill about what VCs are paid, but again so what? Looking at some university turnovers the best VCs could do better in business. As well as Uni Melbourne, Monash is enormous, earning $1.988m and RMIT is also a billion dollar business. But some rates of return, are not all that flash. Demonstrating why John Dewar is anxious to restructure La Trobe, the university reported an after tax profit of 2.67 per cent on revenues of $672. In contrast Uni Melbourne returned an accounting surplus of $182m or 8.6 per cent of income, although it claims its “underlying” surplus is less than 5 per cent of that. Huh? “The underlying result reflects the university’s core operating performance and its capacity to live within its means,” the annual report states.

An evening with …

Last night the University of Sydney hosted an “evening with George Takei,” one of whose contributions to science is being helmsperson on the star ship Enterprise. Not to be beaten, the University of New South Wales is hosting an ‘evening with Stephen Hawking” on ANZAC night and April 26, “in his first ever Australian talk.” Um, except that Professor Hawking won’t actually be in Australia – he is being broadcast live from Cambridge in the UK. Which makes it a talk to Australians, rather than an Australian talk. It’s a shame the two can’t meet here and talk about shared experiences – they both guest starred on Big Bang Theory.

Needed: evidence on the record

Here we go again. Four Corners on Monday will cover a claimed decline in academic standards in universities and low entry requirements for international students. It looks like the same story that has run every few years since the ‘90s. And the villain also remains the same. “As federal government funding for universities has declined, vice-chancellors have been forced to look elsewhere to fill the void.” Here’s hoping the Four Corners team has more luck than the legions of journalists (CMM included) who have tried to write this story in the past – lots of people will talk but will not name on the record the universities and courses which accept, and pass, people without the necessary language skills and/or intellectual ability. The only way to stop this happening is to name, shame and stop people who allow it.

NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption report released yesterday demonstrated how corruption in the international student industry occurs. “In the search for international students, some universities in NSW are entering markets where document fraud and cheating on English-language proficiency tests are known to exist. Some universities are using up to 300 local intermediaries or agents to market to and recruit students, resulting in due diligence and control challenges. This has resulted in a gap emerging in some courses between the capabilities of many students and academic demands. Students may be struggling to pass, but universities cannot afford to fail them.” Be good if Four Corners has some information ICAC can act on.

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