Fees push: rich universities ask for more

Big Week

“Higher Ed Students! Classes recommence tomorrow – hope everyone had a lovely Easter break,” Swinburne University reminded everybody last night. But they only have a day to talk about what they got up to – with the rest of the country; the university is off on Anzac Day.

Show us the money

Some of the G8 elite universities used to call for a monopoly on public research funding. Now some of their VCs want to raise more money through increased student fees. This isn’t a new argument either but its advocates have used the Kemp Norton review of demand driven funding to put deregulated fees on the agenda, despite this being beyond the DDF brief. Warren Bebbington from Uni Adelaide started the debate the other day with a call to deregulate both access to publicly funded places and fees. ANU followed yesterday with chancellor Gareth Evans and VC Ian Youngcalling for fee deregulation but “ongoing access to HECS.” This can mean whatever Evans and Young want, but it appealed to University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis, who yesterday called their paper “an important opening to a crucial debate. University sector bound by constraints that kill innovation.” University of New South Wales Vice Chancellor Fred Hilmer agreed, in an SMH op ed this morning. He backed deregulation so that different sorts of higher education providers could charge different fees. “Both ideas have elicited screams of horror from various sectors. But they have the potential to transform our higher education sector, which is being strangled by lack of funding and lack of diversity,” Professor Hilmer said.  

But not ours

The National Tertiary Education Union’s ACT secretary Stephen Darwin was less impressed. He sailed into Young and Evans yesterday, describing their argument as a “call for return to the elitist Menzian vision of higher education with standard equity fig leaf.” And Professor Davis is not winning friends among his own students. The University of Melbourne Student Union responded to a weekend statement by the VC in favour of a fee debate, by suggesting, “better check your pockets, the vice chancellor wants to clean them out!” UMSU is running a campus campaign to make the point. It adapts the university slogan “Dream Large” to “Dream Large? Pay Larger.” Not surprising however the Regional University Network bought into the argument yesterday opposing fee deregulation.

ABC TV added little to  the coverage last night, introducing a story on the main evening bulletin by saying it “had learned” the government is seriously considering fee rises –without offering any evidence. It went on to feature Ian Young saying why students who can afford to pay more should and students (of unspecified income) saying why they shouldn’t. It was a half-baked piece about a half-baked debate – increased fees will not get off the ground unless the feds fund them through loans of some sort. And the last thing the higher education community needs now is mixed signals.

Elections in the offing

With fighting words like those you might think Mr Darwin is up for election. He isn’t. But a bunch of other NTEU officials are – including the national leadership team, president Jeannie Rea, national secretary Grahame McCulloch and assistant secretary Matthew McGowan. Nominations are yet to open and no one is talking about who will run but there is a general sense that if members of the existing national team do they are not in bad shape. Critics suggest that last year’s $1m election spend in support of the Greens was not much of an idea – that higher education did not rate as a campaign issue. Even so, Adam Bandt held his seat as did independent Andrew Wilkie, who the union backed in Denison. And after a year of enterprise bargaining the incumbents have a solid-ish story to tell. New agreements are in place at around 25 of the 37 public universities with deals done, but not signed off at another seven or so. Of the remainder some started bargaining late in the cycle and there is only apparently intractable conflict, at Swinburne where the local union is appealing in Fair Work Australia a management EB ballot win in Fair Work Australia. (A deal was done at divided UWS earlier this month after Mr McCulloch got involved). As to the agreements, they are probably as good as can be expected – with pay rises over 3 per cent per annum for the life of the next agreement (nobody mentions the 7 per cent per annum the union originally asked for.) The NTEU also did well with its campaign for permanent teaching jobs for some casuals at just about all campuses. State official positions are also up for election in Tasmania, Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory.

He said it

“We can create our own content, we can take everyone’s content and reuse it,” Reed Elsevier chair Youngsuk Chi, quoted in The Australian. No faulting him for frankness.

Open alternative

Mr Chi’s case for his company intrigued open access commentators, including one who pointed me to an article by Adam Dunn (University of New South Wales), Enrico Coiera (Harvard Medical School) and Kenneth Mandl (Harvard-MIT Health Science and Technology). The authors speculate what would happen if “the vast majority of biomedical research” which “is still hidden behind pay walls” was hacked in the way of music and US diplomatic cables. The result would not be good, to say the least, for the six major publishers they say control access to the majority of biomedical journals. But new science and business models would lead to “the rapid development of new low-cost access options, and improved public engagement with medical research.” I have no idea if they are right but I’m guessing publishers have pay walls that are very strong indeed.

Good for Griffith

Griffith University is the education category winner in digital consultant Global Reviews 2013 customer experience awards. I don’t know anything about the agency but I agree with its judgment. When Griffith launched the new site last June I endorsed it; “the marketers have worked out what the university stands for and how to sell it.” What a shame then external relations Meredith Jackson is not around to enjoy the applause. She left later in the year to go and run the office of some bloke called Chris Pyne.

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