Finance Minister signals deals: “there is time to engage”

Plus ranking reaction: how the winners and losers responded to the ARWU

Parker points

University of Canberra VC Stephen Parker @ #other things the poor don’t do, via Twitter Friday, “kick the ladder away after they get a degree at taxpayers’ expense”

More on offer

Finance Minister Matthias Cormann confirmed government concessions on higher education funding yesterday. “A number of the measures that are subject to the current debates, like … the measures in relation to higher education reforms and the like, don’t actually take effect for some time. So there is still time for the government to continue to engage, in good faith with the crossbenchers in the Senate and work these issues through,” Senator Cormann said. He’s wrong – universities need to know what new students will pay from 2016  now but the government is not going to negotiate against the clock. So how much is the Finance Minister going to giveaway? The obvious answer is no increase in the HECS loan rate. But as Education Minister Pyne has already all but announced this and Senator Cormann did not limit what is up for negotiation it seems there is more for the asking.

No penalty rates

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has told everybody who will listen that he wants industry engaged with training and he started to deliver on Friday with a new advisory board, which will “provide feedback to the government as it continues reforms to the sector.” The five members are John Hart from the hospitality sector, Patrick McKendry from training private provider Careers Australia, Tara Diamond from the Australian Mines and Metals Association, Dominique Fisher, who runs social media site Career Lounge and Anglicare’s Jodie Hughson. Apparently they will advise the government, which wants to “unwind Labor’s convoluted and bureaucratic mess.” I’m guessing they will not be paid penalty rates for thinking out of hours. The board got off to a bad start on Saturday falling victim the ICAC effect, with reports that Mr Hart is giving evidence at a NSW anti-corruption commission inquiry. This has nothing to do with training, nor is Mr Hart accused of anything, but opponents of vocational education reform were quick to make, and report, the connection. And it wasn’t only the only aspect of the appointments that upset the ACTU. On Saturday the peak union body denounced the board for not including representatives of unions or the TAFE sector.

Less slow than no starts

Mr Macfarlane’s point was (sort-of) made within an hour of his announcement, with the release of June quarter training figures. Trade training commencements are down around 5 per cent and non-trade starts twice that. What’s worse is that the former is the thirdly quarterly drop and the latter makes for a year long decline.

Raving about reviews

After the false start on Friday morning, when The Australian broke embargo on the announcement, the self-congratulation was at full gallop within minutes of the Academic Ranking of World Universities release at 2pm AEST. Andrew Dempster from Swinburne was quick out of the gates pointing to its “stunning news,” being in the top 75 in the world for physics, “incredible achievement for a university just 20 years old.” He was followed by James Cook University, which was very pleased with a 6th consecutive listing in the 300-400 band. Melbourne University followed with a redundant release, about being proud to be the first Australian university in the top 50 – redundant because Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis was quoted in The Australian’s story that morning. U of Adelaide was also pleased to be well up in the 100-200 band. The University of Western Australia excited indeed to be up 3 places to 88. And the University of Queensland was delighted to “consolidate” its position, staying at 85 for two years in a row.

In what looked like a desperate attempt to break the self-congratulation circuit the University of New England reminded everybody that it had scored well with students in the Good Universities Guide earlier in the week, which somehow did not have the same superior ring as top ARWU marks. Funnily enough the University of Sydney, which suffered a significant slide, cheerfully announced anything it could think of that did not involve rankings on Friday afternoon. The Saturday edition of its daily good news digest was similarly silent about the rankings. It also took to Saturday for the University of Tasmania to catch up, although it had good news to report – a continuing rise up the AWRU, some 17 places since last year to 308 and 74 since 2011.

Punishing contributors

The National Tertiary Education Union never lets a chance go by and within an hour of the announcement was asking why the University of Melbourne is cutting tbe jobs of people who help make the rating success happen.

Drill into the detail

It’s in the discipline data that the interesting patterns in the ARWU start to appear, with Australia level pegging across the board, mainly due to the efforts of the Group of Eight. There are six physics schools in the world’s best 200 – five from the Group of Eight, which is perhaps not surprising. But the sixth is. Swinburne is the second in the country and within the top 75in the world. I’m guessing this has a lot to do with former VC Ian Young’s strategy to make the university a major contributor to global astrophysics research. In contrast, there are only three economics/business departments in the top 100, Uni Melbourne, UNSW and Monash. So much for all the others peddling “world class” MBAs taught by elite researchers.In engineering however only half the Go8 gets a go, making up all of Australia’s representation, Uni Sydney fell out the top 100 from last year.

La Trobe’s long decline

Don’t expect La Trobe VC John Dewar to quote the ARWU rankings, but they make the case why the university must change if it is to compete on research. La Trobe scraped, just, into the 300-400 bracket in 2006 and 2007. But since then it has dropped every year. In 2013 it was just above the 500 cut off but this year fell out of the rankings altogether, just in time for open day! It demonstrates that all Australian universities, of the same age and resources are not the same. While La Trobe, founded in 1967 has declined Macquarie University (1964) has risen up the 200-300 group since 2006.

“But minister, you said …”

In case you missed it National Science Week started on Saturday. According to  Ian Macfarlane (who is very keen to tell everybody that he is responsible for science) some 1.5m people are expected to attend events. Well, if he says so. Mr Macfarlane is also very keen for us to know how important science is. Apparently, it “is at the heart of our society, and it will also be at the centre of Australia’s next round of invention, medical breakthroughs and exciting new products and jobs.” Expect to see that quote again, and again, used by people who have had jobs cut or funding reduced.

Curtin raiser

Think the University of Melbourne was the big ARWU winner? Go and look up Curtin. Curtin U rose an extraordinary100 plus places from last year. Which makes a point about rankings, even methodologically coherent ones like ARWU – they can magnify outcomes, good and bad. The reason Curtin did so well is that the raters updated research input factors for the first time in six years – thus capturing Curtin’s recent research strategy. It seems three highly cited researchers had a big impact. Good-oh, but this result is less an improvement than transformation.

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