Labor defuses higher education as election issue

plus Southern Cross U names Shoemaker as VC

Managements muscle-up in WA

and CMM has pie all over his face

Time-honoured tradition

CMM’s “you don’t say correspondent!” reports the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney has surveyed people in China and Japan to discover that they don’t like each other and think the other side could start a war.

Tuesday June 14

 

Small savings big loss

To CMM it looks like Labor took university funding off the election agenda on Friday when it included relatively minor higher education cuts in its promised savings. The next time Kim Carr raises the far more substantial reductions the government still has in the forward estimates education minister Simon Birmingham will simply respond that Labor also recognises the need for savings.

Just not many. As the Innovative Research Universities lobby points out the proposals “maintain Labor’s pledge to reverse any reductions to the base Commonwealth Grant Scheme crucial to universities’ education and research delivery. This will maintain base funding at the 2012 levels indexed.  This commitment is fundamental to Labor’s argument that government should be the major funder of universities.” So Labor has sacrificed the chance to unambiguously present itself as the party of higher education in a half-baked attempt to demonstrate it too can cut. Unless of course, Labor (like the coalition) is thinking of a serious hike in HECS if it wins but does not want to talk about it.

But among the phony-tough cuts there is one bit that will bite. Labor proposes to rely on CPI alone, rather than a combination of it and the professional salaries increase, to set indexation of university funding. With increases in the latter generally outstripping economy wide inflation this will reduce universities ability to fund salary increases. A point university managements will make in the enterprise bargaining round beginning.

Smart Charles Sturt

Charles Sturt U estimates commencing load is up 5 per cent this year, thanks in part, VC Andy Vann says, to increased marketing activity. He’s likely right; CSU spent just $2m on multi-channel media for its Think Again campaign, featuring people who returned to study. One advert featured a 60 year-old woman who became a mental health nurse. This is a real recruitment campaign focused on how study can transform lives rather than the usual generic claims of excellence.

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Managements muscle up

Western Australia sets the tone for agreements on university wages and conditions – last time managements at Curtin, Edith Cowan and Murdoch buckled big-time and handed out payrises which the rest of country followed. But not, it seems, this time round. The three universities (UWA bargains later) have a new strategy. Instead of arguing out wages and conditions line by line in immensely complex bureaucratic battles managements are presenting short and simple positions in their offers and declining to talk money until their demands are sorted. And to keep it simple the universities are adopting similar stances on key issues, ( thanks to the NTEU for publishing their statements here. )

On academic workloads Curtin proposes; “ensure fair and transparent process for the allocation of academic work based on Curtin-wide principles and taking into account different academic roles, stages of career and changing modes of teaching.

In (not much) contrast, Edith Cowan wants, “to simplify the processes relating to the allocation of academic work by utilising academic judgement to design work at the local level … (and) remove restrictions that impede teaching innovations and academic freedom, and support work.”

And Murdoch says it wants, “to change the current workload clause to make it less prescriptive, whilst maintaining fair and equitable allocations together with a review process.”

Which can all mean whatever the universities want. The National Tertiary Education Union thrives on line-by-line negotiation of terms, which ensure that it alone has the knowledge to represent staff and can tie management up for months in debates that define workload requirements in immense detail but managements now want to negotiate on their own terms.

While university people say they are driving this strategy themselves the new emphasis on deals without detail, allowing managements maximum flexibility, is one the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association is keen on. The NTEU says AHEIA is assisting Murdoch and ECU management with bargaining.

Shoemaker’s tough task

Adam Shoemaker will be the next vice chancellor of Southern Cross University, replacing Peter Lee when he retires in September. Professor Shoemaker will move from Griffith U where he is academic provost. His previous posts include dean of arts at ANU and DVC E at Monash. Professor Shoemaker has his work cut out, with SCU still struggling to secure its financial future. In 2014 the NSW Auditor General reported two years of negative operating margins, apparently due to a decline in international student numbers (CMM June 4). This year the Auditor reported the university had a 3 per cent negative operating margin, due to a decline in Commonwealth grants.

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Vann acknowledges effort

Andy “action man” Vann is never faulted for frankness. Last week the Charles Sturt U VC got stuck into Alan Pettigrew’s suggestion that universities that are not research-strong should concentrate on teaching (CMM June 8 ). “Does our national research conversation sometimes sound like, ‘the only people allowed to play sport are the Olympic team’?” he tweeted within an hour of the story emerging. And then on Friday he pointed to the way the number of full time teaching and research positions has not kept pace with the growth of the system.

“I suspect that these staff members – particularly those at levels B, C and D – are still doing the bulk of the academic administration and management work for the now much bigger system. I therefore think that the complaints we hear about the pressures on academic staff have some justification. I believe it is time we re-thought what we expect from academic staff and acknowledge that the academic management aspects are as important as teaching, research and engagement.”

Many people will agree, not least union negotiators at CSU, who will quote this loud and at length when enterprise bargaining begins, although they will undoubtedly argue that it is not just senior scholars who are working harder.

Dosh for DNA

Joseph Powell from the University of Queensland is the 2016 winner of the Commonwealth Health Minister’s Award for Excellence in Health and Medical Research. Dr Powell uses big blocks of genomic data to look for DNA sequence variants that contribute to disease. The $50 000 prize goes to fund his research.

Mixed crits on innovation agenda

The early crits on the government’s innovation agenda are in, thanks to reviews in the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research’s Australian Economic Review.

Most of the commentary embraces the innovation agenda, qualified by wide-world-of-wonk policy critiques by those excellent iconoclasts from RMIT, Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts, who wonder why the state can innovate more successfully than it does anything else;

“Innovation policy is politically popular. Every government practises it because it services many core constituents and voting blocs (universities, scientists, businesses in high-technology sectors and so on). Few governments lose support by proposing to spend money on science, research, so-called ‘jobs of the future’, high-technology industries and other technology-centred drivers of growth. It is hard to find a political constituency opposed to innovation policy.”

But, and it is a very big but, they add; “government attempts to design and plan innovation are plagued by the same sorts of problems that arise when governments attempt to intervene in other parts of the economy.”

Eminent analyst of global higher education outlays and achievements Ross Williams considers Australian universities contribution to the national research effort. He finds Australia does well “on curiosity driven research” but not on industry related work, because research-funding drivers favour the former. Professor Williams also suggests a two-class research system, with some universities funded for basic research and others given financial incentives to “link with industry”. To accomplish both, he suggests moving from block funding grants to “full funding of project grants.”

Paul Jensen (University of Melbourne) and Elizabeth Webster (Swinburne U) consider the Watt research funding review, especially the emphasis on industry-university links, asking whether what the government took from the review enough to change researchers’ behavior. They also point to the “anachronistic teaching-based formula, which includes an allowance for research.”

“ This teaching base funding, which has evolved out of a series of patched-up policy changes over time, is driven by undergraduate student load. Its presence in the whole Commonwealth funding schema means that about $500 million of research funds are allocated, regardless of whether any research is undertaken or the quality of that research. This is clearly problematic as it means that research funds are being allocated into areas where they are not productive.”

But while most analyses of the government’s innovation agenda focus on whether policy is fixing problems Sinclair and Potts point to research which suggest that the state itself mucks things up. “There is weak empirical evidence for market failure in scientific and technological investment and considerable counter-evidence of entrepreneurial market adaptation to opportunities; and (that) government interventions to correct these supposed market failures largely result in the creation of economic distortions and rent-seeking behaviour—in other words, government failure.”

Not quite the review the prime minister is hoping for.

Morale boosting blather

Faculty management in Arts and Education at Australian Catholic University has decided what staff need now is niceness, plus dance classes, yoga sessions, relationship homilies and reminders to drink lots of water. But it isn’t working. CMM hears that over the last few weeks five senior academic and administrative staff members staff have walked. Whatever is upsetting people, yoga classes, walking clubs and advice on eating small bites of chocolate to relieve marking misery isn’t curing it. Acres of advice and event invites are being distributed to staff, including an exhortation from executive dean Tania Aspland that staff should enjoy “the liberation and hilarity of dance.” “It is all under the guise of ‘wellbeing’, but a number of staff consider it intrusive, and for some, unsettling as well. To say anything, though, just makes one unsupportive and non-compliant,” one ACU sceptic says.

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 By by South Australian pie

Last week University of South Australia VC David Lloyd accepted a challenge from Uni of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington to cop a pie in the moosh to raise funds for the Childhood Cancer Association. Professor Lloyd then extended the ultimate pie challenge to Stephen Matchett who comes to a sticky end here.

Notables honoured

The Queens Birthday Honours List is here. Among members of the research and higher education community honoured CMM especially noticed a few;

Industrial relations researcher Marian Baird, from the University of Sydney. Edith Cowan U executive dean Lynne Cohen, AM for services to tertiary education in psychology. Science journalist Elizabeth Finkel AM. Flinders University criminologist Adam Graycar AM. Doug Hilton from Walter and Eliza Hall and the Association of Medical Research Institutes, AO. University of Sydney professor Nalini Joshi AO for services to maths. Deakin U chancellor John Stanhope OAM. UNSW finance researcher Peter Swann, AM. ACU ethicist Bernadette Tobin, AO. Chair of the research funding review Ian Watt, AC.

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