“Focus people!” – Group of Eight to everybody

Plus Godot does not arrive at Senate hearings

Eight united to save NCRIS

The NCRIS outcry is about to get louder. The Group of Eight is joining the chorus opposing Minister Pyne’s plan to make renewed funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy contingent on his deregulation legislation passing the Senate. The Eight is taking full-page advertisements in the Australian Financial Review and The Australian signed by all member VCs. This is said to be a first.

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Understating achievement

I know it is only Monday but I reckon the lame lead of the week award will go to the University of Western Australia for announcing the induction of mathematician Cheryl Praeger into the state’s Women’s Hall of Fame. “It’s lucky that Professor Praeger is a whiz at maths – she needs to be to keep track of her mounting tally of awards.” And there I was thinking there was more to mathematics than adding up.

Focus people!

The Group of Eight is alarmed at the way the deregulation debate is running off the rails as the crucial Senate debate looms. Yes, Executive Director Vicki Thomson says, the Eight will consider alternative funding models, such as the Chapman-Phillips plan, just not now.

“On face value the proposals floating around appear complicated, and may require a great deal of new regulation to implement. The development of the present deregulation package has been the subject of very significant modeling, debate and review over an extended period. History tells us that it takes time to work through new policy ideas and test their implications. As such, significant deviations from the proposed package should be carefully analysed before implementation. The priority is getting this policy right and right for the long term.”

Still waiting for deregulating Godot

Friday’s Senate Education References Committee hearing on the deregulation legislation was like a Samuel Beckett play, only sadder and slower.

Many of the cast stuck to their lines from last year’s committee performances. New witnesses had not much original to say – how could they when the show’s been shouted from the rooftops for nearly a year.

It is a warning for people who say more time is needed to rehearse the ideas of deregulation – universities and officials, senators and students could debate funding change for another year and Professor Pozzo and Dean Lucky would still be waiting for de-regulating Godot or more money from government – more likely both.

There were four themes to Friday’s performance. Students said there should be more money, spokespeople for NCRIS supported organisations asked what deregulation had to do with them, and could they have the money they were promised pleased. Andrew Norton politely answered Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, while lesser wonks told us what they variously thought and felt about problems with the Pyne package, of which Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie was the sole defender on the committee. Among the other grown-ups La Trobe VC John Dewar and Innovative Research Universities director Conor King explained for the umpteenth time why ever-increasing costs made deregulation essential and Bruce Chapman and David Phillips spoke to their new proposal for regulated deregulation, where the government gets to set penalties if it decides universities charge too much.

Senator Kim Carr and the National Tertiary Education Union’s Jeannie Rea and Paul Kniest displayed just about the only on-stage energy, in support of re-regulation. All three like the idea of “accountability agreements” between government and universities and the union pair in particular were keen to keep the existing funding model. Senator Carr was also interested in universities enrolling students in disciplines where there are not enough jobs – gosh I wonder where a Labor government would look to save money.

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Second show, same script

After interval there was a second performance with a separate hearing by the Senate Education Legislation Committee chaired by Senator McKenzie. It was an even more pedestrian performance, with officials and representatives of the higher and further private education industry doing their best to light up the stage.

But the obviously unscripted show-stopper occurred when a student at a private provider appearing as a witness cheerfully announced what her fees are. They total $80 000 (before the FEE HELP loan fee) for her private college business degree. All of a sudden there it was, a $100 000 degree!

It ground on for another hour, with the NTEU and Professor Chapman reprising their performances but I doubt they changed many, or any, minds. When the curtain fell Godot had not arrived. Deregulation looks less delayed than deceased.

So much for the rehearsals, the curtain goes up on the Senate debate in a couple of weeks.

James Cook explores expansion

JCU announced a new site for its 3500 students in Singapore on Friday – on the site of a high school on the CBD fringe. There’s room for another 1500, which is a smart move, given a new survey finding that two-thirds of Singapore parents hope their children stay at home to study.

More of the same

Want to know why university brands are interchangeable? It puzzled Charles Sturt U’s Academic Secretary Nick Drengenberg, at least until he came across research demonstrating that “the attainment of distinctiveness can in fact produce complete social conformity.” Say what? According to Paul Smaldino and Joshua Epstein, writing in Royal Society Open Science, “as long as the variance in individuals’ preferences is not too large, the population still converges towards conformity even with heterogeneous distinctiveness preferences.” However, they add, a non-conformist minority, less than 10 per cent, can change the positions of members of the majority.

Even without the calculus underpinning their argument the first bit makes sense. Sure, universities want to stand out but because they all aspire to the same things they all emphasise the same attributes in their marketing, which makes most of them look like the Group of Eight-light. This is great for the Eight, with other universities emphasising the attributes the community associates with the sandstones their marketing spend is leveraged many times over.

But as for the capacity of non-conformists to change overall behaviour, it isn’t happening. Not that Australia lacks them. Federation U, the Australian Catholic University and CSU all know what they stand for and who make up their markets, It shows in their student-focused, recruitment campaigns, which at times, especially FU and ACU‘s, are brilliant. But imagine the future of a marketing director who explained to the VC of your average teaching-strong, research weak institution that they should present more like then than the University of Melbourne in fact don’t bother, because they would not have one.

For most Australian universities conformity is aspirational.

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 Reflections and predictions

Colin Steele, former ANU librarian, E-publishing pioneer and stalwart of the open access movement will talk on a life in books and the future of the form at the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library, March 26 at 5.30pm. Bookings at library.rsvp@sydney.edu.au .

Bad debts

Thanks to policy consultant Tim Cahill (ex Australian Research Council) for pointing me at the US Debt Collective, the members of which are refusing to pay government loans used to pay for courses at campuses of the for-profit Corinthian College group. People variously say they were gulled into enrolling, that courses are inadequate, that qualifications are not recognised for-credit – that, in essence they, did not get what they paid for.

Sound familiar? It will if you have followed the mass of media reports on for-profits rorting the voced system here. The US is way ahead of us in this debate. Former Democrat senator for Iowa Tom Harkins produced a scathing report on what student borrowers and the national government get for their money back in 2012. But unless the for-profit peak bodies and the feds do some serious work on quality control in the system we will see similar student complaints here. It’s a natural for The Greens.

 Rallings steps up

Carl Rallings, DVC for students at USQ is the new president-designate of the Association for Tertiary Education Management. He will take over in May following his election win, replacing Stephen Weller (ACU) who leaves after a very solid six years in the chair.

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