Going nowhere: Pyne package stalled

Plus Melbourne’s demonic student recruitment strategy

Shouting while stationary

Media wizards have conjured yarns out of not much in the last couple of days, including stories about Labor’s great higher education reformer John Dawkins and former MP Maxine McKew urging the Opposition to engage with the government on the Pyne MKII package.

Mr Pyne seized on them remarks yesterday to urge Opposition Leader Bill Shorten “to over-rule Kim Carr and come to the table.”

This isn’t going to happen.

If Labor negotiated now it would gift the high rhetorical ground to the Greens and crossbench senators and while Mr Shorten and Education spokesman Kim Carr’s naysaying annoys the policy community, the brutal reality is that they are only doing to the government what the conservatives did when they were in opposition.

Which means Mr Pyne must keep talking to crossbench senators, conversations, he says, which are “inching closer to success.”

“There is a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and the final vote in the Senate,” he said yesterday. However the minister added he will not gut his package to the point of making it meaningless to pass it. “We will not so adulterate the reforms that they’re now meaningless and if that’s the situation in Australia today, if the cross-benchers are not up to microeconomic reform because they don’t want to be unpopular with any organisation in Australia or any particular individual, well the government will accept the decision of the Senate,” Mr Pyne added.

Of course if deregulation does fail and the demand driven system continues as is, the next Labor minister will inherit one hell of a budget mess, plus contradictory aspirations between VCs and everybody who agrees with what Senator Carr now says. Not to worry, as every shadow minister knows, the worse day in government is better than the best one in opposition. Although Mr Pyne could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

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Shape of deals to come?

While some vice chancellors are wobbly, Universities Australia has largely held its members in line throughout the Senate strife over deregulation. And last night it again called on crossbench senators to vote for reform, UA’s version of it, that is. Chief Executive Belinda Robinson reiterated what the universities want, which is Mr Pyne’s package with three changes – a reduction in the 20 per cent cut the government proposes to take off its contribution to student course costs, so as to “reduce upward pressure on price” a $500 million structural adjustment package for regional universities and independent oversight of the panel.

This might have seemed steep to Mr Pyne when his chances of securing the enators he needs to pass his package looked better than they do now. But while the minister might wear what UA wants, the question that matters is will enough senators.

Listen up, like Ricky

After somewhat speculative stories about how Ricky Muir will vote the reticent Motoring Enthusiast Party senator issued a rare statement last night.

“It has been reported today that I remain open to deregulating universities. I want to make it clear that I remain open to listening to all proposals for reform, which is why I will be attending a forum on higher education in rural and regional areas next week. I remain deeply concerned about the impact deregulation will have on university fees. As I have previously stated, I will continue to consult with the government, the university sector and student union groups on this critical issue,” Senator Muir said.

I’m guessing the forum the senator intends to attend is the one being organised by La Trobe and Charles Sturt universities in cooperation with the independent member for Indi, Cathy McGowan. It is scheduled for Monday in Albury-Wodonga. While no government rep is down to speak supporters of both sides of the argument are well represented.

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Reluctant deregulator

The politically acute and always eloquent Glyn Davis went quiet after last year’s budget, as if he was stunned silent by the scope of the Pyne package. But obviously that was not the case, because the University of Melbourne vice chancellor is back, with a robust, albeit unenthusiastic statement supporting deregulation of student fees (The Conversation, yesterday).

Yes, there are other ways of making/saving money – teaching only institutions, more international students, reduced places for Australians, but none has universal appeal, Professor Davis argues. And the obvious one, more federal funding, is not going to happen, because the universities best arguments have failed to convince governments and voters to spend more on higher education. “The public perception remains that public universities are adequately funded. Australia spends proportionally less public money on universities than most OECD countries, yet few outside the sector argue for international standards of investment.”

The result is that VCs who were idealists are now “reluctant pragmatists.” “Colleagues who long opposed higher student fees (and still find them deeply unpalatable) now face the consequences of chronic underfunding. They know a poor education is no bargain, whatever the price.” But maybe not such a bad bargain as it could be. Professor Davis carefully refers to “a measure of fee de-regulation,” which surely implies an agency keeping an eye on what universities are allowed to charge.

Code to live by

The University of Melbourne and the Melbourne Demons Football Club have signed an MOU to work together on I am not clear what from the club’s announcement. Whatever is involved has been in the works for a while, with this story breaking last winter, (CMM July 2). I thought then that the university might hope to kick fund raising goals through an association with The Dees, as every American development manager will tell you there is nothing affluent alumni like more than a university footie team. But I fear I missed the really big idea, explained by PVC (Engagement) Ian Anderson yesterday. Melbourne (the town) came in second to Paris in last year’s QS rating of student friendly cities and “football is one way to enrich the student experience, and we want to prove international students with an experience that will make their time in Melbourne truly memorable.” Good luck with that. It would never occur to anyone in Melbourne (city, campus, club) that the generality of international students think football refers to an entirely different game.

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Online, open and perhaps enduring

A new survey of the first two MOOCs launched in England has found people learned from them and most important, stuck with them – “regardless of prior education attainment,” authors Julie Wintrup, Kelly Wakefield and Hugh Davis from the University of Southampton write. And in a conclusion that will alarm anybody who does not like the idea of MOOCs as the ultimate academically disruptive technology they write, “if MOOCs are to achieve their early goals and become part of the landscape of higher education, academic credit and clear progression routes are needed. An opportunity exists; the institutions offering them are ideally placed to create credit-bearing MOOCs and tailored, reciprocal openings in traditional entry requirements.”

 Twice a dolt

I compounded a previous error yesterday by calling the deputy dean of business at UTS Tracy Walker. Wrong, wrong, wrong the lady’s name is Tracy Taylor.

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