Greg Craven warns Labor

Universities will “fight to the death for demand driven system”

IRU wants a deal

“The farce continues,” the Innovative Research Universities cheerily observes in a paper setting out what can be saved from the wreck of the Pyne Packages I through IV. For a start, the IRU argues, what, if anything, that is agreed cannot apply for next year. The IRU also argues that Mr Pyne’s proposals for a free market in higher education, “is too open a system to gain broad support.” But it also opposes the possibility of any proposal from the Opposition to end demand driven funding. “Fee flexibility must be part of the discussion.  Limiting access to university should not.  It is sad that the Labor party could question a major achievement of the Rudd-Gillard Government.” The best way to keep a system that is fee flexible but not a free market in fees, looks like the Chapman-Phillips model which proposes universities charging what they like but being taxed increasing amounts of this income above a government set cap.

Watch out for the star knives

Very media-friendly UWS academic James Avantarkis is back from Taiwan and China tomorrow. So what’s he been up to there? He’s glad you asked and has a message on his email, “most of my time travelling is dedicated to promoting good teaching… as well as learning from others – like an academic ninja, I continue a journey of wanting to improve my ability as an educator.” And there I was thinking ninjas are from Japan not China.

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Craven shows the way forward

As politics is the art of the possible so Australian Catholic University VC Greg Craven is a policy path breaker, proposing a way out of the present stalemate. His respective messages for the government, Opposition and universities is that Chris Pyne’s existing proposals are off the agenda, as is what he anticipates from Kim Carr. However the Chapman-Phillips model offers a feasible alternative to the existing unsustainable situation. “We need to focus on the best way forward and what happens if we don’t,” he says.

Minister Pyne has to engage with the cross benchers, who have not spent their lives thinking about higher education, which is what most people do, so the first thing he must do is explain the problems.

And he urges Labor higher education spokesman Kim Carr to abandon any thought of making the system financially sustainable by ending demand driven funding and replacing it with re-regulation requiring “more bureaucracy than a Russian tractor factory.”

“Abandoning demand driven funding would destroy the greatest achievement of the Rudd-Gillard government, an enormous thing for low SES and other families with children who are the first to attend university.”

Dropping the demand driven system, “would be handing the Liberals an issue to run on like given them ownership of Medicare.” And he warns that demand driven system is non negotiable. “This needs to be quite clear. The universities will fight to the death for the demand driven system.”

So what is to be done between the unsustainable present and an impossible return to a regulated reduction in numbers? Professor Craven’s message for universities is that the Chapman-Phillips model “offers the greatest hope.” A scheme where universities could set their own fees but would lose an increasing share of the income above a cap would take pressure off Canberra. And it would deliver Mr Pyne the competitive market he is so anxious to implement.

“Some universities would charge a lot more, some a bit more and some would sit on their hands in terms of money.” ACU among them, Professor Craven says its fees would not increase under this model.

He adds that it would also offer students real choice with students looking at price, teaching and what degrees deliver. “Universities would compete on price and product and you would start to see people looking at employment as proxies of quality, what ATARs are now used for. Over time the distribution of highly gifted students would change.”

RMIT staffs up

Last year CMM reported (September 13) around 100 academic redundancies at RMIT to free-up resources for new initiatives. The university declined to comment at the time but on Friday advertised in the AFR for 42 “high-performance academic staff in focused research areas across a range of business disciplines,’ from postdocs to professors. I wonder what RMIT did with the rest of any headcount savings, or is it paying more to attract the people it wants?

ANU new 5

Swinburne saga plot twist

The story so far: In 2012 Swinburne University announced the closure of its Lilydale Campus, this mightily upset the National Tertiary Education Union, which has stayed upset. The NTEU took the university to court over Lilydale and bargained extra hard in enterprise agreement negotiations. So hard that early last year the university gave up on talking and put an offer direct to staff, without union agreement. It was carried, just, which led to the NTEU claiming defects in the voting roll and appealing to the Fair Work Commission to declare the poll invalid. It took the FWC months to get around to hearing the matter but just before Christmas it found for the university. However it’s not over yet, the NTEU is now appealing to the Federal Court, asking it to review the decision and send the matter back to the commission to hear again.

NHMRC success rates to drop, again

The National Health and Medical Research Council reports applications for the new funding round are marginally up on last year, from 3810 to 3857. The problem for applicants in years to come is that growth is greatest in requests for longer-term grants from a fifth last year to 26 per cent of the total this. Overall the new numbers will reduce the already ordinary success rate, 14.9 per cent last year and down from 25 per cent in 2005. I give it to lunchtime before somebody demands the Medical Research Magic Pudding Fund be created to fund all applications.

Lyndon’s law: get the crossbench in the tent

Is it not passing strange that people are advocating an assembly of notables to create a plan for higher education funding, which the Senate would then be expected to obediently implement? Surely what we have now is parliament proceeding exactly as the founding fathers, sorry parents, intended – with senators deciding issues on their merits and according to state interests, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus in particular. Certainly the bale of bills to consider overwhelms cross bench senators, but this is an opportunity not a threat.

A university lobby offered the PUP a staffer to advise on the first Pyne package last year, apparently the PUPs never replied but this should not stop Universities Australia now establishing and funding an independent secretariat to work for cross bench senators in the manner of the Parliamentary Library and Parliamentary Budget Office, with an additional electoral expert included to analyse the impact of proposals state by state, seat by seat if required. The team could also assist senators with any plans of their own. There is no hope of a solution without the upper house and as LBJ’s Law of Senators states; “it’s better to have them in the legislative tent pissing out than outside pissing in.”

Hint, hint

University of Tasmania VC Peter Rathjen says it would be difficult for regional campuses under deregulation without a restructure fund. How difficult? Who knows, but Professor Rathjen did mention that the university spends $75m on research and that choices would have to be made. The back story to this is not entirely clear, the University of Tasmania, is reticent with hacks outside the blessed isle, but there was talk last year of an education package for the state if the Pyne package passed and for big infrastructure spends in Burnie and Launceston. Nothing came of it then but it’s nice to have a number if it turns out there is a deal to do.

Plenty to talk about

The private higher education sector applauds Christopher Pyne for promising to push on with deregulation, arguing its students have a right to the same financial support as public university undergraduates. “Maintaining the status quo takes us nowhere and frankly no one opposed has proposed any workable alternative,” Council of Private Higher Education head Adrian McComb says. The ever-optimistic Rod Camm agreed. According to the Australian Council for Private Education and Training chief, “throughout this debate, there have been many areas of common ground. Let’s take stock, look at current concerns and re-engage the community in the debate.” Common ground? Has he read the government and Opposition senate committee reports on the Pyne legislation? Just now supporters and opponents of deregulation would struggle to agree on what day it is.

Big job, tiny tasks

Some at the University of Adelaide were not best pleased when Tanya “photon girl” Monro left the leadership of the ARC Centre for Nanoscale Biophotonics, based at UoA, to become DVC Research at the University of South Australia but the word always was her successor would be equal to the task. New chief, Mark Hutchinson, announced Friday, will certainly not waste time getting to know the locals. Professor Hutchinson, in the chair since Monro left, has also led the university’s neuroimmunopharmacology research since returning to Australia from the US in 2009.

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