Group of Eight case on who should run research

Plus, structural change is inevitable

And the eternal optimist award goes to …

Dr Tony Peacock from the Cooperative Research Centre Association, who announced yesterday; “no impact of MYEFO on the CRC programme.” After copping a cut in the budget and a smack in the kisser with the way the Miles Review of the programme was announced, for the government to come back for another go in the mid-year financial forecasts (and cuts) would have been way too much a triple whammy.

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Marshall’s the man

Barry Marshall is just behind Martin Luther King and ahead of Einstein in the all-time Nobel Prize best liked laureate stakes – he is certainly top of the living pops, according to the award’s foundation. Barry who? Barry Marshall, with Robin Warren the joint winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2005, for showing stomach ulcers are caused by a bug that antibiotics banish. This was no mean achievement but I suspect what endears him to people is he proved their hypothesis by drinking a foul bacterial cocktail and then testing a treatment. Hard not to admire a bloke who follows his gut.

Yo ho humdrum

The National Tertiary Education Union never lets a chance go by to denounce deregulation. The other day national president Jeannie Rea was urging university applicants to stick to their preferences and not worry what the government might do to fees. For a start, it won’t happen if vice chancellors stop backing Chris Pyne, she said. And it shouldn’t happen, because the government has an obligation to adequately fund higher education, “which everybody agrees is fundamental to both students’ and Australia’s future economic and social prosperity”. I am looking forward to the union’s Christmas morning message on more money for NCRIS or some similarly seasonal.

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The business of business isn’t always research

The Group of Eight is working hard to shape the terms of the coming debate on research funding and university links with industry. Understandably so, the Go8 accounts for the vast majority of what it calls “pure basic research” and nobody else appears game to challenge the government’s emerging emphasis on academic-industry links and funding for applied science in disciplines areas where Australia is strong. So the Eight is pumping out papers.

There was a case for pure research last week and now there are two more briefing notes, one comparing industry and university research efforts and a second on business R&D investment.

The Eight’s core argument is that university research does not only exist to deliver what businesses want. “Universities do and should play a role in supporting business, but they also need to serve the whole community, including government; and they are there to create and service the future, not just to support the present.” The Eight also suggests industry is not all that interested in funding universities to conduct research. While Canberra contributed 84 per cent of university research funding, industry invested a bare 5 per cent. Nor is applied research losing out, the Eight warn its share of funding has doubled to 40 per cent of university work over 40 years. But the Go8 is very careful not to seem to slam business for ducking research funding, in fact it goes to great lengths in yesterday’s paper to stop anybody assuming there is a chasm between industry and universities, presumably to prevent academics being forced by government to leap to the business side. Thus the Eight estimates that US industry outsources around 5 per cent of research expenditure to universities, with the comparable figure for Australia being much the same.

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In what reads like a message for the research commercialisation paper due in the New Year the Go8 argues; “the challenge for Australia is to develop strong and effective relationships between universities and business built on a firm understanding of Australian business needs and capabilities, recognising that these reflect the size structure and sectoral composition of Australian business. International comparisons which ignore these realities can be misleading and it is important that Australia build on the potential that exists here rather than try to emulate overseas models that draw on different business structures and potentialities.”

Swinburne staff finally have a deal

Ten months after Swinburne University staff narrowly voted to adopt a management proposed enterprise agreement, the deal is finally done. The offer was opposed by the campus National Tertiary Education Union after a bitter dispute ended in stalemate and the union immediately challenged it’s adoption in Fair Work Australia, arguing the roll included sometime casual staff ineligible to vote. But FWA finally said no, the count was kosher and thus a conflict of La Trobe-like proportions is over.

We have seen the future, which has arrived

Michael Wells thinks Minister Pyne’s regulation package will speed up the pace of change in higher education but the legislation failing will not mean an end to change. “Greater forces are at play,” says the University of Melbourne veteran and three year TEQSA commissioner who will join consultants PhillipsKPA in February.

Mr Wells argues technology and the presence of private providers will encourage universities to both diversify what they offer and cut their costs. While traditional universities will not see rapid change, “there is investment in technology behind the scenes and while it is not yet evident there is capability building going on.”

“There are a number of universities well down the activity based costing path, they understand their business,’ he says. He points to Swinburne’s online teaching partnerships as a “significant example” of a university using different structures for new activities.” “In the future there will be more variety in teaching structures thanks to technology and use of casuals” Wells adds.

And it seems there is no avoiding change. Mr Wells suggests deregulation; changes to operations management and teaching technology are growth areas for KPA. “Higher education in Australia is a lot more than what is offered in universities,” he says.

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Writing their own manual

Last week Prime Minister Abbott announced the Book Council of Australia to promote writing, encouraging reading and “strengthen the sector’s capacity to respond to rapid change brought by new technologies.” Sound familiar? It will to anybody who remembers Barry Jones’ Book Industry Strategy Group and its September 2011 report to then industry minister Kim Carr. One of its recommendations was for $10m in public money, plus $6m from the trade to create and fund a national university press network. The report went nowhere then but some university publishers are getting on with creating new scholarly communication processes now, without a new bucket of taxpayer funds. They will meet at the snappily titled Council of Australian University Librarians Library Publishing Advisory Committee seminar on March 17-19 at ANU.

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