And so it begins: Senate hearings on Pyne package

Plus Julia’s three big ticks

And so it begins

The Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee begins its first full day of hearings on the Pyne package this morning in Brisbane – and a big day it will be indeed. U of Q economist John Quiggin and University of Canberra VC Stephen Parker are on early, which will ensure senators hear their vehement opposition to reform loud and clear. Universities Australia chair Sandra Harding and the Australian Technology Network’s acting chair Deborah Terry and executive director Vicki Thomson follow.  After lunch Peter Lee and Caroline Perkins from the Regional Universities Network step up and then private providers and TEQSA get a go. This is going to be a fascinating and very important day.

Campus coincidence

The Victorian Government announced $45m to a redevelopment of Chisholm Institute’s Frankston Campus yesterday to “meet the need for employment related training in the local area” notably in trades and advanced manufacturing, “including mechatronics and fluid power.” Talk about a lucky bit of timing with the announcement being ready just weeks before the state election, due at the end of November and in a seat the government needs to win.

Bad reviews for CSU

Charles Sturt University is closing its Burlington Ontario teacher education campus. Although the university has made no announcement that I can find in Australia it appears a local over-supply of teachers is largely to blame. You can understand while the CSU spinners want to keep bad, albeit remote news out of the papers – what with the treatment the university got from its home-patch Western Advocate which headlined a yarn yesterday, “Charles Sturt Uni fails to obtain a global ranking.” The story was about the Times Higher rankings and quoted VC Andy Vann explaining how the THE criteria were not relevant to the university’s regional teaching and research mission. It was all fair enough but “fails to obtain global ranking” is the sort of collateral damage that can undo months of marketing.

Unchanging values

There were speculative stories on the weekend that crossbench senators will block the Pyne package without more money for regional universities. That shouldn’t be hard to organise – it’s why God created the National Party. But what happens if a senator, say former DLP now independent representative for Victoria, John Madigan, decides he just can’t increase fees for his core constituency, low and middle income people with tribes of kids. You can almost hear him voting down deregulation. “The question I have to ask myself is whether I’m going to be a party to imposing an impersonal indiscriminate tax on my children, my grandchildren and their children for generations to come. I cannot.” Yes that was Brian Harradine in 1999 announcing he would vote against the GST, but it suits the times.

Julia’s big tick

Julia Gillard on three fave universities (as revealed in her memoire).

James Cook: “will continue to rebel in being a university of and for its geographic place … it leads the world in some tropical-research fields, including tropical medicine.

UWS: “stand-out example” of universities that “aspire to be big educators of undergraduates, including those reaching people who have traditionally been denied access to university education.”

Uni Adelaide: “a fine example of innovation, choosing to find the future by discovering the best of the past with small number personal-contact teaching models.”

There goes their chance of a past first-family ever endowing chairs of Kevin studies.

E-Z payment plan

The Group of Eight is shipping more briefs than Bonds as it struggles to sell deregulation as good, well at least not bad, for students. The Eight has no alternative, what with the way the chance of selling the Senate crossbench on the benefits to universities disappeared when the “$100,000 degree” became common currency. So now the Eight is arguing, alone Pyne lines, that fees do matter because the feds will loan students whatever they need. The paper explains how HELP works and suggests no one will worry about carrying big debts because if they can’t repay it they don’t have to.

“It is often claimed that HELP debts constrain major life choices for graduates. There is no evidence that this is true. There is no reason why HELP debts should prevent graduates from getting home loans or starting families, as is sometimes claimed. At the margins, the small reduction in disposable income resulting from HELP repayments may influence decision-making. But there is no reason why the size of an outstanding liability should have an influence. And there is no evidence that it does. It is true that new graduates find it hard to enter the housing market, but this cannot be attributed to HELP. There are far more significant barriers, most importantly (and obviously) the price of houses.”

Um, spot the flaw in that argument. The real interest rate the feds intend to impose will mean lower income earners will take a lot longer and pay a bunch more interest on their debt. As the Eight acknowledge. “The government is proposing to introduce a real interest rate on HELP debts, meaning graduates would pay more in total (in real terms) the longer they took to repay. The effect would be regressive: graduates who earn less would pay more.”

Quite. But while everybody assumes the government will drop the real interest rate plan nothing is announced – and until/unless it is, student debt under deregulation will be bad news for graduates.

Unless the Eight have another objective – to head off the case for creating a lifetime cap on student borrowings as Swinburne VC Linda Kristjanson advocates. Supporters suggest the Eight hate the idea of a cap because it would limit what they could practically charge – imagine telling students they would have to borrow some of their course costs from the banks! Opponents argue that it is regulation by another name – that every university would set fees at the maximum borrowing limit.

Whatever the policy dimensions, the issue will be decided by getting (or not) the $100k degree warning out of circulation.

Chris was crook

Minister Pyne was unwell on Friday, sending substitutes to engagements – perhaps Jane Prentice describing him as “erudite” in Thursday’s Question Time made him ill with embarrassment.

Practical politics

There was enough content for several conferences in Brian Head’s (UoQ) presidential address at the Australian Political Science Association conference last week. For a start there was an insight into practitioners’ thinking on directions for the discipline from a member survey which asked the key themes for new work – “power, governance, democracy, civil and political rights, international issues, globalisation, and policy issues.” But Professor Head also wondered how to put research into the permanent problems of civil society on the agenda when politicians prefer ones for which there are definable solutions – “the moon and the ghetto distinction” (as in “we can put a man on the moon but not fix poverty”).

“This says something about how economic ideology works, and how the medical lobbies have worked tirelessly to promote their messages; but it also says something about how we have failed to articulate the social value and contributions that we do in fact make every day as social and political scientists.”

So what’s to be done? The answer is one that everybody who follows the ICAC inquiries in NSW, which demonstrate (at best) an erosion of standards, will understand. The profession must explain the value of what it does to hold civil society together.

“Value as identifying risks, and constraining or reducing avoidable harms (e.g. actioning the precautionary principle). Value as promoting civilised social norms (the conditions of our common humanity). Value as promoting effective embedding of civil and political rights. Value as identifying institutional conditions for problem solving and conflict resolution. Value as broadening social understanding as a basis for intelligent debate Value as providing civic education and contributing to positive social interaction. In short, we provide value through enhancing good public governance.”

Great speech.

Counting the cost

Left-leaning lobby the Australia Institute has fact-checked claims in the debate over how much students will pay if course costs are deregulated. The inputs used and arguments made are fair enough but what is especially interesting is the way the AI assumes students and university interests are not the same. “It is unclear what share of funding will come from students overall, but it is likely to be higher than 50 per cent and to rise as fees rise. However, this is a share of funding, not of costs. Students are likely to get more for paying more, but it is unclear how much more, and likely that substantial parts of the fee increases will be used to fund research.”

Universities that think they could charge up to fund research and just blame the feds for not spending fee income on teaching should think again. To adapt David Ogilvie, the market is not an idiot, it is your kids.

Small share

ANU is selling out of minerals and energy shares as part of its socially responsible investment policy. I wonder how oil and gas major Santos, one of the five to go, will take being considered not responsible. This show of principle will not be painful for the university, the stocks to go account for just 5 per cent of ANU’s Australian share portfolio. Bit it will encourage other activists to target individual institutions, which is an easier approach than asking members to lean on funds. In August NSW members of the National Tertiary Education Union considered calling on members to demand UniSuper sell out of Transfield – a subsidiary is, or was, involved in managing offshore migration detention facilities. It seems UniSuper has money in a fund, which holds Transfield but the campaign did not generate much interest among members.

What the market will bear

Database search service EBSCO has asked journal publishers for their planned 2015 price rises for Australia and predicts subscribers will 5 per cent to 7 per cent more for $US dollar purchasers. While some of this will be due to the weaker $A publishers have generally increased prices by 5 per cent per annum in recent years, when the Aussie was strong. It seems the real reason for the hikes is because institutions will pay them.

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