HELPful hints for the budget

 

Plus Uni Melbourne to muscle up on research requirements 

and the NHMRC explains why we need wind farm research

IEAA announces the big day

IDP reports a late April release of the new national international education strategy, which will be accompanied by a coordinating council to oversight it, including a federal minister (Senator Colbeck CMM assumes) and industry representatives. The information is in an International Education Association of Australia member briefing.

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Norton’s budget HELP

Reducing the threshold for repayment of HELP scheme university study debts by $12 000 would save Canberra $500m in the first year, according to a new analysis by Andrew Norton for the Grattan Institute. A $42 000 threshold, “would cut interest costs and HELP’s rapidly expanding doubtful debt bill while maintaining the fairness and effectiveness of the programme,” Mr Norton says.

The interest subsidy is the difference between CPI, now charged on HELP debts and the rate the Commonwealth pays to borrow money.

A lower threshold will also capture payments from some of the 25 per cent of graduates who work part-time, earning less than the repayment base. And most of this group do so of choice, just one on five of graduates working part-time prefer longer hours Mr Norton says. In 2013-14 a $42 000 threshold would have doubled the number of graduates aged 25 or under who made a HELP repayment

Mr Norton also analyses a range of other issues, higher repayments at upper incomes, assessing debt on all income rather above the threshold, the impact of repayment on second income earners in affluent families, for example. It is the sort of analysis that explains why he is the pin-up of policy people but it is the lower payment threshold that will generate political ire and interest, probably more of the former than the latter.

If, as expected, the May budget changes HELP repayment terms expect to hear Mr Norton’s case for change quoted loudly and often.

“Higher education cannot be exempt from measures to bring the budget back into balance and both the Labor and Liberal parties have proposed significant higher education cuts. The question we should ask is which cuts do least harm to higher education policy objectives? If HELP can achieve its income contingent repayment goals at lower expense, we should reform it. That would be better than freezing public funding for teaching or reducing research funding, which are easier but more damaging ways of saving money in higher education.”

Given the government’s innovation agenda is locked in and Education Minister Simon Birmingham has guaranteed demand driven funding Mr Norton has set out the case for what will likely be the big education savings measure in the budget.

Not that the minister is giving anything away. On Sunday his office released a statement reminding us that “funding of university students has, essentially, grown at twice the rate of the economy” and that all ideas how to sustainably fund higher education are welcome.” Especially, CMM suspects, like Mr Norton’s.

Partial solution to part of the problem

The Group of Eight was quick to comment on the Norton report yesterday, accepting that there had to be a limit to study debt but warning Mr Norton‘s proposal was not a solution to university underfunding.

“The Australian taxpayer is carrying a significant  debt and clearly it cannot keep  growing –  something will have to give. This proposal works to reduce the taxpayers outstanding debt  but  will actually do little to address the distorted funding model where research is cross-subsidised by student fees, where student fees do not correspond to the cost of teaching, and the drivers of government policy of quantity over quality remain.  Clearly the government is looking at a range of options  and this is one  worthy of consideration  – but  not in isolation and not as a solution to the current funding  squeeze we are facing,” Group of Eight chair and University of Sydney VC Michael Spence said.

Conor King, from the Innovative Research Universities also responded last night to the Norton proposal, suggesting that its crucial point is that thresholds for the various loan schemes that started with HECS have varied over time without an impact on higher education take-up. He also argues the history of the schemes shows that the majority of past debtors paid back the Commonwealth.

“The report continues the pressure for government to make sure people repay in full, via changes that do not have major policy consequences. HECS has gone from a scheme to get a fair bit back to a scheme that is failing if nearly all does not come back. The estate repayment option and overseas repayment change are part of this,” Mr King said.

And so it begins

Members of the Murdoch U branch of the National Tertiary Education Union meet on Thursday to ratify the log of claims prepared by officials so bargaining can commence. CMM assumes incoming VC Eeva Leinonen knows what she is getting herself into.

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Uni Melbourne muscles up on research requirements

University of Melbourne top management is working on new performance measures designed to force out staff whose research output does not meet funding targets or impact requirements. Academics will be assessed according to a metrics-heavy performance development framework, which will variously make more rigorous, or replace, existing criteria that management considers are not now adequately enforced.

The university is keeping quiet on its plans to transform teaching and research requirements for academics, with union representatives excluded from the working groups doing the detailed planning. While management is offering over-sight briefings this seems to be as a prelude to formal negotiation on change management rather than as part of the design process.

Plans for a new research outcome model match changes to teaching, including more online classes and extended class hours, that are in development (CMM February 24).

In combination the plans for teaching and research are a third stage of the transformation of the university, which began with the Melbourne Model of degrees and widespread administrative changes in the Business Improvement Plan, (November 10 2014).

Obscure incubators

The Innovative Research Universities has backed the government’s plan for new and stronger innovation incubators, especially in regions where none exist. ‘The main challenge will be how to decentralise the programme so that it work for all parts of Australia and all industries. … IRU members, with their research-intensive profile, based in or with major campuses in regional Australia, are well placed to take up this challenge. At the same time, new incubators should not be limited to regions where complex requisite infrastructure is already present.”

However working out where to put them is harder than it looks, what with nobody knowing where all the existing incubators are. “It would be useful to have a publicly-available list of existing incubators. This would be beneficial for current start-ups looking for incubator support … such a list currently does not exist.”

CAPA’s realpolitik

There was a predictable response to Matthew Knott ‘s Fairfax story last week that the feds will announce in the budget collection of study debt from deceased estates. Greens education spokesman Robert Simms summed it up, huffing that the government should not pursue students “beyond the grave.”

But what wasn’t as predictable is the response from the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations. According to National President Jim Smith;

“We do not demur from the fact that savings have to be found in the upcoming budgetary cycle to address the structural budget deficit caused by personal income tax cuts given to high income earners during the mining boom. High-income university graduates received the bulk of these personal income tax cuts and on that basis accumulated large amounts of wealth. This wealth would otherwise be passed on as unearned inheritances. As such, recovering outstanding debts to the taxpayer accrued through the HECS system is a fair and just mechanism of budget repair.”

This is in contrast, Mr Smith adds, to the “deeply unfair fee deregulation proposal” and any lowering of HECS repayment thresholds. Even so, CAPA’s statement will cheer up Education Minister Simon Birmingham. It is an improvement on the nupathon that greets any talk of increasing student fees and it will provide the government with an argument to justify the lower threshold on study debt repayment, expected in the budget and perhaps the introduction of an interest rate above CPI.

Different point

Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne made a powerful case for studying STEM the other day, just not the one he intended. “John O’Sulllivan didn’t know his study of black holes would lead him to co-inventing Wi-Fi technology. Studying science, technology and maths can lead to exciting jobs,” the minister said, via Twitter. Critics of the government’s applied research agenda will agree, adding this is why the feds are wrong to focus funding on improving existing technologies instead of bankrolling researchers to pursue interesting ideas. No one had a clue what Wi Fi was when Professor O’Sullivan started.

The way the wind blows

It took a bare 24 hours from the National Health and Medical Research Council announcing $3.1m in funding for research into the medical impact of wind farms for a list to appear of deserving medical issues that receive less.

However when CMM requested an interview with NHMRC chair Anne Kelso to ask her about the decision the response was a polite nothing doing. Funnily enough, there was no mention of the money in the council’s Research Tracker, released last Thursday, but the council had a package ready on why it had acted, setting out research since the rescinded 2010 statement which found “there is no published scientific evidence to support adverse effects of wind turbines on health (CMM March 23)

The new case for the new projects includes a 2015 document, which states:AHCHF_web_header

“There is no direct evidence that exposure to wind farm noise affects physical or mental health. While exposure to environmental noise is associated with health effects, these effects occur at much higher levels of noise than are likely to be perceived by people living in close proximity to wind farms in Australia. The parallel evidence assessed suggests that there are unlikely to be any significant effects on physical or mental health at distances greater than 1,500 m from wind farms. There is consistent but poor quality direct evidence that wind farm noise is associated with annoyance. While the parallel evidence suggests that prolonged noise-related annoyance may result in stress, which may be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, annoyance was not consistently defined in the studies and a range of other factors are possible explanations for the association observed.”

So why spend scarce money on a problem which does not look a major health risk?

“Although it is unlikely that there are significant health effects at a distance of more than 1,500 m from wind farms, concern has been expressed by people living near wind farms about perceived impacts on their health. … Given these reported experiences and the limited reliable evidence HMRC considers that further, higher quality, research is warranted, ” the council states.

Good-oh, but CMM does not wonder what will happen if the new research finds wind turbines are not inimical to human health – politically well connected people who think they are will demand yet more research.

James Cook sails for calmer seas

Last month James Cook University announced job cuts, which sounded like a done deal, (CMM February 3 ). Turns out it wasn’t. After weeks of consultation the university has held the line on some of its original intentions but changed its position on others – which makes CMM wonder why management did not talk first and announce later, rather than only consult at length after the campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union got involved. They could have saved everybody an arsenal of anguish.

Jobs will still go, one dean and 24 other academic positions plus three professional staff. But earth sciences will stay on at the Cairns campus and changes to the allocation of teaching of law and business subjects between Cairns and Townsville are off. Consultations on, fiercely contested, changes involving the amphibian research team are continuing.

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Dolt of the day

Is CMM. On Thursday I confused the AshokaU changemaker campus programme, which CQU has just joined, with Ashoka University. The former is in Virginia, the latter India.

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