It’s not over yet: deregulation debate after the election

Plus universities stand up for open access

 Brevity in Bristol

Erik Lithander is leaving ANU, where he is PVC International, to take up a similar post at the University of Bristol. He will be missed, not least for his carefully considered judgements. When asked by campus paper Woroni for his take on VC Ian Young he replied; “Measured. (Long Pause). Driven. (Short Pause). Inclusive.” (Campus Morning Mail, August 9 2013) 

Regulated deregulation

The Australian always editorialises in favour of deregulation, but as a leader yesterday made plain, demand drive funding not so much, because, “of its potential to erode academic standards and lower the entry bar for teaching and other degrees.” The editorial pointed to stats capable of being confected into a crisis showing people who should have never started at university stopping.

Opposing open access is an entirely defensible argument for everybody who believes that higher education should be for elite students. But as for attrition across the system – ‘twas ever thus. Transfers, dropouts and deferments were around 25  per cent in the 90s, when supply was rationed. And as Universities Australia pointed out yesterday, “on uni attrition, it’s important not to jump to conclusions. In 2005 (capped enrolments) attrition was 15%. Latest figures (uncapped) 14.8%.”

In any case, rationing places would rather reduce the impact of the competitive market, which the paper supports. Imagine what in-demand universities would charge if they could cap course numbers and say Canberra stopped them enrolling more people at lower cost!

CEF August B

Open access allies

Peter Lee, Southern Cross U VC and Regional Universities Network chair also responded to The Australian’s editorial, “regional universities and those that focus on online courses are more likely to deal with students who are less advantaged and may be less well prepared for university education. Many are first in family to higher education, mature age, from low SES backgrounds, and distance students. … While the headline attrition rates at regional universities are, in general, higher than those at metropolitan universities, this reflects the background of our students,” he wrote.

“Giving students the opportunity to study for a degree does not mean that academic standards are at risk: there is no inherent conflict between equity of opportunity and maintaining academic integrity.”

Professor Lee will not convince people who think things were better when 20 per cent of young people went to university but any concerted attack on the demand driven funding system will mobilise vice chancellors, education unionists and the hundreds of thousands of parents who have bought the message that education is the engine of social mobility for their children. Although, being on the same side as Chris Pyne might bother some of the activists.

Chilled out

Every summer the average Oz office is full of jacket wearing blokes comfortable in the air conditioning and women wearing winter woollies lest they succumb to the cold. CMM always assumed that this is because temperatures are set to suit the coat and tie tribe. But no, as Nature Climate Change reports, it is because air con settings were established decades back on the basis of the male metabolism, ignoring women who are naturally cooler (in many senses) and thus don’t need the air con up high.

ACPET 2015 Conf EDM-FINAL

Soon, but not real, real soon

Parliament resumes next week and opponents of Christopher Pyne’s deregulation package are dusting off the warnings about “$100 000 degrees” that saw the proposal fail in the Senate twice lest the minister introduce it again. But while the government is saying third time lucky it is assessing its options. A former education official, now with management consultants the Nous Group, is said to be discretely taking soundings on what crossbench senators will wear. CMM suspects it will be nothing especially elegant – that the debate was lost, in this parliament at least, when the National Tertiary Education Union and its allies made deregulation synonymous with “$100 000 degrees” in the public mind.

But even if the government decides against venturing into the chamber of upper house horrors this year the deregulation debate isn’t over. Advocates of ever-more public money aside, there is a consensus that open access makes the existing model unsustainable, increasing outlays for Canberra while decreasing the ability of universities to fund all their missions as teaching costs increase. Senator Nick Xenophon, no friend to the existing proposal, calls for an inquiry – a suggestion roundly rejected earlier this year by vice chancellors. But an election commitment by the government to a source-of-funding review if it wins would generate the debate that could not occur when Chris Pyne’s plan was included  in the 2014 budget. If Labor wins it would likely do the same. Craig Emerson demonstrated that Labor will cut funding if it needs to. As higher education elder Kwong Lee Dow predicted (CMM November 13 2014), “historical trends suggest that deregulation of domestic undergraduate fees will come in Australia- perhaps not immediately, and perhaps by a stepwise mechanism. But it will happen, and fairly soon.” Just not in the next 12 months.

ANU June 1

Making a splash

The University of Queensland reported a really big story yesterday; “thousands cross new walkway daily.” The Walkley deliverer will doubtless be using it present the university’s prize

Fail grades

The Productivity Commission has a bracing assessment of how the education and training system isn’t helping the struggling young and what to do about it in yesterday’s report on workplace relations; “Australia already expends a large amount of public resources on training and education. Many see this system as deficient. The immediate reform task is not to expand that system to improve the employability of marginal job seekers, but to improve the efficiency and design of the system itself. That task … may well have a high benefit-cost ratio, and might be preferred to any direct measures to lower the costs to employers of marginal labour trade-off.” You always now what the PC thinks.

Ship of skills

The government’s promise of a continuous naval build in Adelaide yesterday did not deal with one question – who will do the building? The scope of the spend, $40bn for frigates and corvettes (no, not little red ones) involves many years of work and it goes way beyond soaking up some of the unemployment generated by the end of the car industry. VET and universities need to start planning how they will meet the demand for skilled workers for years to come. Given state training minister Gail Gago says TAFE has to have a near monopoly on state training places because it is uncompetitive this does not seem a job it will be especially good at. CMM wonders in what year the stories about skills shortages in Adelaide shipyards will start.

Akolade

No token bloke

The National Tertiary Education Union’s women in higher education union conference is on this Friday and Saturday and features 28 very serious speakers indeed, including Charles Darwin U DVC Sharon Bell and NTEU President Jeannie Rea. A core conference objective is to; “to empower women to take on the corporatist, masculinist power structures and practices still in our universities,” which maybe why one bloke gets to speak. If anybody knows about knocking off power structures in universities it is NTEU General Secretary Grahame McCulloch.

Keeping cashed up

According to industry analysts Outsell, the STEM information market was up 3.6 per cent last year, to US$33.7bn. Ye Gods, no wonder textbook and journal publishers like things the way they are.

But they will not be doing their damndest to knock off open-access legislation, which has passed committee and now goes to the full US Senate. The bill delivers on an Obama Administration demand that research published with public funds be freely available to the people who pay for it. Most measures of this kind, notably in the UK take this line but leave an out clause allowing journal publishers to maintain 12-month embargoes. This Fair Access to Science and Technology Research bill originally went way beyond this, allowing only six month embargoes, but late last month this was amended to 12 months, but “preferably sooner.” The change is said to be necessary to bring onside higher education associations and scientific societies, which prefer 12 months. Given people want to read breakthrough STEM and medical research as soon as it is published this leave the best bit of the publishers’ model intact.

UoQ

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