Known unknowns: how many $100 000 degrees?

Plus Macfarlane moves on training and the week’s five winners

Saying nothing speaks volumes

After the election Education Department management brought in consultants to look at its media team’s performance. It’s been a while so yesterday I asked if there were any changes coming. The best response officials could manage was, “the department is unable to comment on this review as it is part of an ongoing FOI request.” I did not think the issue was all that interesting before, but I do know – what is going on? If you ever wondered why Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s office runs its own efficient information website, my guess this is why.

Never let the stats get in the way of a good story

It took to late morning for supporters of deregulation to organise a counter-attack against the National Tertiary Education Union’s withering $100k degree assault (CMM yesterday). The Innovative Research University office crunched actual, not speculative numbers, for a representative engineering degree to find the break even course cost would be $49 000, not $59 000 as the union estimates.

And then the Group of Eight brought up the big gun with outgoing CEO Mike Gallagher thundering that the union strategy was speculation designed “to scare the hell out of people”. “The paper is designed to purely stoke fears of ‘$100,000 degrees’.  Nevertheless, the NTEU clearly concedes that most degrees won’t cost $100,000, even under the exaggerated assumptions made in the briefing paper.” All fair enough – there are enough known unknowns in this debate to make a case that under deregulation Australian students will have a bigger debt than Japan or a larger profit than Apple. But numbers aside the Go8 response failed because it broke a basic law of strategy – never fight on your opponent’s chosen ground. The university lobbies need to shift the debate back to the benefits of deregulation and they need to shift it fast if they are to convince a majority of senators.

Hold the front tweet

The National Centre for Vocational Education Research announced its newsletter yesterday was “hot off the press” – in a tweet! It’s called an archaism in rhetoric and called meaningless by anybody under 30.

“Teach another class? Certainly milord and lady”

I annoyed people at UTS yesterday when I suggested the generality of university managements like “having a servant class to do the undergraduate teaching, marking and advising that keeps the academic mansion working while the gentry above stairs write papers and attend conferences.” It’s not a new idea; in fact Professor Rob Castle (then DVC Academic) at the University of Wollongong used it in an interview with me back in 2008. Here’s what he said, “in many ways the lifestyle of the traditional teaching (and) research academic is totally dependent on the contribution of sessional staff, in the way that Victorian middle-class lifestyles were dependent on the domestic servant.” He was commenting on The RED report on sessional staff written by a team led by U Wollongong’s Alisa Percy for the then Australian Learning and Teaching Council. It found, “the ‘full-time, permanent, centrally-located teaching/research academic’ is no longer the norm around which policy and practice can be formed.” As to UTS, according to federal figures in 2012 it employed 382 casual teaching only staff, the third highest number in NSW after the University of Sydney (455) and UWS (421). I am sure those at UTS never feel like extras in Downton Abbey.

Cuts to come at RMIT?

There is well-informed talk of a round of redundancies in the works at RMIT – targeting academic staff. A headcount cut of 100 is mentioned, intended to free-up resources for a major push into on-line education. With Martin Bean from the UK Open University taking over as VC in February this makes sense. The university declined to comment last night.

Macfarlane moves on training

Back in June Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane gave the VET system a frank character assessment. “Employers are concerned they aren’t getting the skilled workers they need. Training providers feel weighed down by red tape, endless process and excessive regulation Students, parents and employers tell me they can’t always get the information to make the right decisions about the training,” he said.

Since then the minister has established a business dominated advisory group and yesterday announce another part of his plan, putting the design and maintenance of industry skills packages now managed by Industry Skills Councils, out to tender at the end of existing contracts. While the ISCs are free to pitch for more work Mr Macfarlane made it plain, “industry must have the freedom to design the type of training they’re after, through both full trades qualifications and through skill sets.” The minister also acted on his June vote of not much confidence in the Australian Skills Quality Authority (he blocked a fee increase). “At the moment training providers are required to constantly seek approval from ASQA before they offer new courses or make changes to the courses they are already delivering. The result is an excessive amount of red tape and too much time spent filling out forms instead of filling classrooms or workshops. ASQA should be a regulator, not a book keeper,” he said yesterday. Mr Macfarlane also headed-off, or at least tried, claims that less regulation meant more rorting, saying the government would “work with the sector to implement measures to crack down on unscrupulous or misleading behaviour by ‘brokers’ who act as an intermediary between students and training providers, as part of the new standards for RTOs which begin in January.” These are substantial changes, which some in the training establishment will hate but the state of training, with 50 per cent drop out rates regular in the public sector and the whole system caught in complexity, makes it hard to argue against them.

ASQA acts fast

The Skills Authority was quick off the mark, announcing the criteria for Registered Training Organisations not to have to seek ASQA approval for every new qualification or “unit of competency.” To qualify RTOs will need to have been registered for five years, with a clean compliance record.

Multi-skilled librarians

Library staff at the University of Sydney whose jobs will go in the planned restructure should take heart from an innovation at Edith Cowan U, sleeping pods for students are being installed in the library.  Thus “opens up new career paths for librarians – baristas, bed makers, wait staff, prophylactic dispensers – the list is endless,” says an optimistic observer.

“CSU – now with added employment!”

Charles Sturt University is running an outdoor campaign with a headline “CSU graduates get jobs*” which informs readers “CSU’s graduate employment rate is 10 per cent above the national average.” This is bang-on advertising, a change from the usual interchangeable university campaigns which witter on about innovative excellence, without citing specifics that students care about – like jobs. But what does the quoted employment rate mean? There is no data cited, or a source for the asterixed claim, which could mean many things. But given the Australian Bureau of Statistics unemployment rate for August is 6.1 per cent I’m guessing CSU is not claiming 104 per cent of its graduates available for work are employed.

McSeng

Universities Australia reports “neuroscientists at the University of Wollongong suggest ginseng could be used in the fight against obesity.” At least until people start deep-frying it

Winners of the week

Three vice chancellors did well this week. La Trobe’s John Dewar had a delay on the long march to restructuring his university, with the NTEU securing a Fair Work Australia order for a further three weeks of consultation – but given how long it has taken already I can’t imagine Professor Dewar being fussed, it certainly could have been worse. It could not have been better for QUT’s Peter Coaldrake who was asked to stay on for another term, to December 2017. A case of safe and smart hands in hard and uncertain times. Brand new Monash VC Margaret Gardner showed superior smarts in making what was her first (or damn near) media statement an announcement of support for a state Labor election commitment for a bus-rail interchange near the Clayton campus. Some VCs prefer to operate at lofty policy levels – Professor Gardner obviously understands she has a community to serve. Macquarie neuroscientist Jacqueline Phillips also achieved this week, making the first submission to the Senate committee inquiry into Minister Pyne’s package, which she does not like. Professor Phillips has also written to all crossbench senators explaining why they should vote against the package, (Senator Lambie replied). You did not need to agree with her to celebrate Professor Phillips for speaking up. And finally Terence Speed won the Eureka Prize for Leadership in Science on Wednesday night. Professor Speed leads the bioinformatics team at Walter and Eliza Hall, crunching enormous amounts of data to interpret experiments. He won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science last year.

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