Labor commits to uni changes

But only after negotiation with system

Frozen in Flinders

Last week University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington took the ice bucket challenge and nominated University of South Australia chief David Lloyd, who accepted. But neither called on the state’s third VC, Michael Barber of Flinders to join them. However down in the hermit kingdom they knew it would not look good to be left out so yesterday PVC International Nancy Cromar froze for Flinders. Chill out completed.

Shorten steps up

It was university day in the House of Representatives yesterday. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s second reading speech committed Labor to opposing the entire Pyne package. It was a rhetoric-rich set-piece, claiming mass higher education as a Labor creation and dismissing Chris Pyne as a divisive patrician, intent on excluding Australians from opportunity. Aside from a mention of research, Mr Shorten focused on the proposed increase in the student loan interest rate, without any attention on deregulating fees or allowing private providers to compete for Commonwealth Supported Places.

Mr Shorten was adamant that Labor would make higher education an issue at the next election, which surely is unnecessary if the Pyne package goes over. Not quite, because Mr Shorten committed the Opposition to negotiating with universities, before acting in government. It was hard to hear under all the outrage but the Labor leader was signalling unspecified change to the staggering status quo if he wins the election. Junior shadow minister Amanda Rishworth followed for Labor with a strong speech that repeated all the arguments Kim Carr has made for months.

Then in members statements every Labor speaker got stuck into the Pyne package. While coalition MPs polished parish pumps the comrades denounced Minister Pyne’s plan as an attack on migrant Australians, regional Australians, low income Australians, female Australians and graduate Australians with HECs debt.

Question Time was a letdown, with Labor leading on superannuation. The only question on education came from Jane Prentice (Lib-Qld) who asked “the visionary minister of education,” as she put it, about fees. Mr Pyne explained how vocational education and private college students would save on fees due to access to HECs. And he went on to quote David Gonski’s statement of support yesterday for deregulation. “I give a Gonski, does Mr Shorten?”, the minister asked. It was a sharp counterattack on a day where Labor was on the offensive. But the message is that whoever wins the next election the existing model of universities, under-resourced and over-extended by demand driven funding will change.

Not a rounding error

There was a paper looking back on UWS’s 2012 staff survey at the tertiary education managers’ conference on Monday. Even though it was conducted six months after a major restructure it found a satisfaction rate “1% higher than the sector average.” As much as that!

Research coffee clusters

Mel Thomson, Hips for Hipsters creator and Deakin microbiologist is worried that “poor drug stewardship” in medicine and agriculture has led to a “rising tide” of antibiotic resistant bacteria – which will make now routine procedures like hip replacements much harder in the future. And she has done something about it, raising $12 000 via crowdfunder Pozible, for an in vitro pipeline to test “novel” antimicrobial agents.

So when an entrepreneur like her worries about the future for young researchers working outside the Great Eight you know it is not the standard funding grumble. And Dr Thomson is worried indeed, “the biggest worry I have as a regional researcher is not that I will miss the informal networking opportunities of the coffee shops on the Parkville strip,” she writes. “It is the creeping awareness that the chances of early to mid-career researchers from regional, non-‘Group of Eight‘ university obtaining an NHMRC or ARC fellowship or grant are slim to none.” Surely not. Much to the chagrin of the Eight, grant allocation is institution-blind, for all the resource advantages the old elite enjoys, talent will out.

But I checked with the ARC (for which many thanks) to make sure. And saw Dr Thomson’s point, the Go8 is where indeed grant winners cluster. Last year the Australian Research Council awarded 1037 projects to staff at Group of Eight universities, out of 1545. As for the chance of young researchers winning grants, the average age of Discovery Early Career researchers is always around 35 and Future Fellows, at all institutions, around 40. But last year 45 per cent of chief investigators in Discovery Programs were 50 plus. It’s enough to make a regional researcher pine for Parkville’s coffee.

Open access opportunity

Ian Chub has deployed his considerable policy firepower in support of Open Access. The Chief Scientist recommends in his STEM strategy (below) that the government “enhance dissemination of Australian STEM research by expanding open access policies and improving the supporting infrastructure.” Yes, the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council make public access to research a funding condition and universities run open access depositories. But the commercial publishers can still delay access and charge authors and their institutions to have their work published. Professor Chubb is inviting the open access movement to get on the front foot with strategies to do more.

Cheers for Chubb

The Chief Scientist’s report on a STEM plan for Australia includes little new to people who have followed his speeches and interviews for the last year. Professor Chubb argues that Australia lacks what competitor countries have, an integrated plan to put science, technology engineering and maths at the heart of education and innovation. And despite having heard it all before the lobbies loved it. The Australian Academy of Science “strongly endorsed” Professor Chubb’s plan. Universities Australia only “endorsed” (what happened to the “strongly”?) the statement but went on to approvingly summarise the Chief Scientist’s key points. Vicki Thomson from the Australian Technology Network urged the government to make the report “a critical input” to the National Industry and Investment Competitiveness Agenda, the Entrepreneurs Infrastructure Program and higher education reforms. I’m guessing there is a fair chance of this given Minister Ian Macfarlane launched the strategy.

Digital future

As the University of New England abandons MOOCs its traditional DE competitor Charles Sturt is setting up a research centre on digital leaning and teaching, called Ulmagine. The centre will translate digital product and processes into teaching practise across the university. Great idea, but I must be missing something about the inane name.

Follow the money

Industry (which includes science, as he regularly reminds us) Minister Macfarlane’s launch of Professor Chubb’s STEM scheme urged (again) universities and industry to work closer together. There is a broad hint in Professor Chubb’s green paper (well pages have green headers), particularly on page 18, about what this could mean. It’s where he recommends the government, “establish an Australian Innovation Board to draw together existing Australian programmes and target research and innovation effort.” The Chief Scientist suggests the board determine and support innovation priorities “with an earmarked portion of overall funding” as well as ensure public sector research that supports innovation programs receive “adequate support.” There is also a recommendation for the board to “bring coherence and shared focus to the suite of programmes that presently support innovation.” This could all mean as much or as little as a minister and ambitious board chair want. At the least it could be an advisory body doing not much. But at the most it could mean control of hundreds of millions of dollars being allocated according to innovation priorities. But from where? Money for industry innovation and the ARC is one guess.

First Hurdle

The Office of Learning and Teaching has released first round outcomes for this year’s innovation and development grants and seed projects. Some 12 out of 98 grant applications made the cut to go to a full proposal. Just ten out of 69 seed projects survived. The big (well biggish) winners are Monash with three grant proposals invited to proceed, Griffith with two, Uni Sydney with one grant and one seed prop and the University of South Australia with one each. The biggest submitters were QUT with 14 bids (one seed project to proceed to bid), Uni Sydney, 14, UWS 12 (one grant application goes forward) and Deakin with 11 unsuccessful proposals.

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