Lawyers line up at La Trobe (again)

Plus the Group of Eight endorses motherhood

Sticking to the party line

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was on Radio National this morning reiterating how important it is that the higher education deregulation legislation pass the Senate in the last sitting weeks of the year. But the minister gave nothing away on any concessions to crossbench senators, simply stating that conversations were continuing. With nobody showing any sign of being ready to a deal lord knows what they are talking about.

Close contest

In Victoria both sides are promising many millions for a major heart hospital on either the main Monash University campus or at the neighbouring Monash Medical Centre. It was only weeks back that a Labor promise for a better bus stop at the nearest train station was seen as a big win.

See them in court

No one takes a backward step at La Trobe. On Wednesday night the National Tertiary Education Union announced a last ditch legal attack to stop VC John Dewar’s restructure, suggesting that university management was not celebrated for its efficiency or sensitivity to staff rights. So on Thursday Professor Dewar replied that the NTEU was out of touch with its members needs and was wasting money on legal challenges to a process already ticked off by Fair Work. But if you think that was that with the tit for tat you have not followed this bitter blue since the beginning back in 1618. On Friday morning NTEU official Josh Cullinan had another go, lamenting Professor Dewar’s remarks, suggesting management had spent ten times the NTEU’s $20 000 legal bill fighting the restructure and promising to keep at it; “we do not apologise for continuing to fight for the job security and working conditions of our members. Our members’ working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.”

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And that was before everybody trooped off to the Federal Court later that day, where the parties were ordered to return on Wednesday coming week, where they will argue about clause 74 of the new enterprise agreement.

Clause 74 states La Trobe will only use compulsory redundancies as a last resort, “when all reasonable attempts … to avoid job loss have been unsuccessful.” I’m guessing the two sides could argue over the meaning of “reasonable” up to the International Court of Justice and still not reach an agreement. In the meantime Professor Dewar told staff last Friday, “that at this stage our ongoing strategic restructuring project continues.” And so it seems does the union’s attempt to stop it.

Gone missing

The University of New South Wales promotions committee has nominated 13 staff for promotion to full professor, being ten men and three women. Looks like the usual gender split to me – but you could hardly call it a balance.

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Let’s hear it for motherhood

Last year a grand alliance of national university groups, including the Group of Eight, met in Leiden to assert the autonomy and characteristics of research institutions. They must have had so much fun that a bunch were in Leiden again last week to draw up a statement on the research importance of the social sciences and humanities. Most of the resulting document is motherhood, unremarkable statements of the importance of the SSH disciplines to advancing knowledge and enhancing society. But other than the chance to exchange views in lovely Leiden what possessed the Go8 and equivalent groups from the US and UK, Canada and Japan plus Europe and East Asia to participate in this talkfest? Clause four of the statement says it all.

“Most research done at research-intensive universities, including in the social sciences and humanities, is fundamental or basic research, expanding the frontiers of knowledge through researcher-directed methodologies of discovery and analysis. The expansion of knowledge is, of course, important for its own sake, but the countless practical applications that arise from research in all disciplines often take a long and unpredictable path. Strong and stable research funding will enable both the short-term and long-term benefits of university research to be fully realised.”

When conservatives fume about at research they generally single out humanities projects – like last Wednesday’s effort from the Centre for Independent Studies, which poked fun at the Australian Research Council for funding “a cultural history” of time and a study of the concept of concord in Renaissance Italy. But I’m betting the Go8 is bothered by a bigger threat – the push by Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane to emphasise applied, industry linked research.

On Thursday the Go8 released a paper on the importance of pure science research – by signing the Leiden statement the group is ensuring their research ducks are all in a row.

Who would have thought

Steven Greenland and Catherine Moore have a paper identifying the top five reasons students cite for dropping out of online Swinburne University units, work, personal and family issues, technology problems, absence of online study skills, poor time management and study skills.

Skilling up

The STEM teacher enrichment academy is on this week at the University of Sydney. Founded via a $5m anonymous donation the program involves academics from the university’s science, education and IT faculties working with teachers to increase content knowledge and lift classroom skills. Uni Sydney staff will mentor programme members as they use what they have learned in their classrooms next year. This is seriously smart stuff given the shortage of science and maths teachers. It also establishes brand leadership for the university, which will surely help attract students to its teaching degrees.

Understanding the less than obvious

If you think the labyrinth leading to the current confusion in higher education funding is confusing you are not across the long march to privatisation in voced, which makes Minister Pyne’s package look straghtforward. But John Wilkinson from the NSW State Parliament Library is. His new study of TAFE funding explains how the present private provider focused system has taken 25 years to evolve and why it is remains so contentious.

Borrowing from the time honoured tradition of journalists in short of a conclusion he concludes that whether the new market based system will work, “can only be seen over time.” But I’m guessing he isn’t an optimist. “Not only have commercial providers been brought into the delivery of technical training but even publicly funded institutions have been compelled to operate like their commercial counterparts. … Concerns are also relevant about the quality of service that will be delivered by the newcomers to training provision.”

Science-stars

Missing the best bit

Jill Trewhella is standing down from her post as DVC R at the University of Sydney to take a visiting chair in chemistry awarded by the Swedish Research Council. The appointment requires a minimum of six months and a maximum of 12 spent in Sweden. It must be one hell of an offer to resign a DVC post for, especially when Professor Trewhella is so looking forward to success in next year’s Excellence for Research in Australia 2015.

Back in August Uni Sydney fell out of the global top 100 in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (analyst Kylie Colvin estimates a 20 place drop, to 117th, (CMM August 19)). According to Professor Trewhella the ARWU only counted researchers primary affiliation this year, which hurt Sydney’s research score because many of its medical researchers have their main jobs at research institutes or hospitals. However things would improve, she said, with the university “well positioned to have a complete and verified data submission for ERA 2015 and we have every reason to expect that our top standing among Australian universities will be affirmed in that assessment.” But now it seems that while Professor Trewhella will be around to supervise Sydney’s submission,  she will miss the glory. Her term expires in June, before ERA outcomes are expected.

Brighter lights

The ARC Centre for Nanoscale Biophotonics, which opened at the University of Adelaide on Friday, will use light and optical fibres to measure biological processes, for example, what happens in the brain when pain hits. “With these new tools, we will be able to measure things we have never been able to measure before and look at significant health issues in completely new ways,” centre director Mark Hutchinson said. With $38m to work with this sounds like it has the makings of impressive science, which makes me wonder what the University of South Australia could possibly have in the offing that lured Tanya “photon girl” Monro away from Adelaide. As a photonics specialist Professor Monro was expected to be involved in this centre, but earlier this year she defected to the University of South Australia where she is now DVC R.

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Interchangeably ordinary

In good news for Austrade it turns out that it does not lead the world in lame national education branding. Yes, the “Future Unlimited” campaign does not actually explain the benefits of studying in Australia. But the Canadian equivalent is equally ordinary. As HE consultant Alex Usher suggested the other day, the Imagine education in/au Canada brand, “has some weaknesses, mainly it is confusing and not seen as linked to education and Canada. Gosh, I wonder why institutions might not want to promote the national brand first?” he asked. Good question. I wonder if anybody would notice if the two countries trade agencies swapped slogans.

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