“We look like a rabble”: university alliance at risk

Q&A again

There was yet another protest against deregulation at the University of Sydney yesterday with students on a balcony outside a Senate meeting – and yes they draped a banner over the balustrade.

Entente not so cordiale

With the exception of University of Canberra VC Stephen Parker’s lone stand against deregulation Universities Australia has done well to hold its factions together and present a united front on fees to the Senate cross bench. Getting all universities to accept deregulation in broad principle without individuals and blocs attaching self-interested addenda is an achievement. But the alliance is starting to strain with the Group of Eight running its own separate strategy. A couple of weeks back it lobbied MPs and senators at its own Parliament House event and now its has formed an alliance of convenience with the Regional Universities Network. The two groups propose assistance for the bush, funded in part by placing an enrolment threshold on access to money for participation programs. This is self-servingly smart policy but politically too clever by half. It is hard to see all universities outside the Eight, (which presumably can afford to lose the money it would give to the regionals) endorsing it.

There is always talk of groups of universities withdrawing from UA but it is not going to happen now. All universities are united by the need for an independent revenue stream and disunity would be death for deregulation, which is why the Go8 has taken to praising the Universities Australia leadership. But the Go8-RUN proposal will test the university alliance. “We are looking like a rabble,” one veteran of university system politics said yesterday.

Another from a major metropolitan campus was far more direct, “not content with bullying, Universities Australia to sign up to its hardline position, the Group of Eight is now working to cut UA out of the debate entirely, now taking the regionals along for a ride. “In so doing, they risk seriously offending the non-regional, non-elite metropolitans. So far the metropolitans seem to have been content to go along for the ride but the sheer manipulation on display by the Go8 is pushing so-called sector ‘unity’ to breaking point.”

Coaldrake continues

QUT VC Peter Coaldrake will stay in the chair until December 2017. This is a sensible move. The university could be facing the greatest period of change in Australian higher education or an absolute shambles, possibly, probably, both. It requires a VC who knows the former and how to help it avoid the latter.

Who will get what

The response to the G08-RUN proposal ranged from irritation to arguing that the regional network could not expect to have an assistance package all its own. Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities warned that for his members with “operations outside of the capital cities there are potential challenges to retain being what we were set up to be – a comprehensive option for students in the region, (especially)  if the competition is so tough that more marginal courses have to be cut back.  We further have the challenge to maintain our research output.”

“The issue of ensuring that potential students retain a good option in their region applies to outer metro universities and their campuses, of which IRU members are one set but a very important one. … Any decent scheme targeting service, potential but not failure for non capital city universities will be dominated by IRU members.”

Commentators also questioned whether the Go8 had thought the implications of the scholarships idea through. If members of the Eight give up their equity funding from Canberra in favour of RUN will the elite shut down their indigenous units, or fund them from student fees? And what of low SES students from the cities? There is also a policy question to answer – should the threshold for funding be the number or percentage of students at a university. The University of Sydney’s students from low SES backgrounds make up just 7.5 per cent of enrolments, but this translates to 2000 plus people. In contrast, while nearly a quarter of Federation U students are low SES this translates to 1200.

Selectively quoted

“Student debt is like HPV if you go to college you are certainly going to get it and it will follow you for the rest of your life,” John Oliver said on his US Sunday night HBO show. Yes he talked a lot about low-rent private providers and yes the yanks have not figured out income contingent loans yet but I give it to lunchtime before Oliver starts getting quoted (perhaps not that bit) in the Australian deregulation debate

Perfect match

The government announced $200m yesterday for the Australian Apprenticeship Support Network, “to lift apprenticeship completion rates.” This should be a winner for the feds – TAFE completions (and not just for apprentices) are crook, enrolments have dropped through the decade and the state government training systems are a convenient target. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, regularly explains the need to focus training on what business says it needs. Um, except that the network looks like an introduction agency, providing advice to prospective apprentices and employers and connecting them through “targeted job matching”. This did not impress Labor training spokeswoman Sharon Bird who says the government is rebadging existing programs and cutting their funding.

Continuing the day’s cash for the country theme, Mr Macfarlane and the prime minister also announced $38m to fund SMEs that hire and train unemployed kids in regional communities.

All politics is local

In what is her first statement, or close to it, Monash University’s new VC, Margaret Gardner has spoken out for Labor. The Victorian party that is, and in support of its election promise to build a bus interchange at Huntington Station.

Gift for Kim

Expect to hear a bunch about the proposed regional universities assistance package in the Senate committee hearings on deregulation – but not from supporters of the Pyne plan. This is a gift for Labor senator Kim Carr who will lead the charge in the Senate committee hearings on the package. “The compromises that the various parties are now seeking risk creating a patchwork system of university support – a hodge podge of funding mechanisms that lacks policy coherence … Mr Pyne needs to admit it is time to go back to the drawing board,” Senator Carr said yesterday.

Lethal labs

Macquarie University is closing seven chemistry labs and four related facilities because of “repeated breaches of obligations” under health and safety laws and university policy. According to acting Dean of science, Peter Nelson, “despite repeated attempts to bring these laboratories into compliance, the University and the Faculty of Science has decided that it has no option but to order the closure of … laboratories for all research activities until such time that they are determined to be compliant.” Specific problems include hazardous chemicals and equipment “which is not in good working order” not being properly stored. Sounds serious – but how did it get to a point where researchers and students are not allowed to access labs? Surely the issues could have been addressed before requiring an edict signed by the dean and his deputy, Lesley Hughes, plus Michael Carley, who manages health and safety out of the VC’s office, and head of chemistry Helena Nevalainen.

Broad appeal

There was much debate in magland when the Australian Women’s Weekly put Turia Pitt on its cover back in June. The ultra-marathoner and burns survivor was dreadfully hurt when caught in a Kimberley bushfire while competing in a race. But the cover is said to have been a circulation success and there is no doubting the breadth of her appeal– Ms Pitt, also a mining engineer, is listed as a keynote at Macquarie University’s TEDx at the end of the month.

RUN for the money

As the RUN makes the case for more cash staff at Southern Cross University are questioning whether their VC, and Regional Universities Network chair, Peter Lee, manages well the money he has . According to Kate Mitchell, president of the campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union, “we have legitimate concerns about the financial health of the university and what this could mean for the local community”. The union is running a petition calling for an independent inquiry into SCU’s finances. That the NTEU also fears job losses as SCU works to repair finances might have something to do with it. In June the NSW Auditor General distinguished SCU as the one poor performer among the state’s universities. “Despite falling revenues, employee expenses increased 4.9 per cent following pay rises of 4.0 per cent, and one-off redundancy costs,” the Auditor advised. Professor Lee responded that the situation was being repaired at that SCU would deliver a much performance for this year.

Here’s a tip

ACPET’s Larry David was with the Prime Minister’s trade delegation to India last week and says “he gets the feeling” the Australian Government is keen to focus the training relationship on community colleges and best practise business models. Looks less like a feeling than signalling an announcement to come.

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