Loud and clear: Senate hearing gets many messages

Show them the money

Swinburne is doubling its scholarship budget to $2m, with awards for 250 undergraduates in three merit and equity programs valued from $1000 to $5000 per annum for three years. There is also a $2000 travel grant for scholarship holders who want to study overseas. Gosh, who isn’t this like? Well, it’s not like La Trobe, which is offering scholarship winners a guaranteed fee ceiling. Cash up front or protection from fee increases – my guess is the former will appeal to most commencing undergraduates.

Universal aspirations

Senator Bridget McKenzie had a big day yesterday, chairing the Senate committee hearings into the Pyne deregulation package (below) and delivering a crucial speech for Minister Pyne in the evening. The senator spoke to the Australian Education International conference in Brisbane, providing a “broad response” to the Chaney report on export education – which was that Chaney got it pretty much right and the government will do something about its recommendations soon. “The divide between Australian students and students overseas seeking an education in Australia is not as wide as people think. All students want the same things – a high quality education and an enriching educational experience that leads to good employment prospects,” Senator McKenzie said. I wonder if anybody in the audience had read the Deakin-UTS report on international students’ experience in the job market (below).

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Rural retreats

There is a degree of irritation around with the way the Regional Universities Network claims it deserves a big share of the pot from the proposed equity scholarships scheme – what with low SES students attending all sorts of universities. But rather than grizzle the indefatigable Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities has dug into the stats to make the point. According to a briefing paper yesterday IRU (which represents institutions with urban and regional bases) teaches 28 per cent of students who are taught from country campuses.

Education in the school of hard knocks

International students want to work in Australia after graduation and many hope to immigrate, but as the report of a study from Deakin and UTS academics demonstrates, both options are not easily achieved. The report is based on a longitudinal survey of nursing, engineering and accounting students who studied at unnamed universities plus interviews with university staff and employers. And it should be read at any university where growth in international business is assumed. The report quotes graduates worried immigration requirements can change and depressed when they find permanent residency does not make job hunting easier. Understandably so; “employers are looking for graduates who will easily transition into the workplace, who will not only be hardworking and productive employers but who will also be able to maintain good relationships with staff and clients. While many employers mobilised a discourse about the values of diversity, hiring an international graduate was often perceived as too risky in the current climate,” the report states.

It raises (but does not endorse) three areas where universities could improve their international graduates’ chances, embedding English language teaching in courses, teaching the so-called ‘soft skills’, teamwork, interpersonal communications and the like and helping them prepare for job hunting.

However it makes clear that the challenge for international graduates extends beyond their own education and abilities. “There is substantial evidence to suggest that by and large, employers would prefer to hire a domestic graduate than an international graduate.”

Efficiencies at UWS

The tumbrils draw closer  on at UWS as consultants from the Nous Group work with management on “increasing operational efficiencies” among administrators. “We are working towards an outcome that more efficiently harnesses the expertise of staff across the university and directs effort to where it will have the greatest impact. This may involve re-aligning and centralising some functions,” Vice Chancellor Barney Glover told staff yesterday. “It is anticipated that some of the savings will be redirected to new capabilities required for the university to achieve its strategic goals and respond to the changing higher education environment,” Professor Glover added. I wonder what he plans to do with the rest? The savings that is, the fate of surplus staff seems certain.

Deregulation special: neither side is moving 

Nay sayers first

National Tertiary Education Union supporters in Brisbane were out early yesterday, mounting a picket outside the Senate committee hearings into the deregulation legislation yesterday. The cuts would cost Queensland universities $890m, some degrees would cost $100 000, regional universities would cut courses and sack staff and low SES students would be locked out of an education, was the core of their case. The nay case in a nutshell.

Endorsed without enthusiasm

The hearings began quietly yesterday with Sandra Harding, wearing her James Cook U VC hat. Professor Harding said she would prefer more money and no cuts but if there is to be reduced government funding then she would settle for replacement money from students via fees. She did not seem wildly enthusiastic about the argument, but stuck with it, despite questioning by Labor’s Kim Carr. But she did welcome a question from committee chair Bridget McKenzie, who asked she thought the proposed adoption of the bond rate for student debt. Professor Harding said it is was a bad thing – which seemed to be the anticipated answer.

Ugly Americans

This was followed by an agree-a-thon between Senator Carr and economist John Quiggin in which they explored the failings of the Group of Eight’s advocacy of deregulation and the faults of the US higher education system. Professor Quiggin stuck to his guns when Senator McKenzie and her colleague Chris Back (Lib-WA) asked him to demonstrate where Minister Pyne had advocated adopting a US model.

No one blinked

Professor Deborah Terry, acting chair of the Australian Technology Network and Vicki Thomson (executive director) followed with a realistic statement that fee deregulation was not necessarily welcome but it was the only option for the system. Ms Thomson in particular anticipated any thought Senator Carr might have had of proposing compacts between government and students, suggesting it was an idea for a gentler age. (The senator ignored the invitation for a blue over compacts).

It was tough stuff, which got tougher in questioning, with Senator Carr going for Terry and Thomson, saying the ATN criticised the then Labor Government for proposed cuts in 2013 but had made “a political judgement’ in accepting the need for them now. While Senator Carr was robust in his questioning Professor Terry and Ms Thomson stood their ground and he moved on. I am guessing it signalled the senator’s strategy for the week – argue Labor did not cut funding and that there is an alternative to deregulating fees – increasing public investment.

Free pass for Parker

But this was not the strategy he used with Stephen Parker – who appeared in his official capacity as VC of the University of Canberra, making him the only declared university chief who is flat-out against deregulation. In fact, Senator Carr congratulated him on his courage and proceeded to ask a series of questions which allowed the professor to make his case that deregulation is unnecessary and will have unknown results. Senator Back went the other way asking Professor Parker about his position on previous reform proposals (it seems he has rarely seen one he liked) and giving him an opportunity, which he took, to make his case against change, including a possible future need to reinstate a cap on places.

More Q&A than argy bargy

There was a good deal more Q&A than argy and bargy after lunch, perhaps due to the arrival of other committee members, Larissa Waters (Greens-Qld) and Nick Xenophon (independent-SA), but only for 30 minutes. Perhaps demonstrating their political influence the Regional Universities Network’s Peter Lee and Caroline Perkins were given a good go to make their case for a competitive regions fund, of $140m a year continuing until regional institutions ceased to suffer because of the “thin markets” they operate in. (With the proposal for a national scholarships fund on top.)

Senator Carr suggested that if RUN’s members were not disadvantaged they would not need the money – thus demonstrating the inequity of deregulation, (although he could not help challenging Professor Lee on the level of Labor’s higher education funding).

No hard questions

Helen Zimmerman (Navitas) and Warren Jacobsen (Study Group) were given a fair to friendly hearing by Senator Back before a civil Senator Carr wanted to know what their teaching cost structures are – following up on ACU VC Greg Craven’s claims the other week that private providers did not need the 70 per cent of public university funding per EFT they are promised. Then the senator wanted to know their profits, especially Navitas’s, after Macquarie University ended its partnership program. Senator Waters also wanted to know whether private providers would restructure to avoid having to kick in to the proposed scholarship fund. The intent seemed tough but the questions weren’t.

A-grade undergaduates

Adrian McComb and Donald Owers from the Council of Private Higher Education brought students along to make their case – it was a smart move, the young (and not so) undergrads made the case for the same financial assistance as their public university peers and what senator wants to snipe at students? Which is why Senator Waters focused on the council representatives, asking about income and what institutions do with it and how many for-profits there are. Mr McComb anticipated the attack suggesting that carpetbaggers would not accompany deregulation that Greg Craven’s warning of the “Ma and Pa Kettle Business Academy” was misplaced.

Straight bats

Nicholas Saunders, acting CEO at the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency  also answered Senator Carr’s concerns about quality, saying the agency was coping, for now, despite a $3m budget cut and another to come. But he added there is no rush of new providers seeking registration. Senator Carr sounded unconvinced, wondering how the agency could take big job cuts and still manage. However Professor Saunders straight bat was the straightest. In terms of care and polish it was one of the performances of the day.

The straightest

Peter Shergold, the chair of the TEQSA advisory council chair and the Pyne working group on deregulation standards did not appear wearing his UWS chancellor hat but he started by talking about its needs and achievements. But then Senator Carr asked him a great many very specific questions about all sorts of things, which Professor Shergold answered or elegantly ignored as he saw fit. It was a polished performance, but who would expect anything else from the former secretary of both the departments of education and prime minister and cabinet.

When too much policy is never enough

The committee will hear evidence through to Friday.

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