Low impact: why commercial achievement doesn’t rate in research

David Lloyd: on song at Uni SA

AM update

On ABC radio’s AM this morning Prime Minister Tony Abbott signalled the government would push on with higher education deregulation, saying there was no comparison with the Medicare co-payment climb-down, because, unlike the doctors, vice chancellors are on side. The prime minister also said that Senator Zhenya Wang (PUP, WA) recognised the need for reform and that hopefully he will be influential in the councils of the PUPs. The government push to convince the Senate crossbench is now focusing on Bruce Chapman‘s plan to reduce government funding for universities who charge above a designated ceiling. But selling senators is one thing, ensuring all universities agree is another. This is not what they signed up for.

Blue note at blue lake

The James Morrison Music Academy opened at the University of South Australia, Mount Gambier yesterday. So what did state premier Jay Weatherill do? Precisely what you would expect him to do, proclaim “Mount Gambier is the jazz capital of the nation.” Man, that cat can blow, hard.

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Here to help

ACU VC Greg Craven is delighted to serve universities as a member of the Higher Education Standards Panel. As he told staff the other day, “universities must be able to spend more time on teaching students, conducting research and engaging with communities and less time on compliance and reporting. That’s where we come in – to cut red tape in TEQSA and minimise the regulatory burden on higher education.” Except perhaps in the case of teacher education, where faculties are going to have to meet a bunch of new regulatory requirements, recommended by a committee chaired by, um Greg Craven.

Not that cheap

The Department of Education reports, “just under 30 per cent of overseas higher education students are currently being reported with tuition fees of $0. This is an exceptionally high percentage given the small number of circumstances under … which a fee is not required.” A very, very small number, I’m guessing.

Lloyd rocks on 

Just in case anybody thinks the University of South Australia is just jazz it has also honoured Womad co-founder and Genesis original, Peter Gabriel with an honorary doctorate. Vice Chancellor David Lloyd used his invisible touch of genius to tape an interview with Dr Gabriel in Wiltshire last week, which is here .

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 Even the good news is bad

There is good news in the apprentice and trainee numbers for the September quarter, released yesterday by the estimable National Centre for Vocational Education and Training, but not much. The number of apprentice and trainee starts was stable for a second quarter after three declines in a row. Overall however total people in apprenticeships and training was down year on year by 18 per cent. The NCVER cautions that the figures are affected by the Commonwealth ending commencement payments for training not on the National Skills Needs List. Which raises the question – where did the young people who did not start a course because of this go? Perhaps to university to study their second choice or, much, much worse, into the unskilled job market.

 Their banner’s flying high …

From dawn to dark down at Kardinia Park as Deakin University works hard to demonstrate it just loves the Cats. With the season starting soon Deakin has sounded the siren to celebrate the 30 000 visitors to the Deakin Cats Community Centre, at the cattery. The centre includes meeting rooms, training space and a “memorabilia gallery with the zenith of club ephemeras,” whatever that means.

Impact indefinitely delayed

The government is very keen on applied research impact, which can be quickly commercialised – there is a new Prime Minister’ Science Prize for research that translates into business. And so the Australian Research Council, politically acute agency that it is, has had people working on how you recognise, but not, heaven forfend, measure impact – at least not by a metric built into grant applications. An ARC working party has produced a table of what research outputs are, including “commercial products and licences,” “new companies” and (well it was an ARC project), “citations”. But there are no mention of metrics and certainly no sign of any agency interest in incorporating an impact measure in ERA, which now reports performance as measured by research publication. Certainly “impact” is an explicit indicator required for the ARC’s major Centres of Excellence programme, where it is defined as “the demonstrable contribution that research makes to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment, or quality of life, beyond academia.” However for other programmes it seems that potential research impact is left for grant committees to consider.

This approach is not universally endorsed. There was a flurry around impact last year, with the Group of Eight and Australian Technology Network piloting a programme that measured impact by case studies. But ARC observers say it isn’t buying, believing that a similar project in the UK turned out to require more work than it was worth.

So indicative tables aside, what happens next? Perhaps not much. The ARC is said to be waiting to see what an Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering report on impact comes up with when delivered in a few weeks. Or maybe not. As ARC head Aidan Byrne said in Senate Estimates last week, “It will be interesting to see whether this exercise … is actually going to be useful. … No-one, in my view, around the world … has cracked that nut of solving how to measure research impact in a simple way that is not caught up in the various contributing sources to the research impact, and is not caught up in the long timescales that get associated with truly measuring the impact of basic research, such as happens in our universities.”

With impact not an ERA 2015 measure (although in 2014 ATSE pushed for a trial this year) the question will be whether Industry Minister Macfarlane, who is very keen on commercialisation, decides to create a metric of his own. Education Minister Pyne would undoubtedly have a view, but he is a bit busy just now.

 

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Finally a friend

After weeks of being beaten-up by the TAFE lobby and its allies in press and parliament the for-profit trainers finally have a friend. In its submission to the Senate Legislation Committee inquiry on Pyne MkII the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says recent rorts do not discredit deregulation of voced. “The concerns about some of the providers delivering poor quality courses is a result of a confluence of circumstances where the national entitlement concept, virtually uncapped system as implemented firstly in Victoria, was rolled out at the same time as new regulatory arrangements were put in place and the existing provider standards were inadequate.”

And, ACCI argues, this problem will not reoccur if universities are deregulated. “The higher education sector, on the other hand, has fewer providers, all of which are subject to the same regulator as the public institutions which is enforcing more robust standards.”

 First for farming

If anybody had asked, I would have said there was bound to be agreed content for agricultural degrees. There wasn’t, but there is now “representing what a student in agriculture and related disciplines should know, understand and be able to do on graduation.” The statement was created by a multi-university team led by the University of Tasmania and will be launched in Canberra this afternoon.

ARC helps out

More in sorrow than in anger the Australian Research Council responds to the idea that the government transferred $60m over four years from it to the National Health and Medical Research Council (CMM yesterday); “the ARC is mortified at the suggestion that it would give money to the NHMRC. The ARC supports all discipline areas including some areas in medical research. At the beginning of this term of government and through the 2014–15 budget there was some reprioritisation of the ARC’s funds to support a number of initiatives, which were priority research initiatives for the new government (diabetes, tropical health, dementia, Antarctic). These allocations have remained within the ARC’s budget. The ARC continues to work with the NHMRC on a number of issues, for instance the ARC’s $26 million investment into a broader $200 million government research program (joint NHMRC-ARC initiative) to boost dementia research.

Europe vacillates while China value adds

The first user survey of the much-anticipated European University Association U-Multirank is in and it is not all that flash. U-Multirank was created to provide a more nuanced presentation of comparable universities than the much loathed but universally consulted commercial league tables. U-Multirank seeks to compare similar institution on generic attributes plus disciplines strengths. It is immensely complex and, what a surprise, it suffers from the same problems as the competition. “UMR is still struggling with many of the same challenges as other rankings with regards to the comparability and reliability of data. Also, many of its indicators, in particular those related to teaching and learning are rather remote proxies to quality or performance. It will be interesting to see how UMR will attempt to address and overcome these challenges in the future,” Tia Loukkola and Rita Morais report for the EUA. I’m guessing overcome is a euphemism for expensive.

While the Europeans argue over methodology the Chinese juggernaut rolls on. The Shanghai Ranking Consultancy has used Elsevier’s Scopus database and SciVal analytics to rank China’s top 1000 research universities. This is a win in a big and rich market which will get bigger and richer for Elsevier (which is not using its new name, RELX Group yet).

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