Nick Xenophon’s unpalatable options

Plus overblown ATAR anguish

VTAC surprised

I went to the Victorian Tertiary Admission Centre’s site at 3pm and got “VTAC is experiencing very high demand and cannot process your request at this time. Please try again in 30 minutes.” I did, every 30 minutes for quite a while, but got the same message until 8pm or so. Good to see they were prepared for ATAR day.

ANU-solving

Camm counters

Australian Council for Private Education and Training chief Rod Camm has slammed “the use of template letters for so called ‘students’ to sign to show their lack of support for the (Pyne) reforms.” While he does not mention Greens senator Lee Rhiannon’s “one million reasons” campaign it seems the sort of thing he has in mind. Senator Rhiannon says people who oppose the Pyne package should let the Greens know and they will “customise, print and post a postcard for six of the key crossbench senators for each sign up.”

According to Mr Camm, “while so called students (?) may be co-opted to sign the negative template campaign, we as a sector need to counter this by ensuring our students are aware of the simple message – the reform package will produce a far more effective sector, where students will have more options and lower costs. … A fact that is not being reported is that extending government supported places to non-university higher education providers and removing the 25 per cent administration fee for HELP assistance will create a more level playing field for all higher education students.”

Mr Camm should not worry too much about the Greens campaign just yet. Senator Rhiannon says 5000 “students, future students and their allies” have joined the campaign to send key crossbench senators a postcard.

I wonder what he really thinks

“Whether the LNP is defeated or not, Australians are unimpressed by doctrinaire neoliberals and their idiot policies,” Nobel laureate Peter Doherty on the Queensland election.

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Nick’s not-much choice

Nick Xenophon was all over the Fin yesterday, in a favourable piece about his ideas on the big policy issue – health. Why not higher education, given he worries the existing funding model cannot support demand driven enrolments? On December 2 when he voted against the first Pyne package in the Senate the immensely influential Senator Xenophon called for a debate on the sustainability of the demand driven system and urged Labor to get involved rather than just nay-saying. Which the Opposition has not done, as Chris Pyne pointed out yesterday; “I have invited the Labor Party to enter into negotiations with the Government regarding higher education however they have steadfastly refused despite many of their members privately supporting our reforms.”

Given he is one of two votes Mr Pyne needs to pass his legislation (assuming the December voting pattern continues) this leaves Senator Xenophon with a tough choice. He can extract what he can from Mr Pyne or vote again with Labor, which is sticking with the status quo.

Unless of course Mr Pyne listens to vice chancellors who are pushing for delaying introduction of deregulation beyond next year. Which I suspect he will not, demonstrated by Treasurer Joe Hockey reiterating the government’s commitment to higher education change on Melbourne radio yesterday. Another inquiry into deregulation or even a delay in introduction of deregulated fees would be such a victory for the Opposition and the Green-NTEU alliance that they would work even harder to ensure it never happens.

What a relief

Toby Walsh from NICTA advises, “Artificial Intelligence that might threaten our society’s future is likely still some way off.” So we can stay focused on worrying about zombies.

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Archaic argument

There was a moral panic over ATARs yesterday with a story in The Australian warning that people with low entry scores are being admitted to university. It’s an argument from another age, when demand for university places exceeded supply and they were rationed for school leavers by entry score. For all but very in-demand courses those days are long gone and with something like 20 per cent of first years enrolling under alternative entry schemes the ATAR is not irrelevant, but certainly not the make or break mark it once was. In any case, Lake Woebegone’s Law (“all the children are above average”) applies – not everybody can be in the top 10 per cent on a measure which is relative, not absolute. A better test of fitness to study in what is no longer an intellectually-elite system is drop-out rates in first year, marks across a course and whether students actually graduate with the skills and knowledge they are supposed to acquire. Certainly there is a broad correlation between the ATAR and completing first year, just as there is between low SES background and initial university performance.

Working with what they have

The Australian Catholic University was making the best of Victorian applications yesterday, arguing increased student had led to record growth. Up to a point, while overall applications for ACU’s campuses there were up by one per cent the university made 11 per cent more offers. Growth to be sure but hardly higher demand driven. Swinburne was also talking up an increase in offers of 2 per cent.  The University of Melbourne was also pleased with demand , but cautiously so, saying its 7544 first-round offers made it “the only Victorian university to make more offers this year than the previous.” With just about every university still assuring aspiring students that there are alternative means of entry it’s not surprising nobody made a big deal over the ATARs. The best state Training Minister Steve Herbert could come up with was a 14 per cent rise in engineering offers. Overall applications via VTAC were down 2 per cent or so with a nearly 1o per  cent decline in the bush – although some, maybe most, of this is due to university direct entry schemes.

Slower but better

Adrian Barnett (QUT) and colleagues surveyed National Health and Medical Research Council grant applications in 2012 and 2014 to see if the Council’s streamlined process saved people time. It didn’t – as Barnett et al report in BMJ Open the average time to complete an application increased from 34 to 38 days, or 614 working years (67 years up) for all apps.

But this is not necessarily a bad thing, cutting the bumf meant applicants had more time to work on the science which is important as competition for grants intensifies. Of course it does not change the NHMRC’s truly terrible success rate, 16.9 per cent in 2013.

Adelaide adds to edX

The University of Adelaide has launched its first MOOC as a member of the Harvard-MIT founded edX consortium. The five-week course on human biology will be followed by more MOOCs covering cyber war, computer programming, and – a no-brainer-for a South Australian university – wine tasting. U of A is investing heavily in putting undergraduate course material on-line, so that staff can focus on intensive small group teaching, making MOOCs easy to assemble and bril

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