No dumbing down as student numbers increase

Science grads suffer in job market and IT education doesn’t deliver

Fed U management gets the Downfall treatment

and Beijing’s new Confucius Institute strategy

Glutton for punishment

First Warren Bebbington got bucketed with ice-water for a motor neurone disease charity. Then he copped a pie in the moosh to raise funds for childhood disease research. And now he has walked a winter mile to help the homeless. He also runs the University of Adelaide – CMM guesses he finds the first three much more congenial.

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Bunker bucketing

The Bunker Effect occurs when a leadership group is mocked in sub titles to the famous conference scene in the movie Downfall, where Hitler is told Berlin will fall. The Effect kicks in when enough people think an organisation’s strategy is beyond saving and members of management are dills. It occurs in all sorts of organisation, including education, a Victorian TAFE copped it in 2012. And now there is a Downfall about Federation University, which CMM will not link to – libel and unsupported allegations for a start. A Fed U spokesman says; “the university finds the video distasteful and libellous and we are investigating the matter.”

The game’s the thing

Steffen P Walz is moving from RMIT to Curtin U where he will continue his work on integrating “gamefulness” across life. CMM struggled to grasp what Professor Walz does from the media release (applies methodology from games to real-life behaviour and policy problems?) but that is probably him being stupid. After all, the copy of the media statement he received was headed “approved” by no less than eight Curtin managers.

Monday June 27

Promises promises

When it comes to election promises pork producers and barrel builders did not make it anywhere near the coalition’s giveaways as recorded in the Parliamentary Budget Office debrief. In fact there are just three spending announcements impacting on education. Barnaby Joyce’s promise for a “centre of agricultural excellence” at the University of New England is costed at $24m across the forward estimates. There is a single $32m hit for the University of Newcastle to create a Gosford NSW campus for its medical school. And a programme to encourage women into STEM careers is set at $32m through to 2019-20. Strangely money for the University of Tasmania expansion in the state’s north – perhaps the coalition forgot to include it, if so, not to worry UniTas will undoubtedly remind ministers.

The Greens also appear positively parsimonious – overall the PBO estimates their election commitments had a net cost to the budget of $8bn, of course this has less to do with not spending much as collecting an extra $104bn in revenue. As to higher education through to 2019-20, there was a $2.77bn base funding increase, $1.bn for “reducing the HECs burden,” $428m for TAFE but just $50m for “supporting our videogames industry.” What, only $50m?

As to Labor, Kim Carr was not just whistling The Red Flag when he said his was the party of higher education outlays. Labor promised $116m for Senator Carr’s proposed institutes of higher education, $2.44bn for HE funding (“Labor’s fairer plan”), $150m for the University of Tasmania’s northern expansion and $716 for innovation spending. Might be worth asking new shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek how much of this is still on the agenda.

Expert advice

Assistant minister for VET Karen Andrews has brought in Meredith Jackson to assist with organising the office. CMM understands Ms Jackson, chief of staff to Christopher Pyne in education, is expected to be there for weeks not months.

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Research stars

John Simes is the NSW Cancer Society’s 2016 researcher of the year. Professor Simes leads an NHMRC centre at the University of Sydney. Professor Minote Apte (UNSW) wins the “make a difference” award for her pancreatic cancer research. AsPro Daniel Catchpoole and colleagues at the Sydney Children’s Hospital Network receive the society’s inaugural big data grant for a project on using genomics data in clinical decisions.

Return on investment

From the “you don’t say!” bureau comes news of  research that finds Confucius Institutes are intended to be an arm of Chinese state policy, rather than benign British Council-style promoters of culture. But as Falk Hartig from the Goethe University (with a PhD from QUT!), points out, while CI directors (there are 13 at Australian universities) say they are not pressured politically, Hanban (the programme’s HQ) does approve budgets. There is nothing new in the report about what taking Beijing’s shilling involves. However Dr Hartig points to the way the Chinese Government is becoming more sophisticated in the way it uses CIs to exercise soft power.

CIs increasingly try to position themselves as a facilitator and trailblazer for academic research as they provide scholarships for foreign academics to do research in China under the scheme offered by the Confucius China Studies Program. This development, which has been completely ignored thus far, is significant as this approach would potentially provide China with far more comprehensive opportunities to influence and shape research agendas than CIs themselves could at their host universities.”

City planners

David Pitchford, the head of the NSW government’s “urban transformation agency” is joining UNSW as professor of practice in the Faculty of Built Environment. Mr Pitchford will also continue to lead the UrbanGrowth agency.

In a joint appointment between the City of Melbourne and UniMelbourne Lars Coenen will become the inaugural chair of liveable cities next year. His “particular expertise” is in future-proofing cities for “safety and liveability.”

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Norton always has the evidence

Demand driven funding has not reduced academic standards among undergraduates, according to the fourth higher education report by Andrew Norton and colleagues from the Grattan Institute, released this morning. “The domestic commencing student pass rates provide no evidence that subjects are getting easier or marking is getting softer, the Mapping Australian higher education 2016 report states. The subject pass rate for commencing domestic undergraduates declined from 87 per cent to 85.5 per cent between 2003 and 2009 however it has falling only marginally since the introduction of DDF, from 84 per cent in 2011 to 83 per cent in 2013. In contrast, the pass rate for equivalent international students jumped from 82 per cent in 2005 to 85.5 per cent in 2009, it has dropped since then but remains nearly two per cent above the figure for locals.

The report also warns that employment for bachelor graduates with science (excluding maths) degrees is pretty much the same as creative arts, around 60 per cent and 20 per cent lower than medicine, education, law and dentistry. However science graduate employment improves over time, especially for those who go to further study. Even so, the report warns, “skill under-utilisation is a problem in the graduate labour market, showing up in the proportion of graduates working in occupations that do not typically require degrees.” As for IT graduates, a globalised labour force and “weaknesses in IT university education” mean they “do not easily find full-time work.”

Overall the Grattan report is a comprehensive guide to just about every aspect of higher education policy and practise. Whatever the issue or argument Mr Norton provides evidence.

The chemistry is right

Peter Junk has received the Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s Burrows Award. The James Cook University professor is honoured for research set out in 240 articles over a decade, with “an extremely high citation rate”.

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