Norton has the goods on student bad debt

Just in time for the budget

The release last night of Grattan Institute researcher and demand driven funding reviewer Andrew Norton’s report on recovering income contingent student loans, what was HECS and is now HELP, is well timed for budget season. Mr Norton estimates by 2017 there will be $13bn of debt on the Commonwealth’s books that it is unlikely to collect. “With student numbers rapidly increasing, and new uses being found for income contingent loans, doubtful debt costs will continue to rise.” To address this he proposes three measures, requiring a flat annual payment from debtors living outside Australia, taking a share of deceased debtors’ estates above $100,000 and linking the threshold for repayment to inflation instead of average weekly earnings. According to Mr Norton, if these reforms are implemented now they could save $860m in 2016-17 “and remove the need for planned cuts to teaching and research expenditure”. This is a carefully considered report based on deep expertise, which does not advocate easy, if draconian solutions. For example, Mr Norton rejects a dramatically lower income threshold for repayments, “there are advantages in stable and predictable repayment rules. A large reduction in the threshold could adversely affect demand, at least from mature age students,” he writes. But he makes a strong case for recovering debt; “the lost money transfers wealth to people who would not, under normal social policy criteria, be eligible to receive it.” Gosh I wonder what the Finance Department will make of all this? And I really, really want to know  what is in Norton and Dr David Kemp’s report on demand driven funding.

Early applause

Last night University of Adelaide Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington was quick to endorse Mr Norton’s report, “it offers Minister Pyne a realistic and achievable solution to university funding problems. He should take this report very seriously. … This would make a profound difference to the future government funding of universities. It would mean the kind of cuts currently proposed to teaching and research under the ‘efficiency dividend’ would be unnecessary.” Unless of course the feds just use the cash to reduce the deficit and go ahead with the Emerson funding cuts anyway.

Parfitt makes a point

The National Tertiary Education Union at the University of Newcastle is urging members to vote for protected industrial action in a FWA ballot, which will run until the Wednesday after Easter. The union says management is stalling on bargaining for a new agreement. The university replies, “there have been a very large number of claims and suggested changes to existing clauses that have been tabled by the parties, some of which have only recently been presented.” As to money, Professor Andrew Parfitt (DVC Academic) says the negotiations are focusing first on conditions. But he has floated the idea of linking salary rises to the Commonwealth’s Higher Education Grants Index. “This wasn’t considered to be a palatable approach by the unions given the uncertainty of the increase and the potential for it to be both lower or higher than an agreed percentage,” he reports.  I bet they didn’t like it. As far as I can tell Professor Parfitt is unique in acknowledging the elephant in enterprise bargaining across the country – the feds may not always agree to pay enough of an increase to cover pay rises.

Well timed

The University of Queensland continues to play by the book its investigation into research by former staff Bruce Murdoch and Carolyn Barwood. Last year UoQ advised the European Journal of Neurology that a paper by the pair should be retracted because no evidence that the study described in it had occurred. The University then went back and checked another 90 of their papers. It now reports that the journal Aphasiology has retracted an article on university advice that, “the manuscript claims to have a control group of 15, however only 7 control participants were documented and some control data were re-used to enlarge the control group. This lack of independence within control data is not acknowledged in the manuscript.” Critics suggest the University should release a full report on the matter, if only to end debate over why data was re-used, however the issue does seem settled with a minimum of embarrassment for UoQ. The timing of the announcement also helped. The university’s statement arrived in my email at 4.45 pm Brisbane time on Friday.

Get them while they are young

The University of Western Sydney is hosting campus visits by primary students. No it’s not too early – Chris Ryan and Jacqueline Homel’s research for the National Centre for Vocational Education Research  finds that kids, regardless of their circumstances, who believe they will go to university, are much more likely to. “If it is possible through policy or the programs of schools or community organisations to change the aspirations of individuals, such changes in aspirations should translate uniformly across all individuals into increased educational outcomes,” they write. Good on UWS for having a go.

Worked the first time

Last Tuesday I compared the new Universities Australia campaign with the brilliant “Dumb ways to die” creative for Melbourne public transport, suggesting that they were much the same, except for the latter being clever and funny with a specific call to action (don’t get killed by a train). Well it turns out I was righter than I realised – both are the work of advertising agency McCann. There the comparison ends.

Secret second opinion

The National Health and Medical Research Council has only one project grant funding round a year, in March. This drives researchers nuts, what with the way they have to spend the summer preparing submissions for funding they are unlikely to win. Last week Danielle Herbert (QUT) and colleagues from the University of Melbourne and Flinders published a paper based on a survey in which responders made the case for the Council switching to multiple rounds. The NHMRC is already onto assessment issues, reporting on Friday that a “small roundtable of researchers and administrators” had met on March 21 to “consider how to further refine NHMRC’s assessment processes to ensure efficient use of researchers’ time and effort” Don’t hold your breath waiting to hear what happened though, the Council’s research committee will consider the results of the meeting on May 15-16. There is no mention of telling anybody else.

Expansive executive

Sandra Harding is putting the people in place she wants to run the restructured James Cook University, announcing four new DVCs. Four people are promoted, academics Ian Wronski, Jeffrey Loughran and Robyn McGuiggan and present finance director Tricia Brand. Sally Kift stays on as DVC academic with an increased portfolio. McGuiggan is the noted winner, given the space Vice Chancellor Harding devotes to detailing her new role as DVC for global strategy and engagement. This may have something to do with her service during in the 12 months of negotiations it took to establish a new enterprise agreement with the local unions. The new appointments join Chris Cocklin who remains senior DVC, Dale Anderson who continues DVC in charge of the Singapore campus and Heather Gordon who is director of library and information services.

What comes naturally

The Nature Publishing Group has announced three new open access journals, covering primary care respiratory medicine, schizophrenia and biofilms/microbiomes. They join all 63 Nature titles, which are either open access or include open access options. NPG also allows authors in them to self-archive articles and meets funding agency access requirements – all for a mere $5000 article processing fee. As intellectual property director David Hoole put it in 2011, “NPG seeks to generate its income from a diverse range of sources according to where it offers greatest value to our customers – institutions, readers, advertisers, sponsors, employers, marketers and authors.” Helps when you get your content for free.

No easy fix

The Victorian Auditor General has had a look at post school education for rural and regional students and is not happy with what the state government is accomplishing. “Despite only small negative differences in connectedness, attendance and educational performance measures, students attending rural schools are considerably less likely than students in metropolitan schools to finish school. As a consequence, these students are also much less likely to attend university or go on to further study at a Certificate IV level or above,” the AG asserts. There are all sorts of reasons, but mostly it is due to aspiration, expense and isolation from campus. While acknowledging that there are factors beyond the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development the AG still demands the DEECD “address the barriers and challenges that continue to have a negative impact on rural students.” Good luck with that.

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