NTEU ups the ideological ante

For higher education there is now a clear choice between regulation and the market

Sea view

Is Ian “the gent” Young losing interest in the great deregulation debate and looking forward to leaving ANU for a return to oceanography research at Swinburne? He has certainly been tweeting much more about science than policy lately.

 Union alternative

Having beaten (or so it seems) deregulation the National Tertiary Education Union is now proposing change of its own, calling for a nationally coordinated university system overseen by an independent agency.

While there is nothing especially original in the proposal the union’s timing is immensely significant.

Just as Chris Pyne’s plan involved the first extension of the market to a major area of the economy since National Competition Policy so the union’s counter-attack would take Australia back to the age before the Hawke-Keating-Fraser reforms, when ministers and mandarins occupied the commanding heights of the economy.

The union proposal is also sufficiently similar to Kim Carr’s compacts scheme, to create a left unity ticket on higher education at the next election. This saves Labor from its present predicament of telling the community what it is opposed to but not what it will do to resource universities that are not allowed to compete.

The union proposes replacing all existing funding and performance accords between Canberra and individual universities with overarching Public Accountability Agreements, “negotiated and administered by an independent agency or council with statutory planning and funding responsibilities.” PAA’s would set enrolments but universities would be able to exceed quota if they satisfied criteria, “based on their specific circumstances.”

PAAs could also be used as a mechanism to achieve other goals and objectives that a university or the government may determine as being critical including participation, equity, quality control or professional labour market needs.”

According to the NTEU this system would allow the government to manage funding for Commonwealth Supported Places. Universities would also win, because “a better planned, managed and predictable regulatory and funding system would give universities greater certainty to make critical staffing and investment decisions. It also allows universities to better align their offering with the needs of employers and the broader economy.”

With this proposal on the agenda the dispute over deregulating higher education is now much bigger than an argument over university funding and competition – it is a now a proxy for a debate over market power and state control in the entire Australian economy.

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Unequal attention

The case for and against the University of Western Australia closing Jorg Imberger’s Centre for Water Research is getting way more media attention than the great and the powerful on the UWA Senate are comfortable with. There is also concern at the pace of the conduct inquiries involving professors Ian Dadour and John Watling of the Centre for Forensic Science, which is itself about to undergo a separate “organisational change process.” Professional staff in the centres on the other hand are appalled that much of the media concern is for Professor Imberger, while their fates are ignored.

UA saddles up again

Universities Australia is advising members there is little chance of the Senate passing the latest version of the Pyne package and has accordingly called a meeting of policy analysts for Tuesday, presumably to work out what everybody can agree on before working out how to ask for it. The word is that UA is hoping for a consistent line from the sector as well as bipartisan political support. Optimists say the former is possible; realists agree that it is indeed possible, but only as likely as the latter. There is a UA board meeting on April 14 where policy proposals will be considered.

UA also has to work out what the failure of the Pyne plan also means for immediate funding, now that no one has a clue what is in the budget. “Quite uncertain” is the way UA chief Belinda Robinson elegantly understates it. UA’s budget submission was a modest document (CMM February 19) calling for restoration of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy and continuation of the Future Fellowships. Of course there was a call for much more, to cover the “indirect costs of research” and international collaboration “once a more robust budget position has been achieved” but there was not the usual list of immediate demands. However, that was in the halcyon haze of anticipated riches, when UA believed that one way or another rivers of gold would flow into the coffers of scholarship thanks to the Pyne proposals.

Now that this will not happen too-right universities faces an uncertain budget. For a start, there is Mr Pyne’s ominous promise that he has “fixed” funding for NCRIS by finding the money elsewhere in his portfolio. Then there is the Emerson cut from April 2013, which the Senate never passed, plus the Pyne cut to funding for Commonwealth Supported Places from last year’s budget, which deregulation was supposed to cover, by allowing universities to charge their own fees. Perhaps the government will drop the cut in funding per student place as Minister Pyne offered to do in return for passage of deregulation a fortnight back. Or perhaps the Treasury will give up on universities altogether and decide that as university unions and some VCs will complain whatever they get trying to keep campuses content is a mugs game. If so, this could be a tough budget indeed.

Easy being green

RMIT announced Friday it was “switching off” for Earth Hour, which was terribly green and not especially inconvenient what with the event occurring 8.30-9.30, Saturday night. 

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Glutton for punishment

Christopher Pyne enters enemy territory tonight to appear on Q&A. I wonder what the protestors will chant this time. The bloke has a hide measured in metres and acres of optimism but they may not be enough for him to try to convince the Senate to pass some form of deregulation and critics are starting to mark his reform plan as a fail. Some close to the process suggest Mr Pyne was wrong to try to carry the upper house by coup de main, first in the last budget and then in his March surprise, which cancelled a proposed cut in funding in an effort to overwhelm cross-bench senators into supporting deregulation. Instead, they say he should have put his plan out for a year-long debate. However the minister’s friends say that if he had tried to sell his scheme thus it would have died the death of a thousand complaints and caveats. “If he had carried the Senate he would be hailed as a hero,” one Liberal with an office on the same corridor of power says. Who knows. Surely the question that matters is whether Mr Pyne will have permission from the Prime Minister’s Office to try again.

Academy acres

Back in 2013 the Seare’s review of Western Australian universities suggested the state government might like to have a look at their acts, which now exclude sources of potential profits. This particularly applies to Murduch U, which is having another go at its Eastern Precinct project. Well, it seems like the state is on the job. In response to a question in the Legislative Council from Lynn MacLaren (Greens) the government revealed that the state’s universities are seeking amendments to their acts to “reflect contemporary strategic and operational requirements.” Such as? That the departments of lands and planning and Treasury are involved in discussions is a strong clue. In every university official beats the heart of a property developer.

MOUIng and Reviewing @ UWS

UWS School of Business Dean Clive Smallman has reported to undoubtedly fascinated staff the details of his trip to Taiwan and China, where many meetings were held. The highlight? I can’t see how you can go by the MOU signed with Hunan University, “to explore the possibilities for collaboration.”

The dean has also announced Allan Hodgson is visiting, again. He will assist with “refining our research focus in economics, finance and property, on our accounting appointments, on the school research review, and on the school action plan.” Professor Hodgson certainly is a position to offer informed criticism, having reviewed the faculty last year and concluded that student numbers were down, there were problems with teaching and not much research, (CMM December 19). “Overall, academic staff morale is low. The dean faces academic staff attraction and retention problems accentuated by low support for research activity and a low scholarship culture,” he concluded.

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“Where is everybody?”

It’s only been seven months between Stephen Chapman being announced as incoming VC of Edith Cowan University and his taking over this week. But when he does he might wonder where everybody is – after Easter ECU is on mid-semester break.

Blaming agents not enough

On Friday power supplier Energy Australia was pinged by the federal court for duping consumers into contracts. That some of the duping was done by an agent, did not get EA off the hook. This might focus the mind at for-profit training providers who have said that they did not know their agents were gulling people into signing up to courses without understanding what they were committing to pay. It might also encourage the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission to expand the attention it is already paying for-profits.

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