Outraged by the audit

If the Commissioners of Audit did not expect to win many friends on campus they were right.

Lost for words, for a while

Education commentators were as near as they ever get to silent on Thursday afternoon as they digested the Commission of Audit report (CMM’s story from yesterday is below). Early comments focused on the proposal to charge students more for undergraduate degrees but even that was subdued given the Commission (hospital?) passed a decision on deregulating student fees to the minister. Perhaps this was because there were no other large groups of losers. Perhaps it was because the CoM’s recommendations will have little impact on university staff, certainly compared to the Commonwealth public services, where whole agencies are recommended for the chop. Perhaps it is because there are not that many explicit changes to research. In the end “streamlining” research block grants and better aligning “direct and indirect costs of research” could mean whatever the research bureaucracy wants them to mean.

But last night the responses started.

Conor King from the Innovative Research University lobby questioned the Commissioners intent on specifying the per centage of student fees the Commonwealth should pay. “I think the Commission is arguing for the percentage first and then let universities (and others in the system) vary charges up and down from there so that the government dollars remain at the same value but the percentage could change.  However it is possible to read it as meaning that the Government would fund 45 cents for each 55 cents the student pays, which would mean if a university pushes up the charge over $10500 a student on average then the Government expenditure would go up again.  So the higher the charge the more the Government pays; the lower the charge the less it pays: interesting idea.”

Opposition educations spokesman Kim Carr suggested the Commission’s recommendations on the CSIRO “are an attack on the independence, autonomy and integrity of our nation’s best scientists” and higher student payments “a triple whammy – students taking on more debt, paying more interest, and paying sooner.”

The chair of the Regional Universities Network, Professor Peter Lee signalled (again) that RUN would wear higher student fees, as long as there was assistance for the disadvantaged, in order to keep demand driven funding in place.  “The demand driven system has facilitated a growth in participation in higher education from low SES and regional students – it is important that this momentum is maintained to drive regional development.”

One of the few university-associated losers are cooperative research centres. Their  Association, which pulled no punches, saying it was “profoundly shocked” by a recommendation to abolish the CRCs and hand the funding to the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Grants scheme. “I really believe Ministers Macfarlane, Pyne, Dutton and many others including the prime minister have a good appreciation of how much the CRCs have delivered. The Commission of Audit clearly haven’t worked at the level of detail to know that directing the money through a granting agency like the ARC would fundamentally change the nature of the Program,” CRC Association chair Tony Staley said.

And as for the students, NUS President Deanna Taylor, said Australian students already paid the highest fees in the OECD, that they are way to high and that government contributions should go up, not down.”The  Commission’s recommendations are disgraceful, students will be plunged further into debt and be worse off for it.”

It was left to University of Adelaide Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington to spell out what increased student fees could (should?) mean, “the Commission suggests a major shift to students of the burden of paying for their university education.  Australian higher education can’t have it both ways: the wider reach of the demand-driven system to many more students  means that available funds must be spread more thinly.  But higher costs for students will be very controversial: it is an drastic step. If some of the funds saved by increased student contributions were then directed towards ending the decline in research support, then this bitter pill would be easier to swallow.”

Scientists (politely) smell a rat in the lab

Science and Technology Australia were uncomfortable with the Commission’s call for what more government oversight of CSIRO to ensure an emphasis on priority areas.  While STA acknowledged “government has a legitimate role in setting research priorities for CSIRO and other research bodies,” they like the setting set to low. “The entire Australian community will be very concerned if the government compromised the independence of CSIRO and their 6000-plus scientists. Australian’s trust CSIRO science and the autonomy of the CSIRO and its board is central to that public trust.”

STA also shares the CRC Association‘s outrage; “the recommended abolition of the Cooperative Research Centres program would endanger years of carefully built up and highly fruitful industry/university collaborations that have delivered significant returns for the whole community.” The Regional Universities Network also opposes cutting the CRCs, “for relatively modest cost it has assisted our universities: attract outstanding researchers, enhance the profile of research, increase research publications and funding, and develop collaborative partnerships with industry and the community.” By our I think RUN means its members, not the country as a whole – they are focused on bush campuses. Given abolishing the CRCs will upset vocal scientists without saving money I suspect a lot of noise now might save the program.

Rateable rankings

The Leiden rankings are out, rather putting argument over funding universities in perspective. The rankings, based on citations in the Web of Science database show Australia doing well but not being at the top of the global research tree. Of 750 universities 23 are Australians with ANU in the first spot at 104. The top ten locals include all of the eight usual suspects, excepting the University of Western Australia. The other three in the leader group are James Cook University (five), UTS (six) and Uni Newcastle (nine)

Yes, you Ian Young! Global warming is all your fault

“When you invest in an industry, you want that industry to go well. You want it to grow and make big profits. So why on this threatened earth does ANU invest in fossil fuels? … Does ANU really treasure the short-sighted profits more than long-term wellbeing of its students?,” at least according to the Australian National University student newspaper, Woroni. And yes the story was accomopanied by a photo of Vice Chancellor Young. I wonder, do they teach rhetoric at ANU, or logic.

All self-promotion is local

While everybody else was pouring over the Commission of Audit at Deakin University they were focused on their own achievements, announcing that the Times Higher ranking of universities under 50 put Deakin at number one in Victoria (gosh!). The release was issued at 2.20pm, less than half an hour after the CoA report was published. Then, an hour later in (not very) time critical news the University of Tasmania announced that “Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, is the Honorary Patron of the university’s 125th anniversary celebrations, which commence next year. (Gosh, and gosh again!). Why did they do it then – especially when the university re-issued the announcement ten minutes later with an embargo to 9.30 last night?

What the Commissioners want

The Commissioners have nothing to say on the mass of issues that exercise the sector, confining proposals largely to student funding and research administration. The guts of it is in volume one  which calls for retaining demand driven funding but reducing the Commonwealth contribution per student from 59 per cent to 45 per cent and increasing what they pay from 41 per cent to 55 per cent.

The Commissioners also passes the problem/opportunity of deregulating fees to the minister.

As for securitising HELP debt the Commission rejects the idea, arguing that a buyer would demand a discount on book value or require a subsidy from government to make a return on student payments. However it wants more students to pay more debt faster. The CoA advocates replacing the CPI as the interest rate on HELP loans with a figure covering all the Commonwealth’s costs (borrowing rate, bad debts, administration).

The Commission also proposes reducing the repayment threshold to the minimum wage ($32,000 pa) with a 2.5 per cent of income payment. This would increase with earnings until it reached the 4 per cent repayment, which now starts at $51,000. It also backs the idea, recently set out by Andrew Norton, of recovering student debt from deceased estates.

As to research, the CoA starts from the premise that science and industry do not need public funding to collaborate. The Commission accordingly calls for abolition of Industry Innovation Precincts, Collaborative Research Networks and support for international scientific collaboration. It also wants CSIRO research better aligned to Commonwealth priorities and funding directed to public rather than private benefit.

Just about the only other recommendations include “aligning” NHMRC and ARC grant processes and allowing longer term grants, “streamlining” research block grants and postgraduate scholarships and to “better align” funding for direct and indirect research costs and “providing long term certainty around the funding of research infrastructure”.

That’s about it, although fans of Austrade’s “Future unlimited” export education campaign will not like the Commission’s view that its $360m budget is not value for money and that Austrade should be shut or radically cut (recommendation 31). Cooperative Research Centres should also be alarmed and annoyed. The Commission proposes ending the program and allocating funds via Australia Research Council’s Linkage program.

Disclosure: I was retained by the Commission of Audit to work on drafting the CoA report.

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