Campus Morning Mail Friday: Uni Sydney skint

No mood for nude

The University of Adelaide was promoting a lecture by “the naked CEO” yesterday. Alas, it was not an undressed address by Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington but a talk from CPA chief Alex Maley who spruiks under that moniker. It wasn’t as innocuous over at Flinders where staff are reported as asking (only asking, mind) a first year drama student if she would perform on stage partially unclothed in a role that required it. Cue outrage from mother, cue promises of urgent investigation from the university, cue state politicians sending deplore-a-grams. Cue academics trying to explain why they asked instead of shutting up until the local media loses interest (I give it to lunch-time).

 Black fades to red

University of Sydney Vice Chancellor Michael Spence is the sort of bloke who likes his ducks in a row, so when he explained this week to the university branch of the National Tertiary Education Union that the pay offer on the table was final (below) CMM suspected ducks were being drilled.  They were.  Dr Spence set out the numbers behind his offer in a comprehensive document, which is also a convenient guide to his university’s finances. With regard to the particulars of a pay rise, Spence says the 4 per cent per annum for three years the union is after would cost an extra $118 million in 2016. This, he says, is money the university has not got – and he explains why suggestions he should spend the surplus are wrong. For a start the current operating surplus of $136m includes $184m in hypothecated funds – meaning the university book’s are actually in the red by $46m. This is an improvement on the $80 million it was short in 2009 but still, says Spence, there is no cash to spare.  (In any case CMM vaguely remembers something from Accounting 101 about not using investment to fund recurrent). There is also the problem of $108 million in cuts to cash from Canberra to consider. Of course the case is not beyond reply but if people start complaining about research investment and executive pay levels you will know that they are light on for a financially realistic response. CMM is also intrigued by the light Spence shed on where the money goes, $940m, just under 60 per cent on wages. For all the talk last year about his augustan ambitions to rebuild the campus, capital works are under $200m (mainly from the above tied funds).  In essence, there is not a lot left from the $1.7bn income. There are two ways to fund a pay rise. One Spence points to, increasing sales income by lifting enrolments without a matching rise in staff resources. But this would require a couple of thousand more students – which would not go down well with the workers. The other the VC ignores, cutting some staff to fund pay rises for others. That might be a hard sell – for both sides of the negotiating table.

 Poll prediction of the day

Ian Cook, senior lecturer in politics at Murdoch University, reckons Ken Wyatt is looking good for a second term as member for the Perth electorate of Hasluck, unless racist voters who did not know he is Indigenous turn on him.

Plus promise

The Prime Minister “is expected” (at least that what is leaked) to announce a “petroleum precinct” that works with researchers looking for oil in industry and at Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.

 Death, taxes and rankings

Until universities give consumers a way to compare brands league tables are inevitable and the Academic Ranking of World Universities measure of research performance (out yesterday) is better than many. But precise it is not and tracking changes in annual rankings with the scrutiny usually applied to really important scientific issues (like the preference flow in Adam Bandt’s electorate) is nonsense on stilts. Sure the evidence is in for this year, that the University of Melbourne is consistently the best in the country but that it is up 3 spots indicates nothing much. And as for the University of Western Australia tweeting it, “moves up 5 places internationally in ARWU ranking since last year, overtaking the University of Sydney to gain 4th spot in Australia,” what pray does that prove? It takes years to build (but then again, not lose) a research rep.

 Bargaining bottom lines

The universities IR umbrella body suggested yesterday that it is time for the union to accept it is not going to get a four per cent per annum pay rise for four years on behalf of all its members. “Since the government announcement of the funding cuts to universities to help pay for the Gonski school reforms, we have seen universities making it clear to the NTEU that their capacity to pay has been seriously eroded,” Stuart Andrews from the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association said. In fact most National Tertiary Education Union branches have already made concessions, for a start they originally asked for seven percent. But managements are not buying four, in fact some, while going through the bargaining motions, are all but ignoring the union. A dozen or so have already paid staff 1.5 per cent to 2.5 per cent pay rises, in line with what they are offering in the bargaining process. And they are not backing down in the face of limited industrial action, in some cases withholding exam results, on 15 or so campuses. On Wednesday University of Sydney Vice Chancellor Michael Spence presented (above) what looks like a collective view – that his offer, 2.9 per cent per annum through to mid 2016, was the best he could do and that unless agreed to by the end of the month it would be withdrawn. It had the ring of a system-wide ultimatum about it, after all Sydney set a precedent for other universities in the last round of enterprise agreements. It’s not. According to one long time enterprise bargaining observer, Dr Spence said what his peers think but he wasn’t speaking for anybody else. As this veteran put it, to suggest there is a national plan orchestrated by AHEIA over-estimates its influence. Nor do the universities need one – what with the way the times suit their holding out. Following the April cuts universities can cry poor and suggest that whoever wins the election public funding will not improve and may get worse.  So what happens now? Nothing new this side of the election – as long as the union leadership’s nerve holds and their control of the branches stays solid. An incoming Abbott Government might cut higher education funding if it pulls the old “oh look, it’s a budget black hole!” trick but it is unlikely to start an industrial brawl by demanding universities exclude the NTEU from negotiations (that’s a stunt for the second term). So both university managements and union executive probably can sit tight in the hope that the other side blinks. Question is what will rank and file NTEU members (and the majority of staff who aren’t) want to do on campuses across the country. That exam result bans are being lifted without management concessions suggests staff have had enough. Just about everybody CMM talks to suggests staff will play along with Tuesday’s national protest, then wait for the election. But after then watch for agreements being reached, and fast.

Silly us

The Australian Science Centre points to urgent new research showing, “long-necked dinosaurs, such as diplodocus, probably didn’t have necks as flexible as we thought”

Research that goes where the evidence takes it

The excellent National Centre for Vocational Education Research produces some of the best policy analysis in the country. Under recently retired economist Tom Karmel the Adelaide based agency commissioned economists to go where the data took them in exploring everything from completion rates to the changing market value of training and higher education qualifications. New projects announced yesterday look like continuing this estimable tradition. John Buchanan from the University of Sydney will look at how young apprentices fare. Victor Callan will examine VET providers issuing degrees. CMM reckons this one will really interest the Australian Technology Network universities, which get cross at what they see as intrusions on their patch. And Dr Ellie Fossey from La Trobe is funded to report on how students with disabilities are supported. CMM paused at the mention of a name associated with NCVER, Francesca Beddie who will investigate past policy and present practice in education and training across the binary divide. But while she was general manager for research at NCVER centre staff say she left a year back.

Many motions from the floor

The agenda for the ANU management-student forum on improving administration today has changed, albeit informally. A student protest to discuss the proposed cuts to tutorials in arts yesterday afternoon decided that everybody there should attend the meeting en masse

Read More

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