Elite universities assert independence

While the training sector discretely spends up 

Eternal aviation optimists

Advise from a University of Queensland team working on bio energy; “when life gives you lemons…make renewable jet fuel”

Elite alarmed

Hard times and massification is spooking elite universities, judging by a statement from four research alliances, the Association of American Universities, the China Nine Research Universities, the League of European Research Universities and the (Australian) Group of Eight. “Changes in national priorities have led to policy and program prescriptions that channel university activities towards meeting narrow national objectives but which put research universities in danger of losing what makes them unique participants in national innovation systems and major contributors to national wellbeing,” their new manifesto states. So just to remind us all what proper universities do the Gang of Four define the ten characteristics that separate them from ersatz institutions. Most of it is unremarkable, research integrity, quality teaching, intellectual tolerance and so forth and so on. But number eight indicates how bothered they are by the prospect of governments sticking bibs in.
“The right to set its own priorities, on academic grounds, for what and how it will teach and research based on its mission, its strategic development plans, and its assessment of society’s current and future needs; and the right to determine who it will hire and admit, including an ability to recruit internationally to attract the best people to achieve these priorities.”

This is a much bigger issue than complaints about TEQSA, renewed by G8 chair Fred Hilmer in The Australian this morning, going to concerns about intervention in research and student quotas. Given Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s reference to research relevance last week perhaps the G8 should send him a copy of the manifesto and ask him what he thinks.

We will never know

The University of New South Wales has a suggestion for extra terrestrial scientists yet to pass our way; “how will future alien scientists know whether life existed in our solar system? One method may be to sift through the planetary debris left when our sun becomes a white dwarf. Yep, that will do it.

Big spend low profile

The training sector is sometimes seen as the poor relation of universities in Australia’s post school education system but it’s all relative, innit. As new stats from the estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research show, one way or another training soaks up serious cash. For a start, total spending increased by around half a billion dollars between 2011 and 2102 to $8.4bn. And it was just about all public money, with “student fees and charges” contributing $357m last year, (up 3 per cent). Perhaps the standout stat illustrates the Victorian experiment in privatising training. In 2008 the Vics spent $130m on payments to non-TAFE providers for VET delivery. In 2012 the figure was $800. In comparison the NSW number was $106m in 2012 and $148m four years later.

No Bronte, no!

“Time to start profiling your hero academics to increase your institution’s attractiveness to int std” Bronte Neyland, associate director, international marketing at Victoria University tweeted from the Australian International Education Conference on Friday. Ye Gods woman, don’t you realise it will only encourage them?

Oh, no an ok-ish outcome

Last week the OECD released its survey on adult skills and what a resource it is, an enormous store on literacy and numeracy skills across member countries. Although Australia compares pretty well on skills distribution throughout the community there is certainly enough data for the sorts of critical commentary demonstrating most media love, of the “Australians have the maths skills of Finnish family pets” kind. As The Economist pointed out, we are fourth in the world for literacy but sub par for numeracy. And yet while the media hop into equivalent studies of schools, with the exception of Tim Dodd in this morning’s Australian Financial Review they largely left this one alone. Perhaps there was not enough bad news. Certainly the OECD reported much handwringing among poor performing nations, the Spanish and Irish were especially upset at literacy levels that showed most adults would struggle with Cervantes and Joyce respectively.  But perhaps the scariest stat belonged to the Brits, which showed that young adults had lower skill levels than the old.

 Ig noble patriotism

Forgive the subdued “Aussie-oi-oi-oing” but hooray for the three Australians/or sometime residents who are members of a team that won a 2013 ig Nobel prize for biology and astronomy. Marie Dacke, Emily Baird and Eric Warrant all worked on a paper for Current Biology that shows African dung beetles orient to the Milky Way, not individual stars, to push dung balls in straight lines. “This finding represents the first convincing demonstration for the use of the starry sky for orientation in insects and provides the first documented use of the Milky Way for orientation in the animal kingdom.”

Short sells

Entries in the Universitas 21 three minute thesis are live, describing a great deal of serious science indeed. But natural salespeople most of these PhD students are not. My pick of the two most engaging presentations are by Sally Sherwin and Nellie Linander. Ms Sherwin, from the University of Melbourne, is interested in stress levels among zoo animals – important for species conservation. Ms Linander from Lund University is measure flight control in bumblebees. She does a great job of explaining how they do it and why it matters. Woman could sell honey to a hive.

Hungry for knowledge

Ahem, after praising New Zealand for liberalising international student visas the other day I now find local wires from the shaky isles reporting Rory McCourt, student association president at the Victoria University of Wellington suggesting it might not be such a great idea. “Youth unemployment is stubbornly high, and real wages are falling. Is now the time to be promising a land of milk and honey to unsuspecting international students? What happens when they get here and can’t find work? It’s our foodbanks and hardship funds which pick up the pieces for the thousands of international students who can’t find work.”  Perhaps not a quote to use in the sales brochure

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