Pyne gets to pick his poison

The education minister starts the year with more work and new problems

 In breaking news

Demonstrating Saye’s law of hackery (press releases on science will create their own demand while hacks have space to fill) the “Keep it clever” campaign reports, “when it comes to spying atomic hydrogen gas, our astronomers are smashing records!” I wonder whose record got knocked off, and if anybody noticed.

Arsenic shot with strychnine chaser

Education Minister Christopher Pyne got a poisoned chalice for Christmas, to match the cup of sorrows he poured himself with the last budget. In the re-shuffle (ICYMI, the sacking of defence minister David Johnston catalysed major ministerial moves on December 21) the education minister picked up training from Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane. With boundaries blurring between voc and higher education this makes policy sense. The politics are also important, Labor and The Greens are gearing up for a Senate inquiry into private VET providers and Mr Pyne will need to defend the industry against arguments that there is nothing so terrible in training that more money, much more money, for TAFE and a lot less for the private sector, will not fix. I’m guessing the prospect of rorts revealed is why Labor’s Sharon Bird was so pleased with last week’s news that the Australian National Audit Office will investigate VET FEE HELP this year.

Training is an enormous but underrated issue, one which Mr Pyne could devote all his time to – which will not happen. As budget planning for this year gets underway he is still trying to negotiate his reforms through the Senate. Perhaps this is why he now has help with the training strain. Senator Simon Birmingham, who replaces Sussan Ley, (promoted to Health) has training in his title. The pair will not have far to go to consult, Mr Pyne and the senator are both Adelaide based, (is this a first for the education portfolio?)

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She said it

“In higher education size does matter,” says Anne Cummins, Australia Catholic University DVC Learning and Teaching, in an email celebrating ACUs 25th anniversary.

Really killer cocktail

If Mr Pyne gets to name his poison it will not be a GST policy potion. He broke summer cover on Thursday to say, “there will be no change to the rate or base of the GST. Just because someone floats an idea does not make it party policy.” It’s obvious why he is adamant. A prospect of adding GST to higher and further course costs would make the government’s push to increase student debt an all but impossible sell to the Senate crossbench. And if the GST were added to HECs debt the government would be loaning money to people to pay its own taxes. As Andrew Norton put it last week, “it’s not clear that it makes sense for the government to tax and subsidise the same commodity.”

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Pale ideas on white paper

The government also used the holiday season to release the education issues discussion document for the Federation white paper. Which looks like being beige at best, given the unadventurous ideas the feds floated.

With no one contemplating returning higher education to the states there is not much on universities, beyond pointing to dichotomies, such as federal regulation of courses and state registration of universities. The post school focus, such as it is, is on voced and includes old favourites, how to meet local needs while maintaining consistency in qualifications across the country, whether the states should sort out cross-border issues or leave it all to Canberra, and so forth and so on. It also touches on cross-sector questions, like the way ASQA regulates a VET provider of a diploma of business while TEQSA over-sites the same course from a university.

The paper also points to unintended consequences flowing from the existing post school-funding model, with students studying courses that do not suit them and which may not generate jobs.

It’s worthy enough stuff but the paper’s inevitable focus on Commonwealth-state relations inevitably ensures it ignores the divides most in need of attention – the respective roles of private and public providers and state and citizen funding of study.

The cheque isn’t in the mail

Nicole Matejic runs Info Ops HQ, a social media consultancy for military and police agencies, making her the sort of successful graduate from the University of New England it should stay friends with. But it hasn’t, in fact Ms Matejic says she had not heard a word from Armidale since graduating in 2006 until last month, when VC Annabelle Duncan wrote to outline the many good reasons why graduates should donate to UNE. Ms Matejic replied with a scathing critique of the ask and why she won’t be coughing up. In particular she objected to UNE’s first contact being a “buzzword heavy” call for cash after years of silence. Fair enough but what puzzles me is the request for a donation only appears in the last par of two pages of the VCs guff-rich ramblings.

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Growth spurt

Acting on the departmental motto “tell them nothing, take them nowhere” Education Department officials released the first half 2014 student stats on the Friday before Christmas. For everybody who missed them, the numbers confirmed Cummins Law (see above) – size does indeed matter. Total domestic plus international student numbers were up on the year before by 3.6 per cent, to 176 000. All up there were 900 000 domestic students (a 3.3 per cent increase) and 271 000 internationals (plus 4 per cent).

Demonstrating increasing student interest in scholarship, or perhaps the declining value of an undergraduate qualification, postgraduate enrolments grew fastest, by 6.7 per cent, compared to 2.3 per cent for bachelor programmes.

Undergraduate commencements indicate the market is beginning to stabilise, with domestic undergraduate starters up 2.6 per cent. However the international market rocketed ahead by 9.9 per cent.

When in Rome

The ACU is opening a study centre in Rome, convenient (what a surprise) to the Vatican. It’s a joint venture with the Catholic University of America, and “will offer opportunities for study and research that are grounded in a commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition.” The centre will include accommodation for students and apartments for visiting staff. It sounds very pleasant indeed but perhaps less of an indulgence than Monash’s “elegant 18c palazzo,” in Tuscany.

Don’t do as the Romans did

The University of Queensland has a school holiday programme on Roman life, which includes the ancient world’s “weird and wonderful” taste in tucker. But, UoQ assures anxious parents, “no food will be given to children attending.” Quite right too, what with lots of kids being allergic to Roman gourmand Vedius Pollio’s famous dish, eel fed on slave.

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Picture worth a poultice of prescriptions

The National Health and Medical Research Council has announced its annual Science to Art award, which goes to an image taken from Council funded research. As with most things the NHMRC pays for I am far too dim to understand this because it sounds less like art, as in a creation by human hand, as a reproduction of something that exists in nature. But any minister (I’m looking at you, Jamie Briggs) looking for an example of ridiculous research funded with public money will be disappointed. The winner gets a framed print of their image and the NHMRC’s thanks.

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