Pyne pushes on while Shorten signals Labor strategy

Plus Training Minister Birmingham cracks down on crook providers 

Understated advertising

The Group of Eight advertisement demanding continued funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy should work. After all the government has reversed a bunch of other cuts. But why did the Eight not make its job easier by including references to South Australia, submarines and car workers in the copy?

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Pyne holds the line

Last year at the Universities Australia conference Christopher Pyne made the case that Bob Menzies was the founding father of the modern Australian university system and the Coalition the true friend of higher education. Last night he made an impassioned speech at UA’s 2015 conference, making the case that his deregulation package proves it. It was a disciplined but defensive speech. Mr Pyne set out in detail the policy and politics of his plan, why he believes it is essential policy and why he presented it for the first time in the 2014 budget, but this is not the speech of a resigned minister making his case for the record, because the education minister is holding the line. While Mr Pyne says he is “open to sensible suggestions” there are (unspecified) features of the government’s package “that are not up for grabs.”

“The alternative to passing the government’s reform Bill is more years of inequitable and unpredictable cuts and, when they get the chance, Labor either ending the demand driven system or cutting research funding again. There really is no credible alternative to the government’s package.”

Leader-writers always advise government’s that do not have the numbers to govern as if they do. Despite the state of the Senate, last night Mr Pyne did exactly that. Nobody expects it save his package but no one can say he did not have a go.

Robinson keeps the UA faith

University Australia chief Belinda Robinson kept the faith and argued for her members’ enduring interests in her National Press club speech yesterday. The faith she kept was in the transformative power of universities to improve lives, enrich civic culture and expand economies. “If we are truly to put national interest in the drivers’ seat of higher education policy formulation, a new policymaking paradigm is needed. One that sees political consensus emerge from a broadbased acknowledgment that our universities are integral to the goals for achieving longterm, national wellbeing.”

The interests she argued are for are in UA’s heavily qualified support for Mr Pyne’s deregulation package.

“We don’t suggest that the government’s Bill as it currently stands is perfect. … But it does provide, through the prospect of feederegulation, the means by which a sustainable university system can continue to perform amongst the world’s best while preserving and promoting the public university values of: equity; admission on merit; intellectual inquiry; student support; community engagement; academic freedom; and strong academic governance.”

And so she urged cross-bench senators to take up the government’s invitation and resist “the tempting political prizes that polarity affords and negotiate in good faith.”

But not to worry if they don’t – UA will not allow the debate to die. “While it may flicker and wane, we will ensure that it keeps burning until the sector and the community is satisfied that Australia’s higher education system is positioned as well as it possibly can be in serving our students, our community and our nation long into the future.”

Can’t fault UA for pragmatism in the service of principle. Even before the Pyne package expires Universities Australia is looking to the next round of planning reform.

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Next debate

Which Labor leader Bill Shorten makes clear is coming and that that there will be a real policy divide over higher education at the next election. At Monash University yesterday Mr Shorten said the last Labor government’s goals of a 40 per cent national graduate rate and 20 per cent low SES participation are en route to being realised. The party would accordingly focus on quality, specifically ensuring graduates have “the confidence, skills and knowledge to drive a new economy.”

And so Mr Shorten warned that of commencing students with an ATAR of less than 59 commencing in 2005 less than half graduated seven tears later. He was very careful to say Labor “will always support growth in the system” adding “reports of freezing enrolments at 2015 levels are plainly untrue.”

But that still leaves Labor with room to manoeuver. “Universities need resources to focus on quality teaching, and the individual attention that prevents students from slipping through the cracks in massive institutions – and they need certainty. The alternative is a system where students are collected and their fees harvested,” Mr Shorten added.

Which means? “We will continue to discuss the best way to provide universities with the support and security they need to produce the graduate workforce of tomorrow. We want the best combination of excellence, equity and accessibility, driving innovation and boosting productivity.”

Good-oh, but that gives Labor in power the opportunity to intervene in everything from entry scores to subjects taught and as such builds on points made by education spokesman Kim Carr throughout the deregulation debate. Mr Shorten’s speech potentially puts Labor at loggerheads with the major university lobbies, which universally endorse the demand driven funding and which accept alternatives to the ATAR for entry.

Birmingham tackles training rorts

Training Minister Simon Birmingham has stepped up to stop spivs rorting VET student funding by conning people into signing up for courses they can neither understand nor afford. Senator Birmingham has announced a ban on enrolment incentives and upfront fees, forbidding “miraculously short” courses, and preventing trainers ducking responsibility for students signed up to their courses by unscrupulous brokers. The government will also move to cancel student debts that breach guidelines and require trainers to reimburse government for the cost.

And not for before time. While the gaming was going on under state and federal Labor governments, especially in Victoria, the problem now belongs to Senator Birmingham and the credibility of the entire for-profit training system is eroding fast.

“The unacceptable activities of some training providers are leaving vulnerable Australians with a lifetime of unwanted debt, taxpayers with liabilities that may never be repaid and are damaging the reputation of the many good public, private and not-for-profit training providers,” he says.

Today’s announcement presages the Australian Council for Private Education and Training’s announcement tomorrow of new conduct codes for trainers and agents.

All the new rules are only as good as the way they are enforced but Senator Birmingham says that, “further abuse of the programme will result in even harsher measures.” This will not stop Greens and Labor criticism of for-profit trainers but certainly gives the government a credible response.

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Forgettable Austrade effort

Austrade wants to know whether it is possible to double the number of international students in-country over the next decade and to increase the number of students overseas using Australian content. So it is going to consult “education providers, peak bodies, state and territory agencies, and other government partners.” And that’s not all; it is going to hold “targeted topic-focussed roundtables.” Gosh the Future is Unlimited! Oh sorry that was Austrade’s last campaign.

Greg gets the gloves on

Greg Craven is floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee in his defence of the Pyne package. The Australian Catholic University VC floats like a butterfly in praising Bruce Chapman’s deregulated deregulation, which makes the Pyne plan politically palatable, perhaps. He made the case yesterday for Chapman on The Australian’s opinion page. And he stings like a bee in warning that opponents of the Pyne package do not support the demand driven system. As ACU’s submission to the Opposition initiated Senate committee inquiry on deregulation put it; “the continuation of the DDS, with all its manifest benefits, is not something that simply can be taken for granted within the Australian higher education system.” While no names are named by the ACU, Labor’s Kim Carr has said demand driven funding was introduced to deal with specific, not permanent, circumstances.

No ignoring MOOCs

Charles Sturt University VC Andy Vann saw it as a good sign that MOOCS were not mentioned for the first two hours of the Universities Australia conference yesterday. Certainly better for people who worry about MOOCs disrupting the ancient regime than the news out of edX that Microsoft will offer coding and app development courses. This is very bad indeed for organisations charging for the same. Ironically, if any university knows how to defy the Microsoft challenge it is CSU. The university has long offered free online programming courses, which are parts of fee-paying masters. As try before you buy it is impossible to beat.

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