Pyne sticks to the script

While Simon McKeon warns medical researchers are ready to revolt 

He’s here to to help

The Education Minister shows no sign of wear or tear from the all but universal criticism of his higher education plan. In a speech today he will present a long list of initiatives, sticking to his strategy of quoting university opinion leaders to demonstrate he is delivering what they want. Which must drive some nuts. I doubt Universities Australia will be pleased to have Mr Pyne approvingly quoting from its “keep it clever campaign”. Although there is nothing new in the speech, some of the incidental detail adds a sense of the minister’s program. The “quality indicators for learning and teaching” recommended by Griffith VC Ian O’Connor’s committee will use the University Experience Survey, the Graduate Outcomes Survey and a new employer satisfaction survey to “provide clear information for students and families about the quality of courses and institutions they are considering … Not only will this information help students in their choices of course and higher education institution; it will also enable Australia to compare its performance in higher education against the United States of America, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. By comparing our performance with other countries, we should learn lessons about how we can do better and better.” A new website will be live later this year with full implementation in August 2015.

Mr Pyne also less argued than simply stated, as if it is a truth universally acknowledged, that his reforms are the result of, “the extensive debate in this country over many years.” And he added that “the move to the new arrangements will be carefully planned and consultative,” with consultation informed by the legislative and financing working group led by La Trobe VC John Dewar.

So there you go, universities are getting what they want from a minister who is consulting all the way. For critics of the cut in Commonwealth Supported Places and HELP terms this is all less deliberative than disingenuous but you can’t fault Mr Pyne for sticking to the script, because he just does not have any choice. To show any loss of nerve now would ensure the dismantling of his package before it even starts in the Senate.

Rathjen remains

The news from the deep south (CMM yesterday) is that University of Tasmania VC Peter Rathjen is staying for a second term, reappointed to the end of 2018.

Plaudits from Pyne

In yesterday’s speech Mr Pyne was particularly pleasant about CPA Australia and the Institute of Chartered Accountants, which argued for deregulation of student fees and uncapping of places in their joint submission to the Kemp-Norton review as steps “towards encouraging quality and specialisation, rather than the perverse incentive for all to achieve volume in all fields of higher education under current arrangements.” Understandably so. As one policy player put it last  night, they could have stuck to the rent-seeking strategy of those professional guilds who like to price member earnings up by keeping the competition out.

Researchers united will never be defeated

Simon McKeon thinks the government’s proposed medical research fund will get up, after “some give and take” and hopes it will be operating “sooner rather than later”. The chair of the 2013 Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research made the prediction at the National Press Club yesterday. He added he had no problem with the fund being funded by a co-payment, as long as low-income earners are exempt. And woe betides anybody in Canberra who stops it. Researchers are not given to protests but there will “there will be lab coats in the streets,” if it doesn’t he said, as if this was a new thing. Does he not remember the lead-up to the 2011 budget, when the merest rumour of budgets saw protests by regiments of researchers?

Contingency fund

While seven or so universities have committed to paying the increased costs incurred by students who enrol in second semester but are caught by the 2016 fee hike Charles Sturt U is taking a different approach. The university has set up a $2m contingency fund “to support students” enrolled as of January 1 ’16 once the details of the increase are clear. Game approach – while the fee promises made elsewhere are effectively capped by university policy this is a bucket of money to help whoever is affected in whatever way. As Vice Chancellor Andy Vann puts it, “CSU will not rush to react to proposed legislation that has not yet passed through parliament.”

Where the votes are

Yesterday Labor leader Bill Shorten called Christopher Pyne “the most dangerous education minister the country had seen in a long time.” But before anybody thinks that’s Labor locked in against university deregulation, he was referring to schools, not higher education policy. Interesting to see where the Opposition thinks the votes are.

Do the math, please

There is nothing new in this morning’s bad news from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute that maths is taught to 40 per cent of junior high school students by somebody other than a maths-qualified teacher. A similar figure based on ACER research was around last year. But the push from Professor Geoff Prince to increase the number of qualified maths teachers and women studying the discipline does not have to be new to be important – and worth acting on. Professor Prince “calls on the Australian governments to immediately address the urgent shortage of qualified maths teachers. Measures include upgrading existing qualifications for ‘out-of-field’ maths teachers and engaging with school and undergraduate students to become qualified maths teachers.” Doing so will take a national approach, “because teachers are employed by so many public and private jurisdiction,” Professor Prince adds. Sound like a job for anybody in particular? Try Chris Pyne. Yes, he already has a review of the national curriculum underway but this is a practical problem that does not need an ideological impetus to address.

And the specimen jar goes to…

The National Health and Medical Research Council held its awards ceremony last night (“the scalpels”?”, too obvious, what about “the leeches”!) Who got the 20 gongs was as predictable as that joke. Group of Eight institutions picked up 13 with Monash and UNSW staff (four each) leading the universities of Sydney and Melbourne (two each) and the University of Queensland with one. The other Go8’s, Western Australia and Adelaide did not bother the scorers. Researchers from Curtin, the University of South Australia and James Cook all won with the remainder going to the Institute sector, Walter and Eliza Hall (two) plus the Baker and Centenary (one each).

Buy now, pay and pay, later

Maths academics at the Australian National University have  created an interactive website which calculates what a degree in a range of disciplines there will cost. Dr Jarod Alper explains the methodology here. Useful numbers for students to use when, or if, ANU management ever starts quoting fees.


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