Queue of critics denounce deregulation

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Those who love babies will pass to the right of the chair

The Pyne Package MKII was listed for the House of Representatives yesterday, with no less than 47 speakers keen to have their say. Ye Gods that’s around a third of all members – a motion in favour of motherhood would not attract as many.

Quick study

Ian Jacobs really enjoyed his first week running the University of New South Wales if the length of his staff message about what he got up to is any indication. People are professional, the consultations are collegial and Fred Hilmer left the joint in great shape, he reported. Professor Jacobs also announced the timetable for the next ten-year plan, which will have three themes, academic excellence, social engagement and global impact. Consultations will shape a discussion paper by July/August with the finished product due in October/November.

Professor Jacobs added he was going to stay shtum on deregulation “until I am fully informed.” But he then went on to call for a “mechanism … to provide our universities with funding at a level that can make them globally competitive.” And whatever that turns out to be, “I will be a strong advocate for steps to ensure that higher education is available to all, based on ability – regardless of gender, cultural or socioeconomic background.” Sounds to me he is as informed as veteran VCs who are waiting to see what happens.

Everybody’s a critic

Could everybody with an alternative plan for higher education form an orderly queue? On Monday Victoria University VC Peter Dawkins proposed a plan for regulated deregulation with options economists will adore and the rest of us struggle to understand. Then yesterday University of Canberra VC Stephen Parker announced a Chatham House Rules seminar for the great and the good on Friday, to “discuss viable alternatives for a sustainable higher education system.” David Phillips, Louise Watson, Bruce Chapman and Andrew Norton will speak and the student unions, NTEU and various action groups will all attend.

But wait, there’s more! Late yesterday senators Kim Carr (Labor), Nick Xenophon (Independent), Lee Rhiannon (Greens), Glenn Lazarus (PUP), Ricky Muir (Motoring Enthusiasts) and Jacqui Lambie (still PUP?) proposed the Senate education and employment reference committee conduct an inquiry into why deregulation is the education equivalent of anthrax, or words to that effect. (Matthew Knott from Fairfax broke the yarn). If the Senate agrees, (which it will) the committee will consider the many, many failings in the Pyne plan and look at “alternatives to deregulation in order to maintain a sustainable higher education system.” The resulting deplore-a-gram is due mid March. Will this add anything to the arsenal of objections to deregulation put on the record in last year’s Senate committee inquiry? Probably not – but it could come up with terms of reference for the full-scale public examination of higher education Senator Xenophon wants.

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RUN on research

The Regional Universities Network was in Parliament House yesterday, briefing MPs and minders, senators and staffers on the valuable research its members undertake. The Nationals turned out in numbers, with Luke Hartsuyker (NSW, Cowper) and Senator Bridget McKenzie (Nats-Vic) enthusiastically working the room. Chris Pyne was also spotted in the audience, looking very interested indeed. Cynics suggest that this is because with other VCs abandoning his plan he needs to keep his friends close and RUN is still solid for deregulation. But what can you expect from cynics?

Keep the core cool

The chair of South Australia’s Royal Commission on nuclear energy is University of Adelaide chancellor, and former state governor, Kevin Scarce, a man who knows how to express an opinion now that he is not encumbered by vice-regal discretion. In November he told a Flinders University audience that Australia should not just look at naval shipbuilding in costs terms but as an investment in advanced manufacturing. And he called then for a mature debate on the costs and benefits of a nuclear industry, saying Australia has 30 per cent of the world’s uranium, but generates negligible GDP growth.

Given the calm response to Premier Jay Weatherill’s creation of the commission perhaps times have changed and nuclear energy does not upset people the way it used to. Don’t bet on it, this debate will be whatever is the nuclear metaphor for a slow burn. This might be what University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington was getting at yesterday when he congratulated the chancellor on the appointment adding that he recognised “there will be very divergent views,” and hoping “the university might offer a neutral platform for public debate of the issues.”

VET by the volume

The estimable National Centre for Vocational Education and Training Research publishes papers throughout the year but for anybody who missed any of them – and there are indeed a few, a year in research review for 2014 appeared yesterday, available via this link.

Regulate and repeat

Victorian Training Minister Steve Herbert’s promised inquiry into VET funding is out and the terms of reference are much as expected. Objective (e) sets the tone, “build a strong and responsive public technical and further education (TAFE) sector.” The inquiry is also invited to consider “the regulation of training providers.” Um, but surely that’s covered by the Australian Skills Quality Authority, which “regulates courses and training providers to ensure nationally approved quality standards are met.” Ah federalism, ain’t it grand!

ANU computing

No one’s talking

Silence is indeed golden in the west. At Murdoch University an internal investigation into Provost Ann Capling continues, but management will not comment on the matter at all. Last week the university announced in a terse statement that HR director Karen Lamont had resigned. Maybe they are waiting until she actually leaves for speeches.

At the University of Western Australia no less than three senior professors are on leave pending the outcome of internal investigations. Forensic scientists Ian Dadour and John Watling are involved in one. Professor Jorge Imberger from the Centre for Water Research is reported to be challenging a separate internal inquiry in the Federal Court. The future of the centre itself is also not assured and its supporters are active, with an open letter to UWA Chancellor Michael Chaney in The West Australian and ample on-line support. So what’s going on? Nothing the university will reveal. A spokesman said yesterday that internal inquiries continue.

All ideas welcome

Is the government preparing to sacrifice the whole Pyne package to demonstrate it will not abandon absolutely everything that senators Lazarus and Lambie loathe? Certainly the prime minister is talking about cooperating in the Senate and you would not want to bet your stethoscope on billions for the Medical Research Future Fund from an increase in the cost of a GP visit. But when it comes to higher education Mr Pyne is holding the line. Then again, what did Foreign Minister and deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop mean on ABC Radio yesterday when she said senators, like the government, want more resources for universities? “We have to then work with them to find a way that they can embrace the vision that we have for our higher education sector and the investment that we want to make in the young people of Australia.” Sounded conciliatory to me. If she has anything in mind now would be a good time to talk to Mr Pyne.

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