Return of the regulators

and

One less PUP is a plus for Pyne

In government you get what you pay for

If Kim Carr is the next education minister no one will be able to say they did not see the re-regulation of higher education coming. Here’s what the senator said at the Universities Australia conference yesterday.

“Labor also believes university funding must be secure, predictable and sustainable,” but, and it is quite a big but,

“in return for public investment, Labor expects universities to work with the Commonwealth to help address national and regional priorities in education and the labour market. The key to making this partnership work is to find a balance between institutional autonomy and accountability for the use of taxpayers’ funds.”

But isn’t balancing public policy and institutional aspiration a bit tricky? Not according to Senator Carr.

“It should respect the autonomy of institutions, but also acknowledge national goals so that investment is directed to future economic growth and meeting regional needs. The focus of higher education funding is crucial in a future in which educational attainment is the key to economic opportunity, for individuals and the nation. We want universities to be more responsive to their local communities and to national priorities, especially with regard to the labour market.”

And if universities have trouble identifying “national priorities” ? I am sure in government Senator Carr would make officials available who were keen to help.

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Citation spies

Eliza Manningham-Buller, former chief of MI5, is the new chair of the Wellcome Trust. Good luck anybody who has fudged research data.

Chubb makes it plain

If anybody at the UA conference did not agree with Chief Scientist’s Ian Chubb speech they kept quiet. Wisely so.Professor Chubb is cuddly in a Kodiak kind of way but being smarter than the average bear expresses himself firmly So he got a positive response for a speech focused on realpolitik policy that argued (a) there is not enough research funding so (b) most money be spent on research that matters (c) which means most people will miss out and (d) here is the list of eight research areas that he will propose to the Commonwealth Science Council next month.* “After that, if the process goes according to plan, “departments and agencies will get a letter advising that a proportion of their R&D budget should be used to support the priority areas that are relevant to their mission.”

The implications for universities are obvious, but no one seemed to mind. This is pretty much the pattern sinceProfessor Chubb started emphasising applied research last year – there was a paper in defence of pure research from the Group of Eight, otherwise not a dicky bird.

* the eight priority areas are, food, soil and water, transport, cybersecurity, energy & resources, manufacturing, environmental change and health

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One less PUP a plus for Pyne

Glenn Lazarus departing the Palmer United Party does not make it any easier for Chris Pyne‘s task to attract the Senate votes needed to pass his package. While opposition to deregulation is PUP policy the senator is adamantly opposed to the change – to the extent that he urged Minister Pyne to stop bothering him about it. But what could be be in play is the vote of the one remaining PUP senator Zhenya Wang (PUP-WA). Senator Wang understands the case for deregulation but has said he will vote against it out of party loyalty. In the Senate now he is the party – I bet Mr Pyne is texting as I write.

Bottom line on research

Business Council of Australia chief Catherine Livingstone also argued for research as investment rather than the outcome of academic curiosity (my phrase not hers) at UA‘s conference. “There is a strong view that the balance in Australia is skewed to investigator led (research) because of the incentive structure and that the result is disparate knowledge creation, not necessarily aligned with adequately maintaining the critical mass of strategic stocks of knowledge,” she told UA. And while she joined the chorus calling for NCRIS to continue, “how have we come to this? How have we come to a point where a government feels it can use assets, publicly funded to the tune of over $2 billion, as a hostage in a political process? … shame on us” she also argued the case made for research spending must change. “We need to reframe the argument that universities need more money for research to one that focuses on the quality and health of the nation’s knowledge infrastructure. The Intergenerational Report makes it plain that needing more money is not a compelling argument.”

What is, she said, is that research outputs are now fundamental to the future, “the returns to labour will not be enough to generate the required level of wealth. We must now focus on the returns to knowledge.”

Not that UWS

Do Barney Glover’s ambitions for the University of Western Sydney know no bounds, what with talk of a Berlin campus for UWS. Sadly, it’s a different UWS, being the University of the West of Scotland.

As expected

The response to Simon Birmingham’s crackdown on for-profit trainers rorting enrolments to maximise public subsidies was predictable (CMM yesterday). The Australian Council for Private Education and Training endorsed the minister’s announcement in the lead-up to its own announcement today of a new code of member conduct. Some, but not many, individual providers endorsed the Birmingham plan – but most kept quiet, inevitably creating questions as to how many have enriched themselves at the state’s expense of the taxpayer by enrolling students who lack the skills to complete courses and have no idea that they take on a debt when they sign up to study.

The senator’s strategy did not impress friends of TAFE who use training as a proxy to oppose the private sector operating in all areas higher and further education. “For profit private colleges should not be allowed to operate in the vocational education and training sector,” Greens senator Lee Rhiannon said. The National Tertiary Education Union says that if the Senate committee inquiry now underway, “shows private college sector is a mess, why would we extend public subsidies to them?” I think it’s a rhetorical question.

“While the NTEU is encouraged by the minister’s plans, we would argue that if vocational education and training had not been deregulated in the first place, then there would not have been a need for the government to come up with these band-aid cures to stop the taxpayer and vulnerable students from being ripped off by private providers with unethical business practices,” the union’s national president Jeannie Rea said yesterday.

And on ABC Melbourne radio Jon Faine made it plain that he just does not like private providers in vocational or higher education. “The fundamental problem here is the structure of the system you’ve put in place that makes it rortable. The problem’s not the rorts, it’s the system. The fundamental problem here is that it is a highly profitable private sector business to provide training that used to be provided by the state.”

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Self help

If deregulated voced is going to work the deregulated must self-regulate. Australian Council for Private Education and Training chief Rod Camm knows it. This morning he will announces a code of conduct for providers and rule for employing agents.

It’s not over yet

“A NSW woman with a learning disability says she was misled by a training college & ended up with close to $40,000 debt,” ABC Radio’s World Today, yesterday.

Hard and fast science

The Cooperative Research Centre Association has 40 entries in its contest for early career researchers to explain their work in 30 seconds. The videos are  here, with a winner to be picked at the Association’s Canberra conference at the end of May. Just about all of them meet the Chubb applied research test.

Winners of the week

Among all the pontificating (who me?) this week it was easy to overlook what the funding debate is meant to drive, learning and teaching – which makes the University of Adelaide’s Katrina Falkner an overlooked winner.Associate Professor Falkner won a two-three year Google award to support her research “on automated analysis of MOOC discussion content to support personalised learning.” This alarmed some readers, who wonder how anything automated can be personalised. At least Aspro Falkner has time to work out how to make it work.

Training Minister Simon Birmingham also did well –announcing a crack down on for-profit training rorts to positive coverage. The industry has enormous image issues but Senator Birmingham now has answers to critics demanding action.

Universities Australia chief Belinda Robinson also had a good week. UA’s annual conference went off well and she delivered a speech that supported deregulation but explained how the ideals and interests of universities are eternal. In the process she signalled if the Pyne package does fail UA is happy to debate the next big idea. Politics is the art of the polite possible and Ms Robinson is a supremely professional practitioner.

But the big achiever this week is Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, who set out the next stage of the national science strategy at UA’s conference. Professor Chubb has built a consensus, or at least has kept opponents quiet, for an applied research strategy based on focusing on fields that are variously in the national interest and/or play to the system’s strengths. That he has made it look easy in 18 months of speeches and presentations does not mean it was.

Compact for courtesy

What are they taking at Griffith University? Whatever it is, I don’t want any. The university’s twitter feed posted a link yesterday to “109 random acts of kindness you can start doing today,” including “respond to emails promptly.” It’s blather bolstered with bunkum. Perhaps Griffith has heard niceness will be a performance objective for all universities if Senator Carr gets to implement his plan.

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