Schmidt shines @ ANU

Plus Birmingham moves on another training rort and where our most cited scholars work

Schmidt stars at ANU

The science community was beside itself yesterday with the appointment of ANU astonomer and Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt as the university’s new vice chancellor. He will replace Ian “the gent” Young who is returning to research, at Swinburne.

The praise started from the top with Chief Scientist Ian Chubb (a former ANU VC) saying Professor Schmidt’s “wealth of achievement and vision will be a valuable contribution and source of inspiration to Australian education and research.”

The Chief Scientist nailed it. Professor Schmidt will present ANU to the world, including people with astronomical amounts of money to donate. And he will be an overall advocate for research. As the VC designate said yesterday, “ANU powers the whole sector.”

It is indeed a hell of a thing to have a Nobel Prize winner running a university. But CMM can’t see him slugging it with the NTEU over pay, or getting into the detail of staff restructures, as Professor Young did. This is understandable; the star-power of a Nobel Laureate can be better used than worrying about the IT budget or what the union expects – which it made clear yesterday, “a Canberra local and ANU staff member, Professor Schmidt would better understand the particular needs and challenges the university faces. ANU has been rocked by recent waves of redundancies led by a VC with no real connection to the university community. Hopefully this change in leadership will also see a new direction,” campus president Dr Sara Beavis said. Which makes CMM wonder if Professor Schmidt will be thinking about a provost.

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But the university is not his only constituency, with ANU an important member of the Group of Eight. Professor Schmidt was not the strongest admirer of the Pyne deregulation package, which Professor Young as Go8 chair sold hard. Here is what Professor Schmidt said in March on ABC TV’s Q&A;

“The problem, I guess, is whether or not students will be getting good value for their education, which is going to be part of the equation. So if you have a scheme and universities charge lots of money because they can, then the question will be: will you be getting good value on that or will you decide that it’s just not worth it? That would be the down side and so, from my perspective, I do have a concern of the value because, right now, we do cross-subsidise research, which is what I do, from student fees. That is I think a fundamental distortion to the system that has the potential to make value poor for students if we go through and differentiate on price. On the other hand, we have the problem right now that, for example, at ANU, you do a science degree at ANU, you get taught by people like me. We have great labs. You get to do research and we get the exact same amount of money as the weakest university in the country. So, you know, it’s very difficult for us to maintain that standard when, quite frankly, we don’t – you know, we don’t actually get enough money back from fees as they currently are.”

A balanced opinion for sure, but university chiefs, as distinct from researchers, can’t set out both sides of an argument.

If his seven future colleagues worry whether Professor Schmidt will stick to the party line the elite eight secretariat was not showing it yesterday. “The Go8 looked forward to the wise contribution Professor Schmidt would bring to its board and to working with him to ensure a robust university sector,” Executive Director Vicki Thomson said.

Removing rorts

It seems Simon Birmingham has a list of the rorts run by training providers focused more on money than student need and he is one by one stopping the scams. The training minister has already established new penalties for private providers selling inappropriate courses to people who have no hope of completing them. Yesterday he increased funding for training regulator ASQU to audit doubtful provider performance. And this morning he will ban charging withdrawal fees to students who pull out of a course before the “census date,” used by government to identify funded places. This policy should have been in place a year ago, but at least now the minister can point to consumer protections. There are fewer complaints about for-profit training than six months ago and one reason is the work of Senator Birmingham.

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Citing success

Thomson Reuters has released its list of the scholars whose papers are in the 2014 top one per cent for citation per discipline. TR makes a very big deal of this, holding a ceremony for Australian high achievers, who are based at universities across the country. As per every other ranking, the University of Melbourne led with 13 staff, followed by Monash and UofQ with five each. UNSW, UWA and Macquarie had four and then a bunch of institutions with one, two or the occasional three. In itself it does not prove anything, but it does add to the ample evidence that in across the board research performance it is Melbourne and daylight.

Training wars

It was National TAFE day yesterday and Labor used the opportunity to argue that the public provider is central to training, demonstrating the party thinks the idea of a competitive market involving private providers is on the nose with voters. Opposition spokeswoman for vocational education Sharon Sharon Bird said Labor would quarantine “a proportion” of government training money for TAFE.

“In addition to the TAFE funding guarantee, Labor will work with premiers and chief ministers on a comprehensive national priority plan which properly defines and supports TAFE and places it at the centre of our vocational education and training sector,” she said yesterday.

So much for the de-regulatory reforms the last Labor governments sold to the states, with mixed results. As training minister Simon Birmingham responded last night,

“In 2012 Ms Gillard signed the National Partnership Agreement on Skills Reform with all states and territories to open up the training market. … In 2015 Labor’s new policy is more like an ambition for a fireside chat.”

But 2012 was before the full disaster of mishandled deregulation in Victoria  became apparent and the public education lobby got on the front foot in response to Chris Pyne‘s market reforms. Although Senator Birmingham is working to clean up the market this debate is now about ideology as well as education.

Extraordinary ANU

Just before ANU’s big announcement yesterday Education Minister Christopher Pyne released the review of its enabling legislation, conducted by former Deakin U VC Sally Walker. There seems little in it to alarm outgoing and incoming VCs and a good deal which they will like, notably the proposal to renew the founding emphasis on ANU as Australia’s national university and to spell out the National Institute Grant with all that implies for ANU’s identity, and funding.

“The NIG is the critical investment in establishing the ANU’s capacity as a nationally and internationally significant research institution. Without the NIG, the ANU would be at a considerable resource disadvantage relative to all the Go8 universities and, indeed, other Australian universities, which receive more funding from their student bases and, in many cases, from relevant state governments. Appendices provide evidence of the effectiveness of the NIG in generating exceptional research outcomes for the ANU and Australia more broadly; this has underpinned the ANU’s success in world university rankings,” she writes.

And Professor Walker calls on the university to better explain why it gets the NIG and what it does with the dosh “It is important that the ANU shows how it frames its operations around the responsibilities arising from its special purpose; it needs to inform the public about its priorities and how it is fulfilling its responsibilities. In particular, the way the NIG supports the ANU’s special role should be explained; the ANU’s annual reports provide an appropriate vehicle for such an explanation,” CMM suspects Brian Schmidt will not confine himself to the annual report.

Minister Pyne “welcomed” the review yesterday, as did ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans – the cash that makes ANU a legend on its own lakeside is set to stay.

Enormous opportunity

India is the new China in international education and Universities Australia chief Belinda Robinson is keen to explain the opportunities, especially if the trade deal being negotiated is adopted. Australian exports are “far below the growing demand for higher education in India,” she says. Less growing than exploding.

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To bring its higher education participation rate up to China’s, or better, India needs an extra 14 million places in six years. And the government want to skill 150 million people in under a decade. So what is Australia doing about it? Who knows, or if anybody does, they are not letting on to CMM. The universities understand export, as UA points out; its members have 300 agreements with Indian institutions and can be left to build their own businesses. But training needs leadership; while the for-profits are keen the TAFE sector is not all that entrepreneurial. I suppose they could ask Austrade for help and while waiting for the trade agency to do something get federal training minister Simon Birmingham onto it. Perhaps he could ask the government’s new council of international elders for help.

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