When senators snarl: Labor goes after university chiefs

Plus why Sandra Harding and Belinda Robinson are winners of the week

Parallel universes

Advocates and opponents of deregulation all claimed they won the debate arising out of the Senate committee hearings this week. Opponents say the government does not have the numbers, that the Senate crossbench will not budge. Government supporters reply they are talking intensively to senators and that passing an amended package is probable -ish. So what will waverers want and what will the government give? A change to the HELP loan interest rate is a dead-set certainty, with money for the regionals close behind. Some sort of implementation oversight agency is said to be on, or potentially, on offer. But a transferable scholarships pool seems a swim too far.

Man for the job

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane must be pleased indeed with the appointment of Larry Marshall as the head of CSIRO. Mr Mcfarlane told the Sydney Institute in September, “science and research will be essential to laying the foundation of (the) new industry policy as the nation’s businesses evolve to keep pace with changes in global markets and consumer attitudes. It’s no accident that science is in the industry portfolio. The work of Australian scientists is one of our national competitive advantages. They have an increasingly important role in giving Australia an innovative edge in the global economy – if we can draw science and business closer.” Dr Marshall has a physics PhD from Macquarie U and is a technology entrepreneur with 20 patents and six start-ups in biotechnology, photonics, telecommunications and semiconductors to his credit. But it seems unlikely that he will want to upset his new colleagues by pushing for a more commercial approach. As he told ABC News Radio yesterday CSIRO already has a strong commercial focus.

Winners of the week

This was the biggest policy week for higher education since the days of Dawkins, with deregulation considered by a Senate committee – its resulting report will go the crossbench senators who will decide the fate of the Pyne package. Given this two big winners of the week are the warriors who dominated the hearings.

Labor’s education spokesman Kim Carr argued long and hard against change – making the case that when in power his party had increased funding and that the Senate would not pass the proposed cuts. It was a passionate plea for the past that did not appear to convince vice chancellors who he questioned and in a couple of cases hectored. But Senator Carr was also addressing another audience – anybody in Labor inclined to a deal on deregulation down the track and crossbench senators yet to make up their mind.

Committee chair Bridget McKenzie (Nationals-Victoria) had an equally good week. She was often alone – (where were her coalition committee colleagues?) but kept the committee in order and on track. On a couple of days she was also the only voice asking questions, which did not assume deregulation is a policy plague. She made a very tough job look if not easy then manageable.

But the outstanding achievers are Universities Australia chair and James Cook U VC Sandra Harding and UA chief executive Belinda Robinson. They have kept together the grand university coalition, albeit with some special interest side-deals to keep happy the Group of Eight and the Regional Universities Network. With the Senate committee hearings nearly complete there is not much more than can publicly do. Privately is another matter.

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Not dead yet

The Medical Research Future Fund Action Group has run a brilliant campaign featuring researchers explaining to each other why they need more money (Campus Morning Mail September 19). But finally their cause is getting coverage outside the lab. Yesterday the prime minister spoke out for what still looks like a lost funding cause in the Senate. “I ask Labor to put politics aside in relation to the GP co-payment and listen to the medical researchers,” he said at a fund raising launch at Westmead Hospital in Sydney yesterday. Good luck with that one.

 

Deregulation Hearings Day Three: Attack of the Cross Kim

Day three of the Senate deregulation hearings was one for the wonks with very heavy hitters, making their cases. They did not broaden the terms of the debate – but they drilled deep, into the detail.

Carefully considered

CQU VC Scott Bowman began with an endorsement of the Pyne package’s broad intent as necessary and unavoidable, to make up for funding cuts. “It will give us a good chance to address inequity between urban and regional university participation,” he said. But what, Senator Kim Carr asked, will happen if the Senate rejects the government’s proposed funding cuts. Professor Bowman replied that if this occurred the cuts will come in elsewhere. “Deregulation needs to be completed – why can’t we offer different services and put a different price on it?” he asked. But why can’t you build your regional services under the existing funding scheme, Senator Carr wanted to know, if there are no cuts? “I’m not getting into a debate on Labor funding but every year it does feel tighter,” Professor Bowman said.

The horse is still kicking

If Senator Carr was not cross with Universities Australia before Sandra Harding and Belinda Robinson appeared yesterday he certainly was after the latter explained why UA was backing deregulation instead of calling for more government money. “We were always criticised for being mendicants. There comes a point where you really must stop flogging the dead horse of public investment,” she said. If this was calculated to upset the senator it worked, because he has argued all week that university spending increased under Labor. Senator Carr is from the Labor generation that believes universities are party loyalists and with the vice chancellors backing a market approach and the National Tertiary Education Union going green the times are out of joint. All week he has tried to set them right, culminating yesterday in an abrasive and informed attack on UA’s numbers and new approach. A very well-informed approached, quoting a secret UA strategy paper on structural adjustment funding to Professor Harding and Ms Robinson. The two women kept their cool, all that Ms Robinson, who makes Elsa from Frozen look hot and bothered cooly said was, that Senator Carr having the document “was very helpful.” Given it is said the document only went to VCs it was the coup of the week, showing UA and the Greens that Labor still has campus comrades. But it did not disguise the fact that Universities Australia has decided the days of demanding, and receiving ever-more government money are gone.

Expert exchange

Senator Carr will retire from the Senate some day, (rumour hath it he is considering not seeking pre-selection around mid-century). And when he does he has a brilliant future in an higher education think-tank, because he knows a bunch about the history of university administration and policy. And so does that great policy engineer Andrew Norton. Observing the pair yesterday was like watching two policy poker players – giving nothing away and watching for their opponent to make a mistake. Which neither did.

Their forensic exchange focused on how a market will, or wont work, how many additional people it will help, or not, whether price will be a proxy for quality. In the end Mr Norton’s cards came down to equity – deregulation will expand access to the loan system to students in private providers. Although his suggestion that most of the package will not get up did nothing for the deregulation cause.

Uncomfortable with capitalists

Senator Rhiannon (Greens-NSW) and Senator Sue Lines (Labor-WA) were scrupulously polite to Larry Davies and George Brown from the Australian Council of Private Education and Training in yesterday’s hearing. But there was a sense in the two senators’ statements that they are not entirely comfortable with private providers in education. Senator Lines wasted time with very general and not especially friendly questions, which emphasised ACPET members are for-profits. She also asked how many ACPET members made donations to political parties, what “like the NTEU?” chair Senator McKenzie interjected. (I’m guessing she was referring to the union’s support for Green’s candidates in last year’s election – money the union spent to assist, rather than gave, the Greens.)

Senator Rhiannon wanted to know whether ACPET talked to the government about change. And she asked about scholarships, which, what a surprise, gave her a chance to mention the scholarship a private college awarded to one of the prime minister’s daughters. Mr Davies and Dr Brown did well in calmly answering Senator Rhiannon, who appears to assume the private sector exists to make money by not serving students.

Public service

Victorian public vocational education providers faced a tough time from Senator Carr at first, who wanted to know why they were supporting deregulation. But everything was easier when he realised they liked the principle of expanded student access to Commonwealth Supported Places on the basis of access and equity but not the detail of the legislation. However he went on to focus on the financial problems reregulation has created for public VET in Victoria and wondered why they embraced a proposal that will not generate much money. Mary Farone, (Holmesglen Institute ), Charlotte Black (North Melbourne TAFE), and Maria Peters and Anne Deschepper (Chisholm Institute) replied deregulation is all about opportunity for the communities they served, one explaining to Senator Rhiannon that as public providers they were not looking for a profit. Yes, fees for their higher education students would go down if they can access public funding for their courses, they said.

Expanse, elegance, erudition

Bruce Chapman (ANU) less made comments than a delivered a lecture on income contingent loans and why they are efficient and equitable. The co-author of his new plan Tim Higgins (also ANU) agreed. The following questions from senators were very polite indeed – understandably so – these blokes are smart. How smart? Smart enough to avoid providing senators with easy outrage. Professor Chapman made the point that increases in fees and drops in repayment thresholds in the past had not changed Australian student behaviour and he did not expect a decline in low SES enrolments under deregulation due to debt adverse students. Dr Higgins added that institutes could charge right up, well above cost recovery, but agreed with Senator McKenzie that any which did would lose business to better value competitors. It was a tutorial of such expanse, elegance and erudition that even Senator Carr was quiet.

Classy private provider

Tim Brailsford, VC at private provider Bond University wanted to talk about access to loans for his students but Senator Carr was keen to know what his institution charges now. The surprise was on those waiting for a trap to spring because there wasn’t one. But it was not a waste of time for him, with Senator McKenzie asking him what he thought of arguments that private providers should receive no public funds. Funnily enough he thought they were wrong and that was about it.

Gladiators of the Eight

Given the way the Group of Eight has fought hard for deregulation their evidence was widely anticipated. Ian Young from ANU and Group of Eight officers Mike Gallagher and Mike Teese appeared for the Eight but strangely Labor led with Senator Lines – which made for a less detailed exchange than if Senator Carr were in the arena (where did he get to?). Senator Lines asked whether deregulation would lead to a two-tiered system, with equity and access implications, as with schools. Professor Young reminded her of HECS. She then proceeded to question Group of Eight research because it did not state some US states cap public college fees. Mr Gallagher responded the point was not germane because the US system is so diverse. They batted the point back and forth but it was time better used on tougher questions – which were not asked. Senator Lines did ask if the Go8 thought all Australian universities were much the same. Yes, Professor Young said “differences are at the margin of what we do.” It might have been a bit of a letdown for the vice chancellor, he has been making the case for so long he is surely sick of it. But if so he did not show it, politely making his points, as if for the first time.

The erudite Ergas

Henry Ergas, University of Wollongong academic and columnist for The Australian was the last witness of the day. It was the usual Ergas performance, rigorous, complex and not much bothered by the possibility that some in the audience would not keep up. Professor Ergas spoke against the proposed HELP interest rate, not because it was too tough on graduate debtors but because it still involved a high a cost to the taxpayer. He spoke at length to that and many other issues (the relative lack of rigour in Australian universities compared to the better parts of the French system, for example) largely unchallenged. Certainly Senator Lines’ questions did not challenge him on the economics of his debt proposal. Senator McKenzie asked him about the “thin markets” claim from the regional lobby. It is, he said a “legitimate concern,” but he pointed to his own university successfully competing for students. She could have asked Chapman and Higgins to hand around and debate him – but maybe not, they would still be going.

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