Shorten steps on higher education

Plus the Buzz Lightwood award for meaningless uni slogans 

Don’t worry, be happy

Stress releases a hormone that boosts production of a protein linked to Alzheimers disease, according to Todd Golde from the University of Florida. As if there isn’t already enough to stress-out about.

ANU Sept 15

Simon says not much

Simon Birmingham gave his first interviews as education supremo to Adelaide radio yesterday. David Pemberthy and Jane Riley on 5AA raised schools and submarines, water and workers at Holden but not a word about deregulation. They didn’t ask and the minister didn’t offer, which says a lot. But when Leon Byner (also on 5AA) did ask wither the Pyne plan the minister said he will ask universities, industry and academics “where they see the priorities for reform … we need to make sure our universities are funded 
and structured and geared in a way where they can … be among the best in the world and still be the university of choice for Australian universities, for Australian students as well.” This can mean whatever Senator Birmingham wants it to, but what CMM hears are fast footsteps moving away from deregulation.

Money to be made

The Western Australian Government and the state’s five universities have signed off on a higher education strategic plan, as recommended the 2012 Seare’s Report (Campus Morning Mail, March 24.)

The partners agree on improving access for disadvantaged students and building international links, to which effect Education Minister Peter Collier will lead a delegation to Vietnam and China later this month. But CMM was especially interested in another agreed priority, to update university acts so they can pursue “appropriate commercial activities … with minimal regulatory impact.” Now what could that be about? Well for starters it could cover the broad acres Murdoch U owns and wants to develop for all sorts of non university uses but can’t because, among another reasons, property development is not a legislated university purpose.

Shorten steps up

There is no doubting Labor would do well in an election where student fees were an issue, which is partly why Prime Minister Turnbull all but dropped the Pyne package yesterday on ABC Radio’s AM. “If you can’t get something through the Senate, (as) it is, I would say it’s highly possible that you could change it to something that will get through the Senate,” he said.

So if fee deregulation is off the table Labor will have to focus on what it will do in government rather than what it won’t. And what the opposition leader says he will do is spend money. Yesterday Labor leader Bill Shorten said the party would not impose the government’s 20 per cent funding cut if it wins the election but would increase funding per student place. “On average, over the next decade, a Shorten Labor Government will invest an additional $9,000 in each Australian student’s education for a typical 3-year degree,” the leader said.

The lobbies liked it, up to a point. They welcomed the policy in principal but withhold overall endorsement until funding detail is revealed. “Labor back on track” the Innovative Research University group announced; “these proposals build upon the groundwork that Labor had put in place when in government. We endorse in particular Labor’s commitment to continue the demand driven system and to augment government funding per student. We look forward to further clarity on the extent of the additional funding per student, the key issue in university funding,” Executive Director Conor King said.

Regional Universities Network chair Jan Thomas added, “the additional funding and commitment to increasing the participation and completions at university by equity groups would assist regional universities and their communities.”

And peak body Universities Australia agreed with Mr Shorten’s emphasis on higher education as an investment in the future while calling for more detail and making it plain that it remembered that Labor had cut in the past. “Labor‘s reversal of cuts to student funding that it unveiled prior to the last election has been well received by the sector and we look forward to further announcements on long-term sustainable funding for research and innovation,” CEO Belinda Robinson said.

Mr Shorten also kept everybody happy by making plain demand driven funding will stay. Given Australians have embraced the idea that access to higher education is a right, like Medicare, he had no choice.

Overall the Shorten strategy can survive the end to “$100 000 degrees,” with ideas on the agenda that the government will have to match.

But there is a sleeper in the sell. Yesterday Mr Shorten also announced, “a higher education productivity and performance commission to deliver the right labour market outcomes.” This agency could do anything from advise on labour market demand for degrees to specifying how many graduates with what qualifications universities will produce, but education spokesman Senator Kim Carr is adamant that universities must be accountable for the public monies they receive – he likes the idea of compacts between Canberra and campuses setting out agreed education and enrolment objectives. These are unpopular with vice chancellors, who like to run their own shows so perhaps the commission is as close to compacts as Mr Shorten will go. But this could be far enough to create an agency that supervises the system, along the lines of the old Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission. As Conor King cautioned yesterday, “the challenge for the proposed higher education productivity and performance commission is to make meaningful a process of university agreements, a weakness in past arrangements. Targets must be grounded in each university’s students and history.”

ANU Sep 15 4

Death taxes and the Murray Darling Medical School

John Cobb MP, the member for Calare, which covers Charles Sturt University heartland, has endorsed (again) CSU and La Trobe U’s plan for the Murray Darling Medical School to serve central and southern NSW and northeast Victoria. Health ministers consistently ignore the MDMS plan but the joint venturers keep lobbying on the ground. CMM suspects it’s only a matter of time

Customer Focus

September’s Buzz Lightyear Award for meaningless slogans goes to Adelaide private provider Torrens University’s advert for its masters of global project management. It uses a shot of a bloke looking across a pine forest to what looks like Washington state’s Mt Rainier with the headline, (yes, CMM fears so), “move mountains.”

In contrast the concept for Charles Sturt U’s new campaign, “Think again” has a specific message for the distance market it serves. It features CSU graduates talking about how study changed their lives and focuses specifically on people who need help to have a go at education. CMM isn’t convinced by the TVC featuring a lady who became a lawyer walking down a corridor back to camera – “the mind is your most important asset” is how the university explains it. But another spot featuring a 60 year old talking about how she became a mental health nurse with CSU is terrific – for a distance provider the target audience isn’t all 18.

CSU is spending $2m on multi-channels in Victoria and NSW and CMM thinks it will be money well spent. This is real recruitment advertising, focused on student needs instead of the generic claims of excellence used by universities, which cannot think of anything that distinguishes them from their competitors.

With Federation U and ACU, CSU has produced great student recruitment advertising because they focus on the customers rather than corporate brand building.

criterion update

At long last

Swinburne staff will vote next Tuesday on an enterprise bargain jointly proposed by university management and the National Tertiary Education Union. Assuming (and union agreement should ensure this) the deal passes it will end a dispute that has run for years. While the NTEU needed to sort this out, lest it look obstructionist, a deal was essential for management. Swinburne needs staff support for a comprehensive restructure of teaching and research workloads and without union agreement the process would be very difficult indeed. That the process will now proceed, “with input and feedback from employees and the NTEU,” will make it difficult, but at least it will be possible.

Big F for France

Study Portals is a Netherlands based ranking organisation, which looks at 2000 participating universities. Given it is funded by the EU and various publicly funded member country education agencies, you would not expect it to offend anybody. Ranking categories, “outstanding universities”, “excellent universities’ and “very good universities,” will give you an idea of the approach,

Even so, France will not be pleased with the new ranking of international students’ opinions on universities. Of 18 nations France is last, with no “outstanding” and no “excellent” but five “very good” universities. Ireland is number one, followed by Finland, Sweden and Denmark. The UK is tenth and Germany is 11th. Even worse for the French, they can’t blame the Americans.

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