Simon Birmingham signals his agenda

Plus Universities Australia wins big in the age of innovation

All the news that’s fit to hiss

In breaking news the University of Melbourne reports, “failure to act on snakebite has cost millions of lives worldwide.” Why were we not warned?

ANU Sept 15

Finkel frank on innovation

Back in August then Monash chancellor and now incoming chief scientist Alan Finkel set out his thinking on innovation in education for The Australian’s Cracking the Code series. (Disclosure: CMM researched the project).

Dr Finkel was franker then than he probably will be in the future, warning that without our own technology innovations Australia faced “a spiral to ineptness.”

“If we don’t invest in our own innovation effort we will miss out on opportunities to benefit from our fundamental and applied science research. Many of our most talented developers will move overseas, we’ll lose relevant skills and motivation among our educators, and we will end up weaker not only at our own industry innovation but also in the adoption of other technology.”

Dr Finkel also suggested how government can help start-ups; with feasibility studies and early-stage commercialisation programmes. In particular he mentioned the US Small Business Innovation Research programme. Significantly (or not) he did not take up the invitation to comment on tax concessions.

ICAC investigating

The NSW Independent Commission against Corruption will hold a public inquiry next month into University of Sydney employee Jason Meeth. ICAC will investigate allegations that Mr Meeth “acted partially and dishonestly” in engaging IT contractors.

What Simon suggested

Education Minister Simon “softly softly” Birmingham did not specify what he will do and when in a speech to the Australian Financial Review conference yesterday, but he certainly let on what’s on his mind.

It was the senator’s usual polished presentation, quoting other speakers, committing to excellence and access and warning that government isn’t the answer. “Our universities appear to achieve elements of excellence and individuality in spite of policy settings, rather than because them,” the senator said.

But it’s the issues he raised which are instructive.

Applied research: “our future national success also requires our higher education sector to be much more oriented towards making its research effort drive innovation that translates into economic and social benefits to the community.”

Different missions and delivery: “we require excellence in teaching and research, including its impact; institutions playing to their strengths and serving their communities; and choice of delivery method, including accessible pathways.

Paying for teaching: “it is necessary that we honestly discuss the extent of cross subsidisation from teaching to research … and it is necessary that we find long term, sustainable and fair approaches to funding for students, institutions and taxpayers alike.”

More products: “the expansion of sub-bachelor programs has been one of the most important yet least discussed elements of proposed reforms. This should be an area of focus but, as always, I emphasise that such expansion must be paid for, somehow.”

Properly structured contestable funding: “quality must be guaranteed and government funding should never be structured in such a way as to attract providers like bees to a honeypot.”

VET FEE HELP: “There is a valid need to stop treating non bachelor degree and/or non university pathways as second class options.”

So what happens now? “I am up for a robust and constructive discussion,” Minister Birmingham said. Good-oh, but that is all it will be until the government specifies what amounts of money universities will get and who will pays for it.

ANU Sep 15 2

Plus ca change

People who think we need another higher education inquiry can relax, Minister Birmingham has saved everybody the effort by having officials analyse all the inquiries back to the source document for modern Australian higher education, the Dawkins White Paper of 1988.

This is an immensely useful document summarising a generation of issues and arguments but what it also makes clear is that governments have never had the political will to make transformative decisions that cost anybody other than the taxpayer money.

Which makes CMM wonder why Senator Birmingham says he wants to hear what the sector says before doing whatever he intends to do whenever he intends to do it. After all there isn’t much he won’t have read before.

UA catches a break

Malcolm Turnbull’s emphasis on innovation could not come at a better time for Universities Australia. All of a sudden, research is top of the national agenda and no one is talking about $100k degrees. This gives UA an opportunity all but unimaginable six months ago to makes its case for more research funding to a sympathetic national audience.

UA chief executive Belinda Robinson seized it yesterday, telling the AFR conference, “it is university research programs that will generate the products and industries of the future. They will improve our health and wellbeing, help solve our most complex problems and provide the bedrock of innovation. Universities have a unique role in driving innovation as the only institutions that integrate education with research. They are the incubators of innovators as well as innovation.”

She went on to set out a six preconditions for innovation including; government investment in research and innovation when others wont, emphasising direct investment over tax credits and identifying and funding research priorities.

It was a pitch directed as much at Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne as Education Minister Birmingham because both have the capacity to fund some of it and Universities Australia will likely be the source of some of the ideas that appear in the innovation statement.

Uni Melb cities

Where TAFE (still) trends

The estimable National Centre for Vocational Education and Training has released stats on VET student numbers for the first half of this year. There were 680 000 students at TAFE and other public providers and 337 000 in the private sector. Sadly there is no indication of how many of the latter are actually studying.

The public sector is strongest in NSW with 88 per cent of government-funded students and weakest in Victoria with 47 per cent. In South Australia, where the Wetherill Government has allocated federal funding exclusively to TAFE the system scores 58 per cent of students. The national figure for TAFE and other public providers is 63 per cent.

In-person impossible

ECU is moving nursing lectures online. While the university has no stats, according to head of school Di Twigg, “a large majority” of its 2500 students already take lectures online rather than attend them in person. “This provides our students greater flexibility to help with juggling study, work and family commitments,” she says. Fair enough but it seems online learning is also superior. “Online lectures enable the university to provide a mix of content, including videos, quizzes and discussion boards as part of the lecture. The research suggests this will give the students a deeper understanding of the course content,” Professor Twigg says. The university still runs in-person tutorials, but you wonder for how long they get in the way of student commitments.

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