Achievers, survivors, believers

Here’s Campus Morning Mail’s take on some of the people in higher education who did well this year, as everybody who has read CMM all year knows there are many, more.

Some won because they got what they wanted, some won because at year’s end they are still standing and some won because they stuck to their principles whatever the consequence. Well done the lot of them.

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There are VCs who ducked the debate over deregulation once the going got tough, after Chris Pyne’s first version. Not University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington who has kept on arguing why deregulation is about more than money. His ideas for a diversified system where teaching only institutions and specialist schools on US lines offer students real choice is less optimistic than idealistic – but it makes an essential point. The reason to deregulate, he argues, is to create a paradigm shift, delivering choice that does not now exist. Professor Bebbington is also acting on his belief that the existing model is unsustainable, investing in IT for lecturing and small group teaching to create a distinct identity for Uni Adelaide.

After decades in public VOCED Rod Camm ends the year as the new CEO of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training. He has taken on an industry under siege, with its reputation diminished by spivs collecting public subsidies for dubious courses and the TAFE lobby on the attack, thanks to an imminent Greens-Labor sponsored Senate inquiry into private sector training. Mr Camm has responded with a pre-emptive strike to protect his members’ reputation, announcing a new code of conduct and calling for a student ombudsman. It is the first of many more wins he will need next year.

Nothing annoys Kim Carr more than generalities on policies he does not agree with. Witnesses who present them in Senate estimates find themselves being asked complex questions designed to get to the truth as he sees it, which this year included (a) Labor increased spending on universities across the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, (b) there is nothing wrong with higher education that proper public resourcing will not fix and (c) compacts between Canberra and campuses on the latter’s mission is a splendid idea. Senator Carr also fought deregulation with an obstinate energy, which gave Labor tacticians no choice other than to make it a first order issue.

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In between running universities Ian “bloke wonder” Chubb has served governments of both parties for 25 years plus. The chief scientist spent this year making a case for a national STEM strategy and a funding emphasis on areas of national strength. He did it with such authority that there is no organised academic opposition to the government’s applied research strategy. Professor Chubb is the only official on the government’s new peak science council, just one obvious example of his authority.

Greg Craven is an acute, audacious, amusing higher education commentator. As VC of Australian Catholic University, the second largest teacher educator in the country, Professor Craven has seized all sorts of opportunities to explain how there is no oversupply of new teachers or a quality problem with new graduates. The second issue will probably come up in Professor Craven’s report on the subject commissioned by Minister Pyne. Professor Craven has also made his views heard on the need for deregulation, despite, as he says, there being nothing much in the deal for ACU. But it is his distaste for funding private providers to teach degree courses at the same rate as universities that makes him an indisputable achiever this year. Calling the former “hungry goannas” in a Melbourne cup field of higher education thoroughbreds is unbeatable. Except, perhaps by, his dismissing for-profits as “Ma and Pa Kettle academies.” (Readers under 50 ask a passing film-scholar).

For a bloke with biblical burdens it is hard to beat John Dewar. As chair of a ministerial working party on deregulation finance and legislation he had a hard case to make, which was not helped by splits on key issues among his colleagues. But this was nothing compared to his day job as La Trobe VC. Professor Dewar has a plan to get languishing La Trobe moving, through administrative reform, course redesign and staff restructure and retrenchment. But the National Tertiary Education Union has fought him all the way, on campus and in the courts. At year’s end it seems he has finally won and his plan will be implemented. It is a testament to process – and patience.

After nine years as VC at RMIT Margaret Gardner took over at Monash in September. This is a substantial achievement – such a long run at one university often leaves reputations battered by the inevitable wear and tear of running a very big organisation, but not in Professor Gardner’s case. While Monash has slipped a little behind the University of Melbourne in the endless status race the pair run to be number one in Victoria she will quietly reform and repair where needed. Watch for Monash to lift it’s standing on teaching and research, seemingly out of the blue, in two or three years.

Sandra Harding had a good year running James Cook University and as president of Universities Australia both. The first is not surprising, she has a clear vision for her university, which she is carefully implementing but the fact that UA remains publicly united behind deregulation is due in no small part to her calm persona and reasoned leadership.

 Industry associations outside higher education generally keep it simple, warning jobs will go unless they get what they want. But ideas drive university lobbying, which makes the Innovative Research Group fortunate to have Conor King in its engine room. His rare command of policy past and present means he explains what policy proposals can, and cannot work and then offers alternatives. While he keeps his head down, people who need policy engineering advice listen to him – he has been in his element this year.

Graham McCulloch will not like appearing in this list, the general secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union prefers to operate under the radar. It’s a strategy that works, with the union securing extraordinary pay rises for university staff across the country. A deal at Swinburne is stalled, largely due to union legal action and negotiations at two or three late starters are not settled but everywhere else 3 per cent plus pay rises per annum for three years are the norm. The union has also won limited permanent positions for casual staff, a looming issue at campuses across the country. This is a big achievement, won, with little industrial action, thanks in large part to Mr McCulloch’s negotiating experience.

Canberra commentators occasionally suggest Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane is under-performing. Not from where anybody interested in VET or research management is sitting. Mr Macfarlane is pushing a major reform of training governance, a swamp many ministers before him have avoided, basically because the plans to drain it are incomprehensible and the state government alligators fierce and numerous. And he is set on transforming research funding through impact measures, industry links and support for areas of comparative advantage. This looks set to be adopted without much, if any, academic opposition.

Alannah MacTiernan was a huge hit as WA infrastructure minister when she drove the construction of the Rockingham rail line in Perth but she is a lot less noticed in Canberra. This should change in education, given her speech on Deregulation MkI in the Reps when she crunched numbers on what the then HECs debt repayment plan would cost people. It was a cut above the ordinary efforts by some Opposition MPs on the Pyne plan (especially Labor senators from Tasmania). The woman is wasted on the backbench.

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As a Nationals senator and chair of the Senate education committee Bridget McKenzie had a tough job this year. She had to keep bush communities and regional universities on side with reforms some did not like – the WA Parliamentary National Party, for example, was publicly critical of deregulation. While some rural interest groups thought she pushed too hard for change she did very well when it was time for toughness. She kept the Senate deregulation hearings on track and prevented Kim Carr from turning them into a show trial of the Pyne package.

Tanya “photon girl” Monro started the year a hugely respected research scientist at the University of Adelaide where she was Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Nanoscale BioPhotonics. She ends it having added science administration to her portfolio, due to a move to the University of South Australia as DVCR. She is also a member of the Prime Minister’s Commonwealth Science Commonwealth – all within 15 years of completing her PhD

Nemo, no not the fish nor the bloke with the submarine, but all the people who patiently explained to me what was going on in government and on campuses around the country and who left documents lying around where I happened to find them. You all know who you are and I hope you know how much I appreciate your generosity with time and information.

Among the corps of higher education commentators Andrew Norton is first among equals – a master of the data with a comprehensive grasp of policy and an acute understanding of political reality. His reports on student funding and how the post school system works, or doesn’t, are always read by policy makers and opinion shapers. Mr Norton is a classical liberal who follows the evidence not ideology. With his old boss, former Howard Government education minister David Kemp, Mr Norton produced an April report on demand driven funding, which made such a strong case that DDF will be very hard for either side of politics to drop.

Stephen Parker thinks the judgement of his peers is appalling, and has told them so. In recent years the University of Canberra VC has proposed many ways for the UoC to ensure its future by expanding across post-secondary education but he will not have a bar of deregulation and has made his position very, very clear, condemning Universities Australia and its members. He is a hero to opponents of reform and I doubt he much cares what its supporters think.

Even if Deregulation MkII goes down in a screaming heap Christopher Pyne was a winner this year, for his policy vision and political courage. Like deregulation or not there is no denying Mr Pyne is having a go at delivering the biggest change to Australian higher education ever. He said last month that if it was possible he would go door to door to explain his plan and he may still try. For the thickness of his hide, the clarity of his vision and his capacity for hard work I have never seen an education minister quite like him.

Jeannie Rea started denouncing deregulation on budget night and has not stopped since. The president of the National Tertiary Education Union understands the deep community affection for what people call “free” higher education and she has accordingly warned everybody from cross bench senators to community activists about Minister Pyne’s “$100 000 degree debt sentence.” If Deregulation MkII fails in the Senate Ms Rea will deserve a great deal of the credit or calumny, depending on your point of view.

Universities Australia often appears incapable of endorsing anything other than motherhood as its various factions focus on sectional self-interest. Not this year – while the ranks have wavered, only one VC has bolted over deregulation. Credit for holding the party line goes in large part to secretariat chief Belinda Robinson who has made a policy case for change that nearly all members can accept and who has tirelessly sold it to ministers, mandarins, plus senators and their minders. She has not made an all but-impossible job look easy, but she has got it done.

I wrote a feature about Michelle Simmons and her work on quantum physics close to a decade back in which her brilliance and my baffle-ment were both displayed. But while my knowledge of storing data on sub atomic particles remains where it was Professor Simmons work towards a quantum computer has roared ahead. The University of New South Wales scientist is a crucial leader in a team at the forefront of this extraordinary project. And serious scientists and the people who pay attention to them know it. Last month Nature appointed her editor in chief of a new quantum computing journal and a couple of weeks ago the Commonwealth Bank joined the long list of private and public sector organisations from around the world funding her work. Will she ever establish the science to build a computer that crunches data vastly faster than is possible now? I have no idea – but it is worth the go she and her colleagues are giving it.

In August somebody posted homophobia to the Facebook page of the Swinburne University Liberal students society. So Jeffrey Smart, the head of Swinburne student recruitment responded in a measured piece, which calmly went to the heart of the harm in very human terms. “When I was a student at university – decades ago, sadly – we didn’t have social media, but we did have homophobia. A college magazine carried a short, nasty comment about my assumed homosexuality, at a time where I was coming to terms with who I was. The impact on me was significant compounding the sort of fear, anxiety and self-loathing that every young queer person has when they are abused because of who they are.” Great response from a wise man.

Vicki Thomson is that rare person , a policy wonk (one of the wonkiest) with acute political judgement. She used both in her years as director of the Australian Technology Network and she will do it again when she moves up in the new year to run the most policy intensive of university lobbies, the Group of Eight. It is a natural progression, not least because research impact, which Ms Thomson worked on at the ATN is now on the government’s agenda.

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Senator Nick Xenophon has not said much in public on higher education, but a speech by him in the Senate on December 2 was very, very important. While he was one of three senators voting against deregulation he acknowledged the role of private providers, called for more discussion and demanded Labor offer ideas rather than just nay-saying. The question Senator Xenophon wants answered is, how are we to pay for open access to post school education. The answers he gets will surely shape how he votes on Deregulation Mk2. His vote will be vital, both to hold cross bench senators inclined to support the government and to woo two of the three opposed senators the government needs.

As chair of the Group of Eight Ian “the gent” Young has led from the front all year, making the case for deregulation. As vice chancellor of ANU he has overseen cuts that upset staff and a decision to end the university’s investing in fossil fuel shares that drove conservatives outside the university nuts. And through it all he conducted himself with courtesy and coherence and an affable even temper as impressive as it is admirable. Want a model of a policy debate change agent? Young’s your man.