Student fees will decide the deregulation debate

Plus Ian Macfarlane is definitely not picking winners

Eureka Winners

The Eureka Awards were announced last night – with Professor Terence Speed from Walter and Eliza Hall winning the Leadership in Science award. It will nicely match his 2013 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. It was a big night for Walter and Eliza Hall with Philip Hodgkin and his team of immunologists winning the Eureka for Scientific Research. They have identified the way blood cells generate antibodies to fight infection and disease. Professor Lesley Hughes (Macquarie University) is honoured for promoting understanding of Australian science research and Dr Adriana Downie, who works on biochar at Pacific Pyrolysis is the emerging leader in science. There was also much talk around the traps last night about the Abbot Government’s absence of a science minister – Industry Minister Macfarlane includes it in his portmanteau of a portfolio. Fair enough – except that having a minister in itself does not mean a strong advocate for research in the ministry. The Gillard Government had a science minister who was not completely invisible, but not especially memorable. *

Minds made up

PUP Senate leader Glenn Lazarus’s strongly expressed statement against increased student fees under deregulation (CMM yesterday) was not easily secured. People familiar with the discussion say he said little and listened a lot in a meeting attended by National Tertiary Education Union officials and students. In particular he listened to warnings about degree costs under deregulation and what the Group of Eight would charge. The NTEU has presented similar arguments to a sympathetic Senator Jacqui Lambie. For all the assumptions about negotiating positions, it would be hard for senators Lazarus and Lambie to now pass the Pyne package with significantly increased costs for students.

 Game to have a go

University of Sydney Vice Chancellor Michael Spence was scheduled to speak at an NTEU “Q&A” style panel discussion on deregulation last night. Others on the programme were NTEU president Jeannie Rea and Greens and Labor education spokespeople senators Lee Rhiannon and Kim Carr. No faulting Dr Spence for being on his own on an issue.

Argument going nowhere

The war between the young and the casual and the old and the comfortable is on with a long Thesis Whisperer post on why antediluvian academics should retire or be retired, thus opening jobs for younger and hungrier scholars.

Twas ever thus –a golden age of academic employment opportunity certainly did not exist when I did my PhD back in the 17th century. One of my peers went straight into a tenured lectureship but others ended up all over – one is a radio producer in the US.

But there is both policy and petulance in the argument now and however much people who want what their older colleagues are having complain, their chances are as worse as they ever were.

For a start, university managements likes having a servant class to do the undergraduate teaching, marking and advising that keeps the academic mansion working while the gentry above stairs write papers and attend conferences.

And as the TW piece put it, lots of older workers like their jobs and do not want to give them up. Look at the fuss that occurs whenever a university management tries to remove research-inactive staff, or even convert them to teaching only positions. And remember what happened last year when National Tertiary Education Union national officials proposed career paths for casuals as part of its log of enterprise bargaining claims. There was kickback from delegates who feared what it might mean for some of their less productive colleagues.

I fear young academics are not going to win this one, at least not collectively. As per the above, ‘twas ever thus.

Scopus has the formula

The Australian Research Council advises Elsevier’s Scopus product will provide citation input to Excellence in Research for Australia 2015. Just like it did for ERA 2010 and 2012. It demonstrates the open access movement’s problem in confronting giant for-profit publishers like Elsevier. Their products are not just hard-wired into the research system they provide the analytical energy that fuels funding and assessment metrics.

No winner picking here

In a speech at the Sydney Institute this week Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane promised details of the National Industry Investment and Competitiveness Agenda “in the coming weeks”. Very detailed details I imagine, because the minister has all but announced the purpose of the policy and who will do what. For a start he launched Chief Scientist Ian Chubb’s STEM strategy last week – which includes a proposed National Innovation Board. And the minister made clear to his Sydney Institute audience the sorts of issues such an institution could address. Australia has to move to “higher value-added industries that are based on innovation, research and the sophisticated skills base of our workforce.” And they are? “With or without government involvement, Australia already has several key areas in which we have a competitive edge. These include agribusiness, mining technology, energy, oil and gas, advanced manufacturing and medical technologies. The challenge for Australia is to nurture those strengths and run with them.” And that means science must stand up. “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.”

But heaven forfend anybody mistake this for an old-fashioned industry policy. “And let me scotch any suggestion this is akin to the government picking winners. It’s not,” Mr Macfarlane said. Everybody clear on that?

Star performers

“In Australia, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands and Sweden, more than 30 per cent of tertiary-educated adults perform at Level Four or Five – the highest levels – in literary proficiency.” OECD, Education at a Glance 2014

Scary numbers

The National Tertiary Education Union’s wizard wonk Paul Kniest has produced an analysis showing the $100 000 degree is less possible than probable by the end of the decade under conditions inherent in the Pyne package. The analysis considers the impact of an average 20 per cent cut in public funding for Commonwealth Supported Places, a real HELP interest rate and/or a 25 per cent surcharge, inflation, and “the current underfunding of higher education.” The union finds that if universities only recover costs and students pay the surcharge the cost of a humanities degree will drop 8 per cent to $22 000, while engineering will rise by 109 per cent to $73 000. Medicine, dentistry and vet science will cost most at $93 000. But if universities slug students an extra 25 per cent four discipline groups will crack the $100 000 – computing, built environment and “other health” @ $101 000, law @ $144 000, engineering, science, surveying @ $147 000, dentistry, med and vet @ $187 000. Of course these numbers assume universities will not compete on price and students will pay sticker price. But they are scary numbers that sell to parents – and senators.

Sweating the small stuff

From the Bleeding Obvious Study Centre comes news of Deakin University research that found “dusting, vacuuming and scrubbing the bath generate exertion and physical health benefits yet the monotony of the menial work brings no mental health rewards.” No, more research is not needed

Independent experts

Higher education urgers worry the Senate crossbench is not across the detail of the Pyne package, demonstrated by the way said senators are not lining up as said lobbyists want. It’s probably because senators are struggling with the detail. Understandably so, a briefing on how the system works from any but expert pens would read like the work of a barrel of monkeys with keyboards and Kafka’s collected works. And the experts generally have barrels to push. So where could a senator look for an objective and independent guide to the legislation, its origins and the consequences of being implemented or not? Towards the national treasure that is the utterly independent, always accurate Parliamentary Library Research Service is where. Here’s hoping researchers there are working on a guide to Minister Pyne’s bill and a research paper on higher education – and that they finish both well before the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee conducts hearings next month.

* Give up? It was Senator Don Farrell

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