Student places and pies in faces

Take pie, push in own face

The local leadership of the National Tertiary Education Union at RMIT entarted itself yesterday with Fair Work Australia ordering an end to a processing ban on exam results for students in Singapore. As part of its pay rise push back in April-May the NTEU asked members if they wanted bans on communicating exam results, they did. So in October a ban was put in place for “offshore students”. There were a few exemptions, notably for Australian citizens. At which point management saw its chance and went back to FWA arguing that the original question put to unionists did not mention different treatment for students on the basis of nationality and that the ban was inherently discriminatory. Yesterday FWA agreed, “there is nothing within the phrasing used in the questions in the protected action ballot which would signal to a reasonable person that they were being asked to approve industrial activity which might have a discriminatory effect,” Commissioner Nicholas Wilson wrote. And even if a ban targeting non-Australians was specified it could not stand. “By exempting from the ban Australian citizens, the ban is discriminatory against people who are not Australian citizens, which amounts to a discrimination on the grounds either of the student’s race, colour, national extraction or social origin.” The union advised staff late yesterday that the bans are off, but that it is appealing the decision. It’s hard to see why, with the union appearing to value Australian students more than others it’s a pie in the face of NTEU officials. One they baked themselves.

Hard (to grasp) data

While his politics are not to everybody’s taste (just why did his column stop appearing in the Fin?) there is no denying that John Quiggin is a very serious economist indeed and it looks like serious economics is what the audience will get when he delivers the Colin Clark memorial lecture at the University of Queensland at noon on Thursday. Professor Quiggin will discuss how to measure value derived from information flows in the digital economy instead of sticking with 20th century components, physical inputs and outputs.

What a difference a year makes

A reader with a taste for intellectual gymnastics reminds me that in the past Glyn Davis was keener on demand driven funding for undergraduate education than he is now. The quite recent past. On Friday the University of Melbourne VC suggested that the feds should negotiate the number of student places they fund at each university and then leave institutions to allocate the spots. This strikes me as regulated de-regulation, sure universities could offer different courses to each and customise the mix of undergraduate and coursework masters places but with the feds specifying how many heads each institution could enrol a market it is not.
It seems strange given Professor Davis was very positive about demand-driven funding, in March last year. Back then he told the National Press Club, that with demand-driven access, “the logic of markets has been placed at the centre of higher education.” Professor Davis had no doubts what this meant; “for individual institutions to go on growing at this rate, they must win students from each other. Australia’s universities have been set on the path to fierce competition. And this, he thought, was nation-changing. “A demand driven system is micro-economic reform similar to the deregulation of banking in the 1980s, to the introduction of private providers into public utilities in the 1990s, to the contracting out of government services in the 2000s.”
It was a strong case for demand-driven funding, perhaps the stronger for Professor Davis then being president of Universities Australia which supported the reforms. Perhaps he will now make a stronger one for reinstating a cap on government funding for places.

Puzzled by lame headlines?

Questioning headlines indicate a hack out of ideas or a subject so specific that most readers need not bother. Such as these gems, yesterday. Sydney University Library tweeted “curious about fishbones?” If you are the library has 800 archaeological images you must not miss. Charles Sturt University asked, “curious about graduate studies in policing.” If you are CSU is the place for you. But if you aren’t it isn’t.

 Job opportunities

Relations between Swinburne University management and the local branch of the NTEU are strained at times, what with still continuing negotiations for a new enterprise agreement and the union suing management for not consulting over the closure of a campus (the Federal Court found for the union). So it is good to see the union announcing that it is close to an agreement with management to create “a number” of fixed term positions for current sessional staff, more secure employment for academics whose work is insecure being a national union objective. But I am puzzled by union official Josh Cullinan’s  announcement of the imminent deal. “It is likely many of those positions will be offered to NTEU members who work at Swinburne and meet some minimum thresholds. We need to identify those members who want to be put forward as a candidate for one of these positions,” he writes. Mr Cullinan advises people interested “must” complete a form which asks for details of qualifications and work experience as well as whether they are a member of the Swinburne NTEU a member at another university or “not sure” if they are in the union. Not that he is making any promises, “this is not a guarantee of an offer for more secure work but it is the best opportunity many sessional staff will have to secure better work arrangements,” Mr Cullinan advises. Of course he can put forward a list of people he thinks are right for the jobs but I wonder how much attention management will pay it.

Regulation rampant

Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities lobby has had a think about Glyn Davis’s suggestion for universities to receive a capped teaching budget from Canberra to use as they chose. While he is too polite to state it, this appears to strike Mr King as a dumb idea indeed. For a start it abolishes the principal of funding every institution the same amounts for the same functions. And it allows government to get back into the education act with the power to boss universities about in the guise of keeping an eye on the expenditure of public money. “Such a judgment would likely include a view on the number of students, the disciplines they study and the evidence for learning, and detailed discussions about a university’s expenditure patterns,” he writes. On the basis of what he says it looks like re-regulation and a return to the days when deals were done between government and institutions. “Such systems exist internationally.  Government and university agree funding levels based on history, available funding, and institutional capacity to influence decisions. It is opaque, has no coherence across institutions, and invites extensive micro managing of university expenditure.” Ye gods! Still, such a system would give everybody who works at TESQA something to do.

Every university wins a prize

Just about every university that picked up funding, however small the sum, from the Australian Research Council was celebrating their achievements yesterday but this did not disguise just how thinly sliced the pieces of pie were after the Group of Eight institutions took their share (CMM yesterday). However as one research expert said yesterday, to suggest the G8’s undoubted dominance makes a case for handing them all research funding makes as much sense as sending cheques to the global top 20 in the Shanghai JT ranking and waiting for research outcomes to trickle down. Instead, the existing funding model with all universities participating generates a good return on public spending “Most output measures have doubled over the past 10-15 years, for much less than a doubling of government money” this observer said yesterday. And the competition forces the G8 to work harder to maintain share than they would if the research pool was theirs alone.

Grand Tour 

Before anybody bemoans how provincial we are compared to the way American students study abroad consider new stats from the Institute for International Education showing 9 per cent of US undergraduates take courses in other countries. Just not many courses. Some 59 per cent of the group is away for eight weeks or less and 44 per cent of them go to Western Europe. Some 5 per cent go to China and 3 per cent come here.

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