Survival plan for Pyne: abandon HECS hike

He’s innocent I tell you

I’m sorry but this is irresistible. The Nevada Sun reports Christopher Pyne was arrested on Monday “on multiple charges” in Henderson County NV. I reckon being in Australia at the time makes an ironclad alibi.

The price of passing Pyne’s plan

Warren Bebbington gave the government’s university deregulation blueprint a fearful kicking last night – and in the process set out a strategy for its survival.

Speaking at the Sydney Institute, the University of Adelaide VC slammed Minister Pyne’s plan to reduce the threshold for student loan repayments and up the interest rate on what the Commonwealth collects. “This budget proposal would discriminate against those who choose lower-paying work and take longer to reach the threshold, or against those who leave the workforce for a period to raise children. … Such an interest and repayment policy could considerably distort the reform outcomes: truly, it would undermine the fairness of HECS and absolutely must be rethought before it becomes law.”

And he hammered the budget’s $1.9bn over three years cut to federal funding for universities. “I had not taken the Liberals as admirers of the finances of former Soviet states, so at a time when Australia’s record for public spending on tertiary education is less than Estonia’s and about equal with Slovakia, this is indeed grim news.”

But Professor Bebbington’s destruction is creative. He set out for cross bench senators the price they should extract for passing the Pyne package and that is an end to the proposed increase in study debt. And he suggested why they should accept deregulation. “Deregulation is the means by which universities will deal with the cuts. It is now supported by most of the university peak bodies, and disallowing it while there are drastic cuts in the budget would be a disaster: it would add to the current slow starvation of our universities and would result in a dire, fiscal famine.” Professor Bebbington bravely (in the Sir Humphrey sense) also suggested that to make up the Canberra cut universities might increase the HECS debt for students taking a three-year degree from $23,000 to $33,000, “a far cry from the alarmist stories of vast debts suggested by some.”

That’s the politics. The policy vision for senators and citizens is what deregulation can do for students. Last night Professor Bebbington reprised a past speech in which he set out the diversity in the US higher education system. In particular he described the achievements of great teaching-only colleges in the country. While he did not say it, the advice for regional Australian universities with weak research cultures was there for those listening for the sub text.

And he predicted a golden generation if universities use deregulation to set their own course. “No longer would institutions need to stay with a single research-intensive definition, and abandon individuality in an attempt to scale the research ranking ladder, which despite all efforts stays remarkably unchanged over time. Instead, we will see emerging a feast of imagination from university leaders about institutional differences and new college possibilities.”

Will it convince de-regulation’s many, many critics? I doubt it – but they aren’t the audience. The Senate cross bench is. “Deregulation could have happened without cuts, and if the Senate is not careful cuts may now happen without deregulation,” Professor Bebbington warned.

Certainty at Swinburne

Swinburne University has joined the ten or so universities insulating second semester starters from the new loan repayment rates applying from 2016, if that bit of the Pyne package passes. The university will cover students commencing next month so that they are billed at the existing HELP rate.

Hoping for a start

The Innovative Research Universities are meeting in Adelaide today to discuss improving industry-driven research outcomes. “It is not enough for universities to simply state their commitment to working with industry, we must improve our approach and be prepared to change as the economy itself changes,” La Trobe VC and IRU chair John Dewar said. Good luck with that, you could build an innovation precinct from all the unread reports on how universities and manufacturers should work together. But Professor Dewar is a determined bloke so here’s hoping today’s meeting starts something. Certainly the IRU could expand its research work with industry. While it had a respectable 33 per cent success rate in last month’s Australian Research Council industry partnership Linkage Grants its seven members do not have the long established research depth of the Group of Eight, which won 144 to the IRU’s 20.

Scary Numbers

From Sally Kift’s (DVC, James Cook) presentation at the excellent First Year in Higher Education Conference, yesterday. For a university with 25,000 students and 5,000 commencing students: if 10 per cent never arrive and another 10 per cent leave between orientation and census date and if another 20 per cent leave during their first year then 3240 remain. This is an annual loss of 1670 students @ $16500 meaning a potential income loss of $29 million. Every 1 per cent in commencing retention (80 more students retained post census=$1.3 million a year. (Not to mention the all-round benefits of keeping kids in class.)

Glover’s goals

University of Western Sydney Vice Chancellor Barney Glover shares Bebbington’s budget fears (above). “We also need to face the possibility that the funding cuts will be passed by the Senate through the Appropriation Bills but without the key changes in the Higher Education Support Act to allow expanded competition and deregulation to be introduced. This could have dramatic impacts on the sector if student fees could not be increased to compensate for the shortfall,” he told staff yesterday.

Professor Glover also revealed the agenda for the legislation and finance working group appointed to advise Minister Pyne and chaired by John Dewar (a man with a taste for tough tasks). At least the agenda according to Professor Glover’s emphasis; “alternative options for the HELP system, differential funding rates for non university higher education providers, the design of the Commonwealth scholarship scheme, changes to the research training system and a broad range of transitional issues.” He said work would conclude in a couple of weeks so that advice can be prepared for Mr Pyne. Will there be minority reports?

Embracing ARMS

The Australasian Research Managers Society is seeking nominations for its two annual awards for excellence. The winners will be funded to attend the ARMs conference in Canberra (17-19 September). I wonder what sort of field this will attract. With ERA 2015 on the way no sane DVC R will want to be alerting rivals to high performers worth pinching.

All new CQU

CQ University commissioned consultants KPMG to advise on amalgamating with TAFE and the resulting study, based on desk research and interviews with dual sector institutions, came up with common sense conclusions that everybody involved in the merger undoubtedly either knew, or could have worked out for themselves. Thus the report, which turned up in Campus Morning Mail’s mail warns, “speed to market is crucial in a demand driven, competitive environment,” who knew! Most of the report focuses on delivering savings by integrating policies and process, which is easier said than done, and ensuring the values of the two sectors complement not clash. For example the report suggests insulating VET staff from “the committee structures common in higher education” But some specific suggestions might attract staff ire and union attention if adopted, for example, getting vocational staff to “up-skill” to Masters level, which is “easier on the higher education industry award”. One thing that is missing is what will CQU do with all the TAFE campuses it now has – maybe that is in another, more contentious report.

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