The case for the directing state: except if the feds hike HECS

But is anybody listening to universities?

Gendered icebergs?

The University of Western Sydney is holding a forum on the “stubbornly low number of women in senior editorial positions in the media” on October 30. When it comes to print and free to air broadcasting this is the equivalent of complaining in 1912 about the absence of female officers on the Titanic’s bridge.

Call for command and control 

Reports that higher education policy expert Simon Marginson thinks university rankings are (brace yourself) methodologically flawed rather ignored many of the interesting things he said in his inaugural ANU Emeritus Faculty Lecture the other day.
Certainly Professor Marginson’s many admirers are familiar with his argument that without more public money Australian universities will not be able to compete on quality but his frankness on the need for state direction was bracing. “There is no government-driven plan or program to progress higher education. No sign the new government will develop one. Politicians see higher education and research as a political management problem, not an opportunity to govern and build, in marked contrast with their counterparts in many other countries,” he said.
Even worse, Australian universities are at the mercy of the winds and weather on the boundless seas of policy and politics.  There is “no independent coordinating body.” Yes TEQSA was working on a “regulatory agenda” and being egged on by the bureaucracy to do the “political heavy lifting” that neither department nor ministers was game to do but with the quality agency to be “gutted,” “there is no hand on the policy tiller”.
“If anyone thinks that universities pursuing their own self interest adds up to the best possible policy, they are kidding themselves,” Professor Marginson said.

Fair cop

There are something like 2m police in China (excluding the paramilitary Peoples Armed Police) and some of the civil coppers, well four, have just graduated from Charles Sturt University’s Bachelor of Policing (Investigations) as on the ground students. Starting small for sure but it’s a market with prodigious potential.

Floating a fee hike

Yesterday’s unsourced story in The West Australian that the Abbott Government would ask its Commission of Audit to look at selling HECS debt went nowhere. Chris Pyne’s office referred queries to the Treasurer and Mr Hockey’s office asked for them in writing and then ignored them, beyond stating the obvious – that selling student debt is not current policy. Understandably so–this is one rumour from the hiding to nothing to file until there is something specific to say. As it stands, no investor would want to buy a securitised HECS portfolio, what with the debt being all but interest free (its indexed to the CPI) and income contingent, so low income earners are exempt from paying it back. Sweetening the investment by changing the terms that apply to existing loans would be less a hard than an impossible sell. And selling the loan book at a discount and allowing the new owner to chase debtors would create endless anger. Still, there are variations on the theme out there. At the beginning of the year Swinburne’s Andrew Dempster  outlined a lowering of the ceiling at which graduates start paying back some of the cost of study, say through confiscating half of the tax refund of low income earners. And former Universities Australia chief Glenn Withers has suggested selling the loan book, while leaving the ATO to keep collecting debt, an idea he renewed last night as a way of funding universities.
The problem is I suspect that extra money for the sector may not be what the government has in mind. As Mr Dempster puts it; “Mr Withers view may make sense in a universe in which the proceeds of securitisation are hypothecated to provide capital funding for universities but in the current political and fiscal environment in which paying down Labor’s debt trumps everything they are wildly optimistic.” Quite.
Whatever, yesterday’s story was put in play for a reason and I suspect this is the first softening up for something.  Yes it could be a thought bubble, a la Chris Pyne’s very brief idea about abolishing the student service fee but I doubt it. We are warned.

That other, nicer big brother

The University of Southern Queensland has a new surveillance system, designed, according to a puff piece in a local paper, to make it “a safer and more secure place to be.” This hardly fits the headline; “Big brother is watching.”

Few powerful friends

Professor Marginson (above) was also brutally frank about the failure of lobbies to build community support for the quality cause in higher education. “The universities lack a mass constituency for high science and high quality first-degree education. They always lacked a mass constituency for those. What makes them now weaker than before is that they lack enough of an elite constituency for the best research and education.” So much for University Australia’s and the National Tertiary Education Union’s advertising campaigns against government funding cuts in the lead-up to the election.

Witty take on research

While Australia rates nary a mention (well two) it is a fair bet that research funding policy people will closely read Sir Andrew Witty’s new UK report on government funding for applied research. Especially advocates of a research impact measure for the allocation of public funds. Sir Andrew argues that the economic impact of research can be a determinant of quality teaching and research, rather than a distraction; “effective economic engagement is not an alternative to excellence in research and teaching but enabled and catalysed by it, and vice-versa.” And he wants a 25 per cent weighting for impact (up from 20 per cent now) in the next Research Excellence Framework, both to assist business and “encourage universities to continue to consider recognising academics for a wide range of successful third stream activities beyond research publications.”  There does not seem much interest in reworking the ERA model in Australian universities but you can bet advocates of impact will make sure Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane knows about the Witty report.

MOOCs aren’t everything

Yesterday I confused what Marcia Devlin told me on Monday, quoting as her referring to MOOCs when she referred to online learning, (it was quickly corrected). Suggest to her the terms of become are now interchangeable in popular parlance at your peril

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