The duller the budget the better

 

Plus performance enhancing drugs don’t

 

Conspiracy just a theory

The Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council both announced yesterday they are “working together to streamline application processes where possible.” “O-ho!” CMM’s dark plot correspondent exclaimed, “what dark plot is this announcement designed to disguise?” So we told him to find out and sadly it seems the two agencies are not up to anything. “They just want to communicate more clearly that they cooperate closely,” a research administrator said. Drat.

No yellow jersey for Chris

As Chris “fixer” Pyne rides his policy fixie in the Tour de Budget he is well back in the policy peloton, hemmed in by riders wearing the feared crossbench colours. According to the National Tertiary Education Union’s Paul Kniest, the budget will likely include savings that are achievable without legislation or changes to disallowable regulations the upper house can block. If so, there could be cuts to research block grants, which might save $170m a year, along the lines of the 10 per cent reduction to the Research Training Fund last year.

If the minister still wants to lead the savings pack, Mr Kniest suggests he might reduce the HELP threshold by $10 000 per annum or otherwise tighten collections. But if not he can play safe by booking the savings to Commonwealth Supported Places from last year’s budget because they remain government policy. Policy, just not political reality. (The government is expected to pay the money from Labor’s 2013 efficiency dividend, which the Senate did not approve, to universities in June.)

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The duller the better

Other close budget watchers suggest the best higher education can hope for is a boring budget, with no surprises of a 2014 kind to funding per student. But this, they warn, is not the only way Canberra can cut higher education. For a start, research and development tax concessions could take a hit, although this seems unlikely given Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane’s push for industry-university applied research alliances. There is also the possibility of research block grant cuts, which are an obvious way of funding the already announced extension of the National Collaborative Research Strategy. As for HELP, “there will be some tinkering,” one says. The question is how much student outrage will the government be prepared to cop. “It’s a case of in for a penny, in for a pound,” the observer suggests. Student outrage will be the same whatever the increase in student payments and if “$100 000 degrees” are off the table their parents will not care.

Short on detail

Labor leader Bill Shorten is keen on education and training, as he explained yesterday in what reads like a draft for his budget reply; “the bright line of self-improvement runs right through pre-literacy in child care, technology in schools, science at university and retraining for mature age workers or parents returning to work.” And he knows how government can help, by “investing in schools and universities to drive the skills and knowledge of the next wave of industries.” Splendid idea! But there is the matter of paying for it. Slugging “very wealthy” superannuants and multi-nationals will deliver $20bn, he says but as to education-specific saving or spending there is not a dickybird.

However there is hint of a hint of what Labor would do in government, with Mr Shorten referring to, “the next step in university reform, building the bridge between enrolment and completion, a system converting uni places into degrees, into good jobs.”

Now this can mean whatever a reader wants it to mean but CMM put it through the spin desanitiser and it looks like a reference to education spokesman Kim Carr’s commitment to compacts between government and universities. Senator Carr introduced compacts when industry minister in 2010, to, “relate the unique mission of each university to the government’s goals for the sector, and for the first time draw together information about the public funding received by each institution.”

While the senator likes compacts vice chancellors hate ‘em –assuming “unique mission” and “government goals” are code for Canberra getting involved in who and what universities teach. But CMM suspects Labor does not care;  figuring any plan that allows it to promise no $100 000 degrees is enough to make education its issue come the election.

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Budget has HELP

Thanks to Paul Kniest for pointing CMM at an article by the learned Neil Warren (UNSW) and Richard Highfield (OECD and UNSW) on HELP debt and the tax system in the excellent eJournal of Tax Research. Mr Kniest has long pointed to the significance of student borrowing on the Commonwealth’s books and with $70bn in student debt expected by 2017-18 Warren and Highfield examine the way it is shaping debtors’ tax-behaviour. This is a policy paper everybody interested in funding higher education needs to read – hell, at $70bn the HELP debt and the concept it is based on merit a journal of their own.

Really remote wards

While some ACU nursing students can go to Uganda for placements (there are problems finding enough hospital spots here) others have a chance of a two-week “community experience” in Timor Leste. These, CMM hears are very popular and the university is good for half the approximately $5000 cost. But students say such experiences do not address the question of why the university has so many nursing and related discipline students that it struggles to find the placements they must complete to qualify in Australia. Funnily enough CMM is having trouble finding out how many places ACU needs.

Eight slams Indigenous Advancement Implememtation

CMM thought the Innovative Research Universities submission to the Senate committee inquiry on indigenous education funding was frank (yesterday). But that was before reading the Group of Eight statement. The problem, the Eight argues, is that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet controls relevant programmes while the Department of Education manages policy.

“In total (this has) had an unacceptable negative impact on Indigenous higher education programs. That is to be regretted, and it must be redressed. The Go8 is positive this deleterious outcome was never the government’s intention. That said, it is now critical the government moves quickly to correct its unintended policy and program delivery errors.”

The Eight call for post school education, as well as school completion, to be included in Indigenous Advancement Strategy outcomes. “An exclusive focus on school is out-dated and narrow. It misses the point of what delivers true opportunity. The opportunity of post-school education is a necessary part of Indigenous advancement.” And it calls for distribution of indigenous advancement funding for universities by formulae not tender, “this is a standard approach in the higher education sector, since student numbers and characteristics are important cost drivers. Formula funding allows all universities to make a contribution to program goals and avoids a zero-sum competition for limited funding. “

Above all, the Eight suggests the government should act on the advice it already has, from the Behrendt, Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

One question still stumps CMM – why did anybody think PM&C could run a programme?

Nothing to say

The Irony Desk here at CMM applauds the Department of Education sponsoring Privacy Week (announced yesterday). Officials do a splendid job of protecting the department’s privacy from hacks asking questions.

Argument for an ombudsman

Rod Camm from the Australian Council for Private Education and Training takes a hard line on rorting of enrolments by for-profit colleges and their agents. He told his members yesterday that Australian Consumer and Competition Commission investigations could lead to charges, and a good thing too! “It is “imperative that all students are properly informed about their provider, the course and any debt levels incurred before they sign on. The fact that these basic consumer protections have been overlooked and exploited must not be allowed to continue.”

He also asked where the Australian Skills Quality Authority has been, “I must say it has taken far too long for the consumer protection agency to kick into gear.” He has a point, ASQA Chief Commissioner Chris Robinson’s announcement yesterday about actions to stop exploitation of students is unlikely to worry wrongdoers; “it’s … been four weeks since each RTO (registered training organisations) regulated by ASQA was sent a letter reminding them about the new arrangements relating to the use of third parties (including brokers and recruitment agents) and other issues RTOs must take into account when enrolling students.” Jove, a letter!

Thus Mr Camm repeated his recent call for a student ombudsman, given “complexity, fragmented funding approaches, information asymmetry and high prices,” in the various state training markets (CMM March 30). Unless ASQA gets busy fast he has a point.

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Dopes

Dr Aaron Hermann and colleagues from the University of Adelaide Medical School have crunched Olympic and world records in 26 sports over 130 odd years to assess the impact of performance enhancing drugs and found “doping may produce a minor improvement in one aspect of performance but in other areas, it may have a detrimental effect, which outweighs the positive.” Gosh, if only they could have told  Lance Armstrong when he was on tour in South Australia.

Not on the same page

ACU VC Greg Craven thoughtfully emailed the text of his oped in The Australian yesterday to all the university’s students, presumably to assist the half dozen or so who inexplicably missed yesterday’s paper. The oped explained the university’s decision to establish two scholarships “remembering the reformation and brave death(s)” of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the drug smugglers executed in Indonesia last week. But he did not include Bill Leak’s editorial cartoon on the facing page to his piece (copyright no doubt). It presented Professor Craven announcing the Ivan Milat scholarship awarded for a guide to state forests. Who says The Aus does not run diverse opinions?

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