Universities Australia attacks and Fred Hilmer returns fire

It seems UA and the UNSW VC aren’t always on the same side

Universities Australia on the attack

When it comes to defending the status quo none are smarter or fiercer than Universities Australia, demonstrated by its modelling of student debt under Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s proposed funding plan. There was nothing all that new in the headline figures released yesterday but the detail provides ample ammunition for Mr Pyne’s many, many critics to use against his plan to cut funding for Commonwealth Supported Places. The use of engineering and nursing to demonstrate how much more graduates might have to pay (with less government money and deregulated university fees) is smart indeed. Many people will not be all that bothered by hikes in the cost of environmental studies or journalism degrees but saddling nurses and engineers with debts that could take 25 to 30 years to pay off will not sit well with voters. UA is also smart to focus on student rather than university interests. There are vice chancellors across the country scared witless by the possibility of an open market – but there is much more community sympathy for students than them. And the Greens know it – setting up a an interactive website setting out showing what courses could cost. While Mr Pyne’s package was about expanding access and encouraging competition he had a good chance of getting most, if not all of it, through the Senate. Now that the debate is being framed around what it will cost kids he has a fight on his hands. The interest on student debt is the education equivalent of a Medicare co-payment, a prescription which could make the prescriber politically ill indeed.

Fred returns fire

While many VCs are frightened of what Mr Pyne plans Fred Hilmer certainly isn’t. The University of NSW chief got stuck right in to UA’s modelling yesterday, saying “it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the system works and does not represent the view of UNSW.”   “It is up to universities, not Canberra, to decide what fees should apply to which courses. The funding by cluster is simply a way of generating a total sum of money that the Commonwealth is prepared to contribute for the teaching of Australian students in Commonwealth Supported Places. The way in which those sums are distributed across disciplines is entirely up to the universities, as are the fees that a university would seek to charge on top.” Professor Hilmer said that there are elements of Mr Pyne’s plan he does not support, notably cuts to overall funding and research training and “changes” to the HELP loan scheme. But “we need a rational debate based on facts rather than misleading assumptions.”


While metrics mavens will scoff, I suspect Gates Foundation grants are a good informal guide to where important research is going on in a given field. This week’s announcement of 52 phase one Gates Discovery Grants for promising research on public health in developing countries show the US way ahead of everywhere else, with 32 awards. Researchers in the UK won six followed by India with five. A further nine countries picked up one each – including Australia. Dr Robert Gorkin and colleagues from the University of Wollongong are working on a new condom. So are the winners of another 11 grants. Who says scientists can never put their finger on what the market wants?

Great Eight Mike’s pretty big call

While Group of Eight VCs are split over course cost and debt payment in the Pyne Plan the lobby’s executive director Mike Gallagher explained its overall importance in a comprehensive speech yesterday. He did not argue it was flawless, suggesting that the methodology used to set increases in student contributions is “opaque and its consequences are not clear, for instance, on the behavioural responses of students to the new structure of incentives to study in the important STEM fields.” But overall Mr Gallagher argued that it offered the chance of generational change, undoing 30 years of uniformity; “among the world’s higher education systems Australia’s is one of the least privatised and, in its public sector, the most monochrome. “ And he pitched Mr Pyne’s plans as part of the tradition of microeconomic reform, setting Australia up to compete in a rapidly and radically changing global marketplace. “They are logical, coherent, sustainable, equitable and inevitable. Some aspects need further consideration but the overall direction is the correct public policy call. My guess is that the detractors of micro-economic reform in Australia’s higher education industry will find themselves on the wrong side of history in resisting efficiency improvement and innovation, as they will be in opposing the redistributive measures of the package and, curiously, supporting socially regressive subsidies from general taxpayers to more advantaged segments of the community. “ Mr Gallagher is a policy veteran of all but unequalled erudition and a great deal of guile and his speech merits very close reading. But while he makes it clear that he thinks Mr Pyne’s reforms should get up he carefully does not predict that they necessarily will. While the policy may be clear the politics isn’t.  

Index under d (for deficit)

During her Lateline appearance on Tuesday night Belinda Robinson from Universities Australia said she was surprised by changes to funding indexation in the budget, because UA was “given an assurance” this would not happen. I wonder who did the assuring because my mail (CMM May 7 and 9) was that the old Higher Education Grant Index (CPI plus a proportion of the Professional and Technical Labour Market Index) was set to be replaced by CPI alone. Which is what happened- this is now a problem for public universities, and for their students, if fees are deregulated. Just about every university in the country has negotiated 3 per cent per annum plus pay rises for four years on the assumption that the feds will fund them with indexation increases. But not necessarily now. So what is happening at the few universities that have not done deals? The National Tertiary Education Union at the University of Adelaide knocked back management’s pay offer of 3 per cent per annum for four years before the budget and while negotiations are continuing things look pretty quiet. Or they did until yesterday , when Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington announced an interim rise of 1.5 per cent from the end of July, “as a sign of good faith.”Will the union will decide that times have changed in the last few weeks and this is probably as good as they will get, or will they hang out for more? If the campus leadership ever return my calls I’ll let you know.

Smart planning Piccoli

Adrian Piccoli and Chris Pyne are not always on the same page. Understandably so- the federal minister can use teacher training to make political points while NSW Education Minister Piccoli has to employ people to teach in state schools. In February Mr Pyne commissioned an inquiry into university teacher training which Mr Piccoli pre-empted yesterday, announcing that student teachers would need to pass literacy and numeracy tests before going into schools for their final practicum. This is a political masterstroke. It asserts Mr Picoli’s authority on his patch. It douses the debate over minimum ATARs for entry into education degrees (the state minister thinks high ones matter, the federal one less so). And it focuses the debate on the competence of education academics – a much softer target than teachers. That the Australian Council for Educational Research will develop the tests ensures they are above reproach. Mr Picoli has demonstrated that good policy is always smart politics.

On assignment

Campus Morning Mail is on assignment. Back on Tuesday


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