Uni leaders counting on uncertainty

Plus Birmingham moves on predatory for-profits: more pussyfooting than punitive

Magna cartoon carta

Parliament House is celebrating the 1000 anniversary of Magna Carta by screening Robin Hood films – including undying classics from the brothers Warner, Rabbit Hood (starring Mr B Bunny) and Robin Hood Daffy (featuring Mr D Duck). Who says the study of constitutional law is dull?

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For whom the poll tolls

The usual suspects spun Newspoll into gordian knots of guff yesterday but there is not much doubt on what one number meant – the 20 per cent lead Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has over the prime minister on who is best to run education. Yes, Labor generally has a big margin on education but this poll comes after Christopher Pyne’s teacher education report got a very good run – who doesn’t support better-trained teachers? I’m guessing the problem in this poll is the minister’s higher education proposals. Not that university reform engrosses electors, that it doesn’t is the problem. Warnings of HECs hikes to come do not alarm most students (what with their expectations of brilliant careers). But their parents have heard horror stories of increased fees and in the absence of learning why the system should change they see no reason it should. The government and university lobbies started losing this fight as soon as the NTEU’s “$100 000 degree” slogan started to stick.

Bright smiles

People getting braces who want to coordinate colours with their body art will love University of Queensland dentistry PhD student William Ha’s new app, Bracemate, which makes it easier for people to pick colours for their braces in advance of the orthodontist. Dr Ha’s first app, Dental Prescriber, designed to help dentists determine dosages looks monochrome in comparison.

What comes next

Andy Vann suspects that the Pyne Package is a posthumous parrot but the Charles Sturt University VC warns against celebrating the demise of the campus-dwelling Norwegian Blue. “Many people will heave a sigh of relief about this, but I seriously doubt that it means we will simply continue with the status quo … it is not clear whether the government has a Plan B. It is also not clear what policies the Labor Party is intending to advance.” If he’s right this year’s budget will be as dramatic as 2014.

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Pyne changes the subject

Professor Vann may well be right. Where once Mr Pyne would talk of little other than higher education deregulation, in Reps Question Time yesterday and Monday the minister enthusiastically answered questions on school education and teacher training. But not a dicky bird about university reform.

 Accounting for experience

Policy people thinking about the possibility of a post Pyne package world are starting to make the case that university funding was inadequate under the old order and that more of the same into the future is unsustainable. Conor King from the Innovative Research Network argues that while governments from both parties used to increase overall expenditure on universities, it was only to cover more students and research. Governments, he says, ignored calls to address relative student funding between disciplines and specific examples of under-funding in the Bradley and Lomax Smith reviews, both commissioned by the last Labor government. He lists 16 programmes and their fate to support his claim; “the lesson is clear: governments will invest in additional students. They will not invest more for each student, regardless of the resources universities need. … Claims and counter claims about savings made and savings proposed without connection to related expenditure increases also muddy understanding.

“IRU would welcome a change of approach by governments to invest more in the education of each student. Experience suggests that this is not likely,” he states.

If the Pyne Package MkII fails this will be crucial and contested ground. Labor education spokesman Kim Carr always argues that higher education funding grew under Labor and that the alternative to deregulation is public funding. Mr King suggests experience shows this is as laudable as it is unlikely.

Policy rich, polemic free

The estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research has made a submission to the Senate committee inquiry into private sector VET and what a disappointment this immensely well-informed document will be to both friends and enemies of for-profit training. The TAFE lobby will loathe it because it demonstrates public and private trainers are comparable in terms of the students they enrol and the outcomes they provide. The private providers will be disappointed because the NCVER does not address the lower cost of the for-profits, although it does point out that data on non-government trainers is only starting to be collected.

However the NCVER does point to the flaw in the funding system for private voced first introduced in Victoria. “The development of a competitive training market has the potential to encourage effective investment in training. However, there are clearly risks in a training market based purely on price and short-term funding contracts.” Hard to argue with that and I’m guessing that is the bit senators who are close to the teacher unions will focus on.

 Rocky rebounds

It seems CQU could have copped a worse hiding when Cyclone Marcia rolled over Rockhampton on Friday. Staff and students are now sorting things out, clearing fallen trees from roads and paths so the Rockhampton North and City campuses can open in time for O week on Tuesday. It can’t be any earlier, what with no power expected until the end of this week. Not even VC Scott Bowman’s celebrated enthusiasm can generate electricity. All other CQU campuses are open.

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 More pussyfooting than punitive

Training Minister Simon Birmingham has announced his much-promised plan to crack down on private-providers who are rorting publicly funded training places. The Australian Skills Quality Authority will audit 23 registered training organisations, (out of 5000 RTOs) including some people have complained about. RTOs found in breach of standards could have their registration cancelled or suspended. But isn’t this what ASQA should have been doing all along? Senator Birmingham says in fact the agency has knocked back 15 per cent of applications and 6 per cent of re-registrations. This demonstrates ASQA’s “willingness to take tough action against training providers who did not meet the required standards,” the senator adds. Can’t fault him for placing process above politics, although I am guessing Green and Labor members of the forth-coming Senate inquiry will.

Tapping a trend

The University of the Sunshine Coast will no longer sell bottled water, encouraging people to re-use bottles. What’s more there are “free water bubblers, some with bottle-refilling taps, dotted all over campus.” A first you think? Sadly for USC, not. Back in October 2012 Swinburne U announced “a water refill and drinking station” at the Hawthorne campus. In the end the big news is always about the parish-pump.

Admirable optimism

Phoebe Phillips, a pancreatic cancer specialist at the University of New South Wales, is the new president of the Australasian Society for Medical Research. Despite the high mortality rate in her research field Dr Phillips is obviously an optimist, saying one of her first priorities will be to ensure the government acts on its undertaking to establish the Medical Research Future Fund. Good luck with that one Doctor.

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