Underestimating the young is dumb

But will students pay a premium or look for value in course costs?

The short answer is no one knows – not even ANU Vice Chancellor Ian Young, as he made clear on Lateline last night, explaining there are a great many unknowns in the market that might come. It was a quality performance by Professor Young who dealt carefully but comfortably with well-informed questioning from Tony Jones, who seemed to forget that the VC is an advocate of deregulation, not its author. Professor Young ended by pointing out that the buck stops with ANU and its ilk, that universities had to convince prospective students that the long-term benefits of an elite university education were worth what would be charged. It was a first rate exchange, light on rhetoric and heavy on policy.  And no, there were no chanting students.

correction: this morning’s email edition referred to Ian Young as ANU chancellor. The doltish error is mine.

Is Pyne’s plan already doomed?

We may never know whether Professor Young is right following Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s budget reply last night. Mr Shorten said Labor would oppose the government’s “system of higher fees, bigger student debt, reduced access and greater inequality. We will never tell Australians that the quality of their education depends on their capacity to pay.” This is because the only way to support the ageing population is “to make the right investments in skills and productivity. Only through education will Australia fully develop our economic potential, our scientific potential, our artistic potential – our people’s potential. … This prime minister’s cuts to higher education sell-out Australian genius and reject Australian potential.” The independents and Palmer United Party people in the Senate have a clear choice to consider.

In breaking news …

“Bread bag clips can cause serious problem if swallowed,” the University of Adelaide reported yesterday. Who would have thought it? But apparently people do and the clip lodges in the small intestine. Head of surgery Professor Guy Maddern calls for a redesign but I bet a government agency will also see a chance to get its name up in lights. Standby for the TV/print/social media campaign urging us to stop eating bread packaging.

Cash cure

Joe Hockey is not the first politician to suggest that government funded research might find a cancer cure – Richard Nixon committed to it in a state of the union address before he got distracted. This aside, the government’s commitment to shovel up to $20bn into a Medical Research Future Fund has many positives and only one problem. The big plus is that people respond very well to “Australian medical breakthrough” headlines and you can bet the government is looking forward to photos of white-coat wearing ministers smiling as scientists announce discoveries. It is also very hard for other research lobbies to attack the scheme without looking churlish. But I wonder whether the fund will ever produce the $1bn per annum in research grants in 2022-23, predicted in the budget. Just like the higher education and various climate change funds before it, what’s the betting that a treasurer with a fiscal malady that only cash can cure will ransack the medical research fund long before it reaches its $20bn target? Cynics suggest that the government might not even mind if the proposal was blocked in the Senate, so it could blame Labor for research breakthroughs that never occur.

Kick in the teeth for CSU

Not only did Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities not get their Murray Darling Medical School in the budget CSU also got a smack in the mouth over dentistry, losing $15m for a planned dental clinic in Port Macquarie. Existing facilities across the university’s central and southwest NSW heartland survive.

Science deans respond

The Australian Council of Deans of Science have welcomed budget funding for NCRIS, Future Fellowships and the promised medical research fund (how do you say no to $20bn?) but they are unhappy with cuts to the Australian Research Council’s Discovery and Linkage programs, which are in the efficiency dividend frame. Gosh, I wonder what scraping the next research excellence assessment and replacing ERA with a Google Scholar search would save instead? The deans also deplore big cuts to the Cooperative Research Centre program with allocations under Round 17 cancelled. This is in line with the first half of the Commission of Audit’s proposal to cancel the CRCs. The question is what will happen to the CoA’s second half, which proposed giving the money saved to the ARC.

Undergraduate assumptions

Is this the new era’s first sighting of the “customers are idiots” argument? In the SMH yesterday Jamie Miller argued that his experience teaching in the US showed students do not know what is best for them. “18-year-old students are not attracted by intangibles like research quality and good teaching. Instead, research shows that they are much more likely to be attracted by the aesthetics of the campus, palatial housing and facilities, ‘school spirit’ and social reputation,”  he said. To adapt David Ogilvy, “the customer is not an idiot he and she are your kids”. Universities that talk at and not to prospective students will not enrol as many as more respectful competitors.

(Price) cuts to come

University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington emailed all students yesterday to tell them “deregulation of fees was always going to be the logical next stage for university reform. … this will only impact students who are new from 2016.  Some degrees will likely start to be offered at a discount, while others will be more expensive, as price competition takes hold.” An insight into his pricing strategy?

Informed markets 

Markets only work when consumers have the information they need to compare what is on offer. But universities hate being compared against each other and the league tables that produce top to bottom lists are not much use to somebody trying to work out where to enrol for an undergraduate degree. Julia Gillard recognised this when education minister and wanted a website giving prospective students comparable information on all universities. The result was a disaster, designed not to upset any institution and bland and bereft of performance data. But now Minister Pyne has ordered another go, with the budget papers announcing, “students will have better information to support their decisions about where and what to study.” While this is ironically uninformative it appears the government intends to use the existing Graduate Outcomes Survey, a new employer satisfaction survey and the excellent University Experience Survey, based on responses from 100,000 students. Mr Pyne could do worse than invite Griffith University VC Ian O’Connor, who oversaw the experience survey, to do the same for the new product.

Whoever directs the project should have a look at the long awaited U-Multirank, a European products based on comparing similar institutions on a mass of attributes rather than just listing universities from best to worse on a few criteria, research, graduate employment and so on. While knowing the University of Sandstone in Melbourne has the most papers published in top science journals is good for the UoS’s international reputation it is not much use for people in Brisbane or Perth trying to decide which university in commuting distance does well on the criteria important for them. The UMultirank model is less judgemental and much more informative.

NICTA knifed

Despite being established under John Howard the Coalition has never rated the National ICT Australia research and development organisation – marking it for cuts before last year’s election. The axe descended again on Tuesday with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing NICTA is on its own as of 2017 when public funding expires altogether. The news follows recent NICTA cutbacks to its Melbourne operation.

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