Universities Australia to members, “what now?”

Plus change underway at UWA 

All explained

Flinders University announces a free Friday lunchtime lecture, entitled, “The Future”. An hour should do it.

Business as usual (i)

The National Tertiary Education Union is endorsing student rallies today protesting Minister Pyne’s plans. “The Abbott Government is abrogating its responsibility to fund our world class public higher education system by persisting with unprincipled, unfair and unsustainable policies that shift the cost burden for university education onto the shoulders of students and their families, NTEU President Jeannie Rea said yesterday. Good-oh but who does Ms Rea think pays much of the income tax that funds education now other than people with families?

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Deadly banjos

Professor Dianna Theadora Kenny from the University of Sydney reports research showing that among US musicians country singers are least likely to be murdered (1.6 per cent) and hip hoppers the most (an astonishing 50.5 per cent). Perhaps the latter are boring the former to death.

Business as usual (ii)

The days when Chris Pyne could rely on Universities Australia to ensure VCs stick to the party line on deregulation are gone, as we will see in a few days when UA holds a meeting of vice chancellors to discuss what happens now. For a start, it is not in the nature of vice chancellors to agree on cue and while UA did well to maintain silence in the ranks until last week’s Senate vote there is now no chance of people shutting up. Some VCs, such as Peter Rathjen from the University of Tasmania, are talking about their institution’s specific needs. Linda Kristjanson from Swinburne says deregulation has failed because it is unfair and that the connections between higher and further education need to be considered, something she is especially equipped to comment on as VC of a university with a big training operation. Others, including Attila Brungs at UTS want a conversation about reform and some are presenting their own plans for the future, notably Victoria University’s Peter Dawkins. Nor are the normally most disciplined lobbies solid – the Group of Eight includes VCs who are very keen on the Chapman-Phillips proposal for price regulated deregulation and other who think it is a shocker. And then there are those who always deplored deregulation, but only off the record.

This is very bad for the government – with student and staff unions adamantine in opposition to deregulation Mr Pyne needs to be able to point to the support of university managements. So a great deal is riding on the outcome of the next meeting of Universities Australia to discuss what universities want, which is now a bunch of separate stuff. While the Chapman-Phillips model seems most popular it seems unlikely UA’s members will adopt it by acclamation.

Vice chancellors are expecting a meeting within days – while everybody I know of supports demand driven funding, that is where assured consensus concludes. It could be a very long meeting.

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Marking time

Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten both addressed the Science Meets Parliament dinner last night – and said much the same stuff. A policy veteran said it seemed like they  had used the same speech writer. “Both said it’s time to get on with Chief Scientist Ian Chubb‘s recommendations for a national science policy. Both said government has to embed science in every department. But neither said when.” Professor Chubb probably will not add much on timing when he addresses the National Press Club today. He is waiting for sign-off next month from the Commonwealth Science Council on the eight priority research areas government agencies will be required to fund.

UWA moves on research centres

The University of Western Australia confirmed the credibility of long standing fears for the future of the Centre of Water Research yesterday with management announcing it would close. Centre supporters have long feared this, making the case for it continuing in an open letter to UWA Chancellor Fred Chaney last month (CMM February 11). But management pulled no punches yesterday, announcing the Centre had an operating deficit of $2.2m, two academic staff instead of the mandatory six FTE, (there are another 35 or so adjuncts, postgraduates and professional staff) “and has little interaction with academic units within UWA or with major external water resource organisations.” The review also urges the university investigate “consistent and extensive claims” of “unacceptable behaviour and treatment of both staff and students by their CWR supervisors.”

I asked UWA how or if this review was connected to a misconduct inquiry involving centre head Jorg Imberger and got this frank and forceful response. “Professor Imberger is currently subject to a separate internal disciplinary investigation over claims from staff and students of bullying, intimidation and other inappropriate behaviour. The University of Western Australia takes these allegations seriously as part of a zero tolerance approach to such behaviour. This internal disciplinary matter is ongoing and the university won’t enter into any further public commentary about the matter until it is concluded.”

UWA is also launching organisational change at its Centre for Forensic Science, where staff will be briefed on Friday. Two forensic science professors, Ian Dadour and John Watling face misconduct investigations.

Ordinary advertising

The Greens are very pleased that the Senate is demanding the Liberal Party repay the cost of the government-funded campaign making the case for the Pyne package. Nick Xenophon has already attempted to embarrass Mr Pyne on the subject, asking the Auditor General to investigate the advertising (CMM December 10, 2014). The rules permitting such supposed information programmes are broad enough to cover this effort, but all taxpayers should be affronted by the crook quality of the campaign.


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Time for Labor’s plan

To adapt William Buckley’s line about preferring to better governed by random Bostonians than Harvard faculty, I suspect I would rather have Ricky Muir in the Senate than the apparatchiks from all parties who occupy benches on both sides of the chamber. To hear why listen to Senator Muir’s AM interview yesterday, there was no beating it for courtesy and common-sense, although I doubt Chris Pyne and Kim Carr would have enjoyed it. Senator Muir made it plain he continues opposed to deregulating the price of undergraduate education. But he also acknowledged that the funding status quo is unsustainable and because “we are facing reform in the near future” called on Labor to announce its higher education policy, “so the public can see what it is up against.” The best option for Labor, however, is to leave Mr Pyne to keep taking the heat. Whenever Senator Carr says anything that reminds VCs of Labor’s former compacts policy or hits at an end to demand driven funding many get very cross. As ACU VC Greg Craven said the other day (CMM March 23) universities will defend demand driven funding “to the death.”

Another guard changes at UWA

The University of Western Australia is also changing leaders, at the Energy and Minerals Institute, where inaugural director, Tim Shanahan, in place since 2008, is stepping down to take on a “broader role” “that will contribute to the university’s wider engagement in innovation and enterprise.” Deputy director Mark Stickells will step up. There is absolutely no comparison between Mr Shanahan‘s move  and those that may occur at other university agencies, as Stickells said last night, “Tim Shanahan’s contribution has been game changing, it’s my privilege to step into the role in April. However it does seem change is on the wind at UWA.

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