Plus a new ERA in research assessment: how impact and engagement will drive change

Stop the presses

The Macquarie University print shop finally closes on Monday with all work outsourced to “marketing production management” company Ergo. CMM hears talk, which started months ago, of outsourcing arrangements in IT continue. Tensions between IT management and some staff members there have not subsided since last year’s scathing review of the former by the latter (http://campusmorningmail.com.au/macquarie-us-it-fail/ CMM August 28).

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The debate we are going to get

Kim Carr knows more about higher education than any other politician in the country and he knows how politically potent policy can be when it appeals to a audience.

Which is what the Labor shadow education minister’s speech to the Universities Australia conference did yesterday. Senator Carr renewed his promise to increase funding per student, contrasting it with the government’s still-on-the-books deregulation plan. He reminded his audience that Labor is committed to spend 3 per cent of GDP on innovation by 2030. And he pitched the praise strong, placing teaching, research and academics leading debate at the centre of national life. “This means fostering a diverse academy of scholars whose security encourages them to discuss matters of public importance publicly, without fear of retribution, from government ort elsewhere,” his text states.

But what many will really relish is Senator Carr’s continuing commitment to regulation through Labor’s proposed higher education commission, which will “provide independent, authoritative advice to government.”

“It will make sure that we have the capacity to develop and to deliver what we need to prosper in the coming decades. A commission will also ensure much-needed policy continuity over time. Education (and research) are not taps to be turned on or off according to the whim of the moment. They are long-term, long-haul.”

A decade back a higher education regulatory authority would not have got a hearing and in private this proposal still gives VCs conniptions. With Thomas Jefferson, many of them think the government that governs best, governs least and that governing at all should consist of sending cheques.

But thanks to the “$100k degrees” campaign and the VET FEE HELP fiasco regulation is now back on the higher education agenda. As University of Melbourne VC Glyn Davis puts it (CMM February 1); “If we are not going to have deregulation we need an effectively regulated system.” But because “bad regulation is bad for everybody” he wants HE experts to “provide long term plans and stewardship.” This sounds like something Senator Carr can accommodate.

Universities Australia president Barney Glover is calling for a debate on higher education policy. Senator Carr’s model and Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s response, “more interventionist Canberra knows best” delivers.

As to what Canberra does know, despite all the predictions this week about hikes in fees, look to increases in HECS rather than  any repeat of the Pyne proposals to create a competitive market.

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Different perspective

The estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research is calling for tenders for a research report on “future-proofing the VET workforce”. Um, isn’t that what the Productivity Commission produced back in 2011? Yes, but the industry did not like it much, what with the way the Commission argued for more flexible working conditions and for staff to have teaching qualifications. Back then TAFE Directors Australia head Martin Riordan called claims in the report, “contradictory, largely untested, unsourced and highly questionable.” It is less unlikely than impossible to image anybody saying anything like that about an NCVER report.

DET’s new boss

The Department of Education and Training has a new head, Michele Bruniges, who returns to Canberra from running the NSW education department. She replaces Lisa Paul who left last month.

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New ERA in research

You have to admire the feds for frankness with an announcement yesterday, “experts named to measure value of university research.” So much for researchers ever being left alone to gaze at blue sky.

But the creation of a steering committee of business bosses, policy panjandrums and academic experts to “help to develop a process … to assess our nation’s university research performance and inform future funding structure” is not the half of it. Federal government officials are set to go with a plan to transform how research performance is assessed and rewarded.

CMM hears research administrators have the structures set for new impact and engagement dimensions to accompany the next Excellence for Research in Australia exercise.

The engine rooms of the new process will be two working parties, consisting of research assessment and measurement experts. One group, to be announced next week, will work on ways to assemble data and a second will establish impact assessment measures.

Their models will be piloted next year and rolled out as an independent component of the next ERA in 2018. As to reporting performance, a popular proposal is to extend the existing ERA star system. While there is also talk of a case-study supplement it would not be along the lines of the large UK scheme, where corporate glossies detailing research achievements ended up driving university assessments.

While the details are yet to go to university and learned academy opinion leaders, there is a sense they accept that an engagement and impact extension to ERA is a done deal. The debate still to have is about the detail. However it may be a while before final assessment models are announced. There is always a risk ambitious research offices will try to game the system an observer suggests. Such cynics research policy people are.

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