Yea and nay on American way

Blissful broccoli

According to a study in the British Medical Journal by Saverio Stranges (University of Warwick) and colleagues people who daily eat a bunch of fruit and vegetables have superior mental wellbeing to those who don’t. I’m guessing that this is correlation not causation –ever met anybody cheered up by brussel sprouts?

Get used to it

I hope Andrew Taggart is getting comfortable as acting vice chancellor at Murdoch University because he could be there for a while. The university council stood down VC Richard Higgott on Friday and sent allegations (said to be quite a few) off to the WA Corruption and Crime Commission. When the CCC receives allegations it assesses them for three possible actions, return them to the agency involved for further details, not proceed, or conduct its own investigation. No one is talking, but you would have to think the Commission will have a very long and serious look at claims about a vice chancellor.

They will demand what they pay for

La Trobe’s undergraduate politics, philosophy and economics program is popular with students, who have founded their own society and as befits an assembly of policy thinkers its submission to the Senate deregulation inquiry asks frank and fearless questions. Why, the submission inquires, should students pay higher fees to fund research, which benefits society as a whole and is thus the proper responsibility of taxpayers. “Fee hikes on students will at least to some degree be diverted into the area of research. Such a form of rent creation is inherently unfair,” the PPE society asserts. Nice try. But it makes a point universities whose dreams of avarice include plucking student geese with a minimum of hissing should consider. Undergraduates will start asking where their deregulated fees are going and kick-up if the answer is to fund research not teaching.

Not over yet

And there I was thinking industrial relations had gone quiet for three years. The National Tertiary Education Union advises enterprise bargaining at Notre Dame University is imminent.

Definitive commitment

Universities Australia has made its definitive case in support of the Pyne package, “with amendments to improve fairness and affordability for students.”

“The bill will allow universities to build more predictable and durable business models, less vulnerable to government funding instability and frequently changing policy and budget priorities … in amending and passing the bill, senators will create a legacy in having shaped and positioned Australia’s higher education system for delivering long-term national productivity and prosperity,” UA chief executive Belinda Robinson said yesterday.

It’s been a while since UA spoke for a united system, and as Paul Kniest from the NTEU pointed out in detail yesterday, VCs barely agree on the broad outline of the Pyne plan. But with all the powerful baronies onside, to some extent or another, Education Minister Chris Pyne can now claim universities support his plan.

No American way

In House of Reps Question Time yesterday Labor conceded the policy fight and focused on the politics – asking Chris Pyne four times why he wanted to “Americanise the system” by putting a university education beyond ordinary Australians’ reach. (Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce also got a question on deregulation on bush campuses, which he batted away.) Mr Pyne replied that as the US does not have a loan system such questions are irrelevant. But nobody was talking to each other – everybody’s audience was the Senate cross bench.

Hunger games

University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington spoke up for US education yesterday at a CEDA lunch yesterday, suggesting the average student debt there was $28 000 and that just 7 per cent of students had debts of over $50k. The real problem is people who do not complete degrees and are stuck with student loans they struggle to pay back, which doesn’t happen here thanks to the HELP system. And when it came to yea or nay on the American way, “it’s a shame closed minds don’t come with closed mouths,” Professor Bebbington said.  He also urged the audience to speak up for deregulation (I’m guessing he meant they should talk to SA independent senator Nick Xenophon). With it “the next quarter century should be like the quarter century after WWII a time of great ferment and creativity.” But if Canberra cuts without allowing universities to raise fees? It will be “slow starvation he warned.

Star spangled clanger

In contrast Stephen Parker sees nothing to admire in the US system, as the vice chancellor of the University of Canberra makes plain in his submission to the Senate deregulation committee. “The United States of America seems to be a society which is not getting it right, and whilst there are important differences between higher education in Australia and the US, the prospect of crippling graduate debt is common to both if these reforms go through. In the US, graduate debt has tripled in the last 8 years and now exceeds credit card debt. It threatens to distort economic incentives, let alone impair the prospects of a whole generation.” Professor Parker is the only vice chancellor whose adamant opposition to deregulation is on the record and he makes a strong case that the Pyne package will impose unfair costs on students and is not in the national interest. “We are playing with fire, when the case for urgency has not been made out, and when alternatives exist for controlled and experimental reform to help us build up an evidence base specifically relevant to the Australian context, with its particular version of income-contingent deferred loan schemes, its already high quality university sector and the social values which I thought had been binding us together as a nation.”

Un-Australian American elitism

Deakin University’s submission to the Senate committee accepts “an increase in the student contribution to their education, but we believe that the current balance between government and student contributions is broadly equitable.” However that is as far as the university goes in support of deregulation, calling for “further investigation of the unintended consequences of these policy changes”. Deakin certainly does not share any admiration for the US system; “in terms of the argument that Australia needs at least one Princeton, Harvard or MIT, Deakin considers that this pursuit of excellence is a narrow perspective that will lead to further distortion to investment in higher education and a skewing of opportunity for Australian students.” And one guess which universities Deakin is referring to in calling for an equitable, sector-wide solution, not one driven by special interests.”

Archaic OP

A review commissioned by the Queensland Government has slammed the existing OP (for overall position) system as the basis for university entry by school leavers, saying it does not differentiate between applicants for in-demand university courses, is being bypassed by schools and that there is “a lack of transparency in current selection processes, with applicants sometimes unaware of the basis on which they are considered for admission to tertiary courses.” According to reviewers, Gabrielle Matters and Geoff Masters from the Australian Council for Educational Research, “it is clear to us that the current OP system no longer functions as originally envisioned and is reaching the end of its usefulness.” Their 21 recommendations call for a transformation of external assessment but also involve universities changing their own admission processes including, “options for comparing and selecting applicants to competitive tertiary courses.” They urge tertiary providers to consider creating a single rank order, “regardless of the course or institution to which they are applying.” This is a big deal indeed, which if adopted should address the gaming of supposedly immutable cut-off scores.

Teach the test

The NSW Government has released a state of the state education system including post secondary data. It is straightforward stuff but given Education Minister Adrian Piccoli’s interest in teacher education there is one par that universities should consider carefully. “No NSW university received an Excellence in Research for Australia ranking of 5 for research in the field of education.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Mr Piccoli plans to have teaching graduates sit literacy and numeracy tests before they quality to work in state schools.

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