Plus movers and shakers in international education and NHMRC confronts its big problem

So long and thanks for all the files

Lisa Paul sent her final message as Education Department secretary to friends, 5.30 on Friday. “Sad to go but excited about my next career,” she tweeted. Whatever she does here’s hoping she is freed from the circle of hell favoured by the imps of Senate estimates.


Campus Morning Mail

Davis demands back to basics on funding

Glyn Davis wants to see higher education policy back to basics, abandoning ideology for expert oversight. “If we are not going to have deregulation we need an effectively regulated system,” the University of Melbourne VC told CMM on Friday. And he wants higher education experts to provide “long term plans and stewardship.”

Professor Davis says he is “in complete ignorance” of the government’s budget plans for universities but suspects there will be budget measures including a reduction of the threshold for FEE HELP debt repayments and, depending on demand, a soft cap on student places.

But these will not deal with the perennial problem endemic to higher education, decades of governments underestimating what it costs to teach students. “An arbitrary figure was dreamed up in the ‘90s and has been indexed since then. The funding rate bears little relation to costs,” he says. And yet, he adds, universities have to use the allocation for students to cross-subsidise also underfunded research.

Because “bad regulation is bad for everybody” Professor Davis says these crucial issues would best be addressed by an independent agency.

He stresses that his long-term support for an expert policy body is not because he lacks confidence in the Commonwealth bureaucracy, “I don’t have an issue with the Department of Education which is doing a good job in difficult circumstances but it does not have the resources to put out policy papers.”

Instead he proposes an expert agency with members drawn from industry and the higher education policy community, like the Hong Kong University Grants Committee, on which he served.

Professor Davis is also focused on specific operational issues for his own university this year. He says that the shared services model has bedded down well but that as the first full year of operation 2016 will be the test. And he points to the existing higher education workforce model, dividing academic and professional staff roles, as increasingly unrelated to the way university staff work. “We also have to ask whether existing classifications for professional staff are accurate and useful. … Many professional staff jobs are more closely aligned with the private sector than traditional university administration roles,” he says.

But while the university’s finances are strong Professor Davis warns that government funding cuts would be very difficult given, “we commit to students for five years.” And then there is the factor that keeps publicly under-funded universities in business, international enrolments. “ The university is completely dependent on international flows, we could not open the doors without them.”

“The truth is if a crisis catapulted through the sector at enormous speed it would be devastating,” he warned.

Tunnel vision

It’s only a matter of time until one of the rating agencies comes up with league table of campus street art and when they do the University of Sydney will be off to a smart start. The campus tunnel between the Manning and Holme buildings is listed in the xplore travel guide as one of the city’s “top five street art graffiti spaces.”


International market makers and movers

With education exports touted as an economy saver it seems universities are feeling the pressure with personnel changes across the system. James Cook U confirms that international director Jo Asquith will leave at the end of her five-year contract in May. At ANU the director of global programs and engagement finished up on Friday. The university is also looking for a replacement for marketing director Tracy Chalk who is leaving for a job in the UK. Last year saw a PVC I arrive and then depart the Uni Adelaide in mere months. CMM also hears that another high profile international director will resign this week. And permanent appointments are also expected soon at Curtin U and Murdoch U with a Scottish import expected at one and an influential local at the other.

So what is going on? One export expert says nothing much, that it is just the perturbation useful in a high-pressure industry but another suggests that the industry is looking for new directions. Some universities are buying a management consultant model that says selling to students is the same, wherever they come from and that one integrated suit of services fits all. This works for universities where international applicants come to them as opposed to those who have to get out and explain where their institution is and why it is good. Arrivals and departures are reflecting the approach managements prefer.

Never enough

The National Health and Medical Research Council is reviewing its $800m grant programme to “determine whether we can streamline the current suite of funding schemes, while continuing to support the best Australian research and researchers.”

“Rising application numbers to NHMRC schemes and rising costs of research have presented new challenges as we seek to support excellence across all research sectors … and provide opportunities for researchers at different stages of their careers, council chair Anne Kelso says.

But the council also concedes insufficient cash creates conflict. “The increasing number of applications places a heavy burden on applicants and on the many members of the research community who peer-review applications. … Concerns have also been raised that opportunities for early and mid-career researchers and for exploration of new areas of research are being affected,” Professor Kelso added.

The council will run the review but Steve Wesselingh will chair a 14 member expert advisory group, split evenly on gender. Professor Wesselingh is chief executive of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute and his colleagues are senior researchers, plus industry outsiders, including Edith Cowan U HR manager and medical research panel consumer representative Christine Gunson and UWA DVC R Robyn Owens.

But acknowledging what the industry has complained about for years will not silence critics. Right after the inquiry was announced there were complaints about membership of the reference group, that it included too many NHMRC funded professors. It will be the first of many grumbles – for as long as researchers with serious projects are not funded there will be warnings that people will die because research was rejected. With NHMRC success rates running at under 20 per cent the chances of everybody, even an industry majority being happy is not healthy.


Think tanked

The annual ranking from the University of Pennsylvania’s Global Go To Think Tank ranking is out, and as usual the Brookings Institute leads the world for independent policy research.

Also as usual Australia ‘s think tanks, notably those with university affiliations aren’t among the leaders. The Australian Institute of International Affairs at 44th is the first Australian body on the global list, followed by the Lowy Institute at 54th and the Centre for Independent Studies at 105th.

ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre is number one for university-linked centres in Australia but 28th overall, ahead of the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney, the Globalisation and Development Centre at Bond U (47th), the Australia China Relations Institute at UTS (80) and the ANU’s National Security College (85).

What surprised CMM is the number of Australian entrants on the Asia Pacific regional list, just 12 of 95.

Smallman out at WSU

Clive Smallman will leave Western Sydney University to run a private provider teaching project management and business, mainly to the international market. Professor Smallman was charged with saving the university’s business school, and he tried all sorts of things to do it, including international partnerships, sacking economists and a school review but alas back in April VC Barney Glover announced he was out of the job, a year before his term expired. Professor Smallman was moved to assistant VC where he was commissioned to work on AASCB accreditation and international partnerships in China and India. Not any more. On Friday the business school’s deputy dean Sara Denize announced Professor Smallman would leave WSU “shortly.” Professor Glover did not comment, probably because he was too busy polishing his speech celebrating his assistant’s many achievements.

The old one two from the NTEU

The National Tertiary Education Union in WA is adopting a belt and braces approach to its dispute with the University of Western Australia, where VC Paul Johnson announced pre-Christmas plans to cut 300 existing staff and create 50 new academic positions. The union has taken management’s plan to the Fair Work Commissionarguing UWA is in breach of the enterprise agreement to consult with staff over changes. There is a hearing set for next week. But to add to its case the union is also running a petition calling on Professor Johnson to “unilaterally withdraw his decision.” They like a petition in the west, the union used one back in 2010 when UWA cut academic and building maintenance positions.

ANU Dec 15 3

Still no cash flows for Murrray Darling med school

A new year and a new call for the Murray Darling Medical School. This proposed joint venture of Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities is now longish in the tooth and while local MPs make supportive noises no government ever looks like funding it. Existing universities with regional medical training programmes, notably UNSW and Uni Sydney aren’t too keen on it either. But CSU VC Andy Vann never gives up, saying he will keep lobbying. Health Minister Sussan Ley will likely at least listen, what with her constituents being likely users if  the MDMS ever gets up.