PLUS App-lause for brilliant La Trobe initiative and policy beats dedication

Bachelors of Bricolage

“As I always like to point out, the prototype of the modern corporation was the university,” CSU VC Andy Vann, Friday. So that accounts for Woolworth’s Masters disaster. They should have run a full-fee professional doctorate programme in hardware studies.

Campus Morning Mail

Not much staffing up

Despite growth in student numbers it appears universities across the country are containing employee growth and in a number of cases reducing employment.

Australian university workforces grew marginally last year, according to returns to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. The statistics, which cover all persons employed on any and all basis show just under 193 000 people did work for a university in 2014-2015 compared to 187 000 the previous year.

This is on trend with the rate of growth recorded by the Department of Education and Training for full time equivalent staffing, which grew from 120 000 in 2014 to 122 000 last year. However the WGEA does demonstrate universities increasingly depend on the growing corps of casual employees, who received a pay cheque for working a few days to 12 months

Institutions with higher head counts generally grew by a few hundred at most. Some universities variously held steady or reversed the growth rate. According to its report to the WGEA, La Trobe U employed 3700 people in 2014-15 compared to 4500 in 2013-14, Swinburne U dropped 150 heads to 3850 and Curtin’s total count dropped 200 to 7400. James Cook U, now looking to retrench around 35 people, reported 220 fewer workers. Flinders University, where VC Colin Stirling said last week that “excessive bureaucracy” was concerning the university community was down 250 head over the two years.

Higher education policy people counsel caution in using WGEA data for long-run analysis of employment at individual universities. There are substantial swings from 2012 to 2013 due to changes in reporting methodology at a number of universities across the country contacted by CMM. “The figures for casual academic staff usage are very unreliable and patchy, they aren’t consistent between institutions at any given time,” one says. However “they are probably approximately consistent across each institution.”

No queuing

The Victorian Government is asking for expressions of interest in closed western district agriculture college Glenormiston. “They will not be knocked down in the rush,” a correspondent suggests.


Luke loses

The vocational education community welcomed its third minister in a year with Prime Minister Turnbull‘s Saturday shuffle. Luke Hartsuyker was sacked in favour of Victorian Liberal senator, Scott Ryan promoted to the ministry from his present post as assistant cabinet secretary. As leg-ups go however it is a hospital-pass of a promotion, meaning the new minister has to deal with salvaging something from the VET FEE HELP wreck which has done generational damage to the reputation of VET private providers. Mr Hartsuyker did his best to insulate the training industry from the mess caused by shonks exploiting disadvantaged people by conning them into sub-standard courses they were incapable of completing but which cost them thousands of dollars in deferred fees. As minister he stuck to the script written by his predecessor Simon Birmingham, that the majority of private trainers provided an honest service at a fair price and that new legislation will drive out the others. But the legislation, rushed through parliament before Christmas, hurt legitimate providers and the scandals of for-profits losing accreditation and closing keep coming. A calculated leak earlier this month of a draft discussion paper on a federal takeover of TAFE and more deregulation was widely interpreted as demonstrating the government is out of touch and did not help his cause. As portfolio minister Simon Birmingham put it on Saturday (via Twitter), “sorry to see the dedicated Luke Hartsuyker leave the voced and skills portfolio but thrilled to welcome the policy talents of Senator Ryan.” It will take a poultice of policy to sort out the VET mess.

What happens next at the NTEU

Matthew McGowan’s decision to leave his post as national assistant secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union in October (CMM February 10) has discomfited higher education policy people. Some are puzzled the bloke is happy to walk away from an important position because, as Mr McGowan told CMM, he decided it is time for a change. Others wonder what it means for strategic planning in the union. Who will join general secretary Grahame McCulloch and national president Jeannie Rea in setting strategy for the enterprise bargaining round soon to begin matters, they ask.


A voice for VET

The L H Martin Institute and TAFE Directors Australia will hold an roundtable on innovation and applied research at the Canberra Institute of Technology on March 2. Given his cogent piece on the way training is not getting the run it merits in the government’s innovation agenda (CMM February 11) CMM hopes Craig Fowler from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research gets a go.

Don’t ask Dr Google

La Trobe has a new app, created in cooperation with online sales-support provider Salesforce, which provided tech staff as part of its philanthropy programme (tick for industry links). The app applies La Trobe research in a way readily accessible by end-users across the community (tick for service). And it gives parents worried that a child is on the Autism Spectrum access to diagnostic tests (huge tick for impact).

The app includes questions on behaviour drawn from research by La Trobe’s Dr Josephine Barbaro and includes video of clinical assessments, which “clearly demonstrates the context and expected key behaviours of children at each age”.

“All typically developing infants are motivated to be social, look at other people’s faces, learn from them and copy. Children with (Autism Spectrum Disorder) are not doing this—and we can now accurately identify this at a much younger age and take action, with the help of parents,” she says.

There is the usual disclaimer, that the app is not an alternative for professional assessment. Nevertheless it will surely be a huge help to people around the world who are worried for their children. It is also brilliant brand building for La Trobe – research obviously addressing problems the community worries about creates lasting recognition.

The app is also part of a trend of universities using comms technology to replace Dr Google, by packaging health research to empower people who do not have the access they want to professional medical help. The University of Tasmania has a MOOC on dementia. The University of Adelaide has one for people trying to manage addiction. Swinburne University also has a MOOC on autism.

CMM wonders when government will realise what an enormous, and comparatively low-cost, resource such community focused information programmes are. A MOOC or an app can provide people, and lots of them, with masses of information at a fraction of the cost per contact of government advertising campaigns.

“Your call does not matter to us”

On Friday CMM responded to a missed call, and duly dialled the number on-screen. It turned out to be the call centre of a mid-size university. CMM asked to be connected to the staffer who he had spoken to earlier and the lady who answered said certainly, right after she asked me a few questions – who I was and why was I calling, that sort of thing. I identified myself and asked why she needed to know. She replied that this was standard operating procedure but she would now convey my request and leave it to the staffer to call me back if they chose, which the person did.

As a way of ensuring anybody interested in studying at, working with, or inquiring of the university hangs up and goes elsewhere this is all but impossible to beat. Big organisations that bang on about service and client focus do themselves a bunch of damage when they don’t mean it.Universities included.

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Build it and maybe they will come

The University of Sydney had a big win in August when infrastructure expert Garry Bowditch moved there from the University of Wollongong. Mr Bowditch is a premier policy writer on the economics and social utility of infrastructure, demonstrated by this morning’s release of a major paper from U of S. This is much more than the usual engineering argument, that there is gazillion dollar deficit infrastructure deficit and Australia faces chaos. Instead Mr Bowditch argues for creating infrastructure that serves consumers rather than creating a corpus of concrete on the assumption that if you build it they will commute.

“ A significant proportion of the services deficit could be addressed by the better use of existing infrastructure and through more scaled, targeted and feasible investments,” he writes.

Simon and Chris should speak up on OA

The Brits are moving closer to open access in research publishing with universities and science minister Jo Johnson buying into the argument, (thanks to Max Hastings from Universities UK for the lead). So when will Simon Birmingham and Chris Pyne get onto it?

It would not be hard for them to follow the judicious Johnson. The minister accepts the academic establishment prefers “gold” open access (publishers are paid for articles that appear in their journals, which are free to read) to “green” (publicly funded research is published without cost to researchers or readers). “I want the UK to continue its preference for gold routes where this realistic and affordable,” he writes. However he likes the idea of “service standards” for gold access publishing and “I want to see gold access charges reducing over time in a healthy competitive market.”

With the UK joining the Dutch and EU on putting pressure on the for-profits Australia could stand up. The NHMRC and ARC both require research publications they fund to be publicly available but with respect to professors Kelso and Byrne, ministers they are not. This is not a first order issue for the education and innovation portfolio ministers but every dollar spent on publishing research the public has paid for is a dollar less for researchers.