plus Wollongong U goes Great into Western Sydney 

the government’s utopian plan for international education 

and the big research question: how the ARC will measure engagement and impact 

Bad start to big week 

The government is off to a bad start for budget week with a detail-light international education statement and a report on the for-profit training debacle that tells us what we already new and suggests fixes which we have already heard. Plus Universities Australia releases research showing why cutting higher education funding would kill jobs across the economy.


Degrees deliver for all

In a precisely timed and targeted budget message Universities Australia says economic modelling demonstrates university education drives economic growth, with every 1000 graduates creating 120 new jobs for people without degrees.

Without new graduates entering the workforce, employment growth for those without degrees over the last eight years would have been zero the Cadence Economics report finds.

The research estimates the national productivity improvement generated by growth in graduates in the workforce lifts the wages of people without degrees by $655 a year.

The claims are based on a general equilibrium model developed by Cadence, which claims there is no previous modelling of spill-over benefits of university education in Australia.

“If we want to create more jobs and better paying jobs for all Australians we can’t afford to cut investment in the engine room of economic growth,” UA CEO Belinda Robinson says.

This is smart stuff, designed to cut off at the knees any budget night argument that higher education cuts stop people without university education having to subsidise those who receive the economic benefits of a degree.

Gong goes west

The University of Wollongong is set to announce a new campus today, expanding inland from its Illawarra coast homeland to Liverpool in southwest Sydney. NSW premier Mike Baird will launch the Southwest Sydney campus and Western Sydney Nursing Education and Research Centre. The project is a partnership between the university and Liverpool City Council – an arrangement which will surely alarm Western Sydney University, which now has a monopoly on higher education in southwest Sydney, with campuses at Bankstown to the east of Liverpool and Campbelltown to its west.  But in case WSU misses the point, UoW announces it’s expansion; “will transform the rapidly growing SW Sydney region by contributing to its higher education and nursing training needs while bringing lasting economic, social and community benefits.

The campus is due to open next year and is expected to offer courses in law, humanities, business, engineering, IT and science plus pathway and Voced programmes. The nursing school will open in 2019 and is expected to grow to 700 students, the same size as at Wollongong. Overall UoW plans to educate 7000 students at Liverpool, the number of students it estimates now commute to study outside the area.

UoW is also said to have had discussions about taking over a closing Toyota site, in Caringbah, to its north. It’s all part of the university’s strategy to build where population is growing.

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No strategy in sight

International education minister Richard Colbeck launched the long-awaited export ed strategy on Saturday. Except it isn’t a strategy in the OED’s sense of “a plan of action designed to achieve a long term or overall aim.” There are no specific objectives or accountabilities, commitments or costings, no dates and details on who will do what by when and how achievements will be assessed. The statement mentions challenges but does not set out how they are to be met. And while it acknowledges new competition, from countries and technology both, the paper basically calls for more of the same from Australian institutions. “We must build on our existing education, training and research strengths, to deliver high quality, innovative products and services to students that meet or exceed their expectations. This will enable us to withstand increasing competition and sustainably grow our market share, whilst maintaining the quality for which we are renowned.”

Unless of course it is a cunning plan to lull the competition into a false sense of security by presenting the Australian government as bereft of ideas and utterly indifferent to international education. If so it will work.

Credibility deficit

Science and Technology Australia has slammed last week’s CSIRO announcement that it isn’t abandoning climate modelling altogether. STA chief Catriona Jackson warns that even reduced cuts are not only bad for science but are also “affecting the nation’s faith in CSIRO.

“Australians from all walks of life believe what CSIRO says, whether it be about how to eat better and live longer, or about how our climate is changing and what to do about it. That kind of trust is a very valuable and delicate thing, especially in times of very rapid change.”

Colbeck’s Utopia 

International education insiders started worrying about the government’s strategy for their industry (above) when word got around that not much was being referred to the expert reference group appointed to assist on the plan. Concerns were confirmed when the minister, Tasmanian senator Richard Colbeck, did not launch the plan at last Thursday’s meeting of Universities Australia’s DVC I group in Canberra, choosing Launceston on Saturday instead. “The quietest media day of the week in a quiet media town, it says a lot about what the government thinks,” an industry observers says.

Certainly the government gets points for creating the plan, “a ten year strategy is strong recognition of the importance of international education to the economy,” University of Adelaide VC and UA’s leader on international students Warren Bebbington says. But a great deal depends on what happens next. “It’s light on for specifics with details left to the (to be established) consultative committee. An investment by government is also unclear,” he adds.

Other commentators are not so kind. As one astute observer who has seen it all before said. “Its full of words and statements like – ‘collaboration, partnerships, recognising the importance of innovation in achieving our goals, embracing our role as a driver of change, tailoring our education product to meet changing requirements. … I think the scriptwriters for Utopia had a hand in this and if not it must feature in an upcoming episode! ”

What’s really depressing, says an international sales-focused university leader, is Christopher Pyne’s discussion paper was much better. “Last year’s briefing was awash with ideas and issues about health housing and how the states could help with transport concessions. But all the specifics were swept out of the final paper. This is not the big deal it should have been.”


From STA to UA

Staff changes continue at peak science lobbies with Science and Technology Australia’s Catriona Jackson moving to Universities Australia as deputy CEO. Her move follows Sue Meek’s decision to depart the Australian Academy of Science last month, (CMM April 18).

ARC invites advice on engagement and impact

The Australian Research Council discussion paper on assessing engagement and impact for the 2018 Excellence in Research for Australia report is due this morning. It’s super serious stuff, which the ARC suggests can increase research productivity.

“The transparent reporting of university performance will drive institutions to modify and improve their behaviour. It is anticipated that the assessment and reporting of a university’s performance in both research engagement and impact will lead to greater collaboration between universities and research end-users and incentivise improved performance in the translation and commercialisation of research. This in turn will deliver economic and social benefits and maximise the value of Australia’s public investment in research.”

But it also has the potential to transform the research reputations of Australian universities. It will add new measures to the status making and breaking ERA, with the impact of applied research joining scholarly reputation and records as core performance indicators.

The paper sets out the issues that will shape how applied research is assessed. In particular it considers issues underpinning two major models, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering proposal for an engagement metric and the UK research case study approach. Alternatively, the ARC suggests, there are econometric measures, based for example on ABNs associated with research activity, citations of patents, even social media mentions, that could feed into the assessment mix.

The ARC’s paper is also a politically astute exercise of applied scholarship, which frames the debate on impact and engagement options. Universities with especially self-serving approaches will find few options in this closely argued brief. Responses are due on June 24.

Plenty of blame to go round

VET and Skills minister Scott Ryan has released his discussion paper on how to fix what he told ABC radio’s World Today on Friday was Labor’s VET FEE HELP policy. That is Labor, as in the Australian Labor Party, and for anyone who might have missed it was a mess of L-A-B-O-R’s making.

The minister is right, the problem of spivs conning people into enrolling in courses they could neither complete nor pay for and robbing the taxpayer in the process was implemented on Labor’s watch. But funnily enough Senator Ryan did not mention that it started with bipartisan support and continued for two years under coalition ministers and while change is promised all we have so far is December’s emergency legislation to stop the rot and (drum roll here) a discussion paper, which does not add much to what Senate inquiries have identified and proposed.

There is plenty of blame to go round on this textbook case of public policy failure and to argue that this is a Labor mess, which the government is only now charged with fixing, is nonsense on stilts. Students borrowing course costs via VET FEE HELP nearly doubled in 2014-15.Nor is this an exclusively political failure. While ministers must take the fall officials who designed the scheme and failed to warn what was going on as problems emerged should be ashamed.

The discussion paper sets out sensible strategies to stop this mess ever occurring again –so sensible that it seems strange why they were not adopted in the first places. Ideas floated include a cap on student borrowings, targeting funds to courses that “align with industry needs,” an ombudsman to protect students, aligning funding to delivery mode, toughing provider licensing and limiting student places by provider.

The VET FEE HELP disaster may not have destroyed the credibility of for-profit trainers competing against TAFE for a generation, but it certainly has come close. This discussion paper demonstrates why. The question that really needs to be discussed now is whether the proposals in it can undo the damage.

As Rod Camm from the Australian Council for Private Education and Training put it on Friday; “we need to get this right for students, employers and industries to ensure we are able to meet the future skills needs of our economy.”