Plus Pyne won’t budget on NCRIS

Above politics

University of Canberra VC Stephen Parker has had enough of meddling ministers. “Facing blackmail of research infrastructure cuts if no fee deregulation we need politicians out of higher education detail. Independent Funding Commission!”, he tweeted yesterday. Perhaps Universities Australia could select its members, oh wait, Professor Parker is not all that happy with UA either.


Best of all possible worlds

The National Tertiary Education Union has “hecsed” the Chapman – Phillips proposal, widely considered a likely basis for any third attempt by Education Minister Christopher Pyne to secure a deal on deregulation. As with other compromise proposals, the union argues, Chapman-Phillips, “seems to have been formulated on the premise that why make a policy straightforward and transparent when there is a complex and obscure alternative available.”

Bruce Chapman, the father of HECS and his long-time colleague higher education policy consultant David Phillips, offer an alternative to student fee deregulation. They propose a model where Commonwealth funding per student place is progressively withdrawn as course fees set by universities rise above a government nominated ceiling. However in a submission to the Opposition established Senate committee hearing submissions today the union presents extensive objections to the proposal. The analysis, to be presented by union president Jeannie Rea and analyst Paul Kniest, sets out a range of price scenarios and demonstrates unintended consequences based on extensions of course fees and withdrawals of subsidies for courses now attracting different levels of public support, depending on the cost of teaching.

However the union’s fundamental point is that all proposals on offer are inferior to the status quo “The best and most transparent way to avoid excessive fee increases is to keep a cap on the maximum fee Commonwealth supported students can be charged.”

Pyne holds the line

Christopher Pyne started yesterday as he meant to go on, appearing on Fran Kelly to explain that if NCRIS and the Future Fellows programme have to go it is nothing to do with him. The minister argued that he wants to fund the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, which the last Labor government “de-funded” but can only do it from portfolio savings. It was up to Labor to pass his deregulation package (which reduces Commonwealth funding for student), he said. This did not impress the science community, which bombarded the minister all day with demands that he just find the money. But the minister kept talking, urging crossbenchers at an afternoon doorstop not to fall into the vortex that will end NCRIS and FF.

In contrast, Labor’s Kim Carr was, relatively, quiet for most of the day, only letting fly with a few tweets late afternoon. “Never interrupt your opponent when he is copping a caning,” as Napoleon meant to say.

On the subject of vortexes …

At the same doorstop Mr Pyne mentioned that he was still talking to crossbenchers about deregulation and was “confident that they are giving me a fair hearing.” He added that while he hoped there would be legislation this month, “deregulation can be done anytime.” Perhaps the minister intends to talk everybody into a spiral of submission.

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Over the debt horizon

The 2015 Intergenerational Report sets out the costs of education and training for generations to come. Under existing policy settings, the IR states, national government spending will grow from 1.7 per cent of GDP now to 2 per cent in 50 years. However under “proposed policy” settings (it means deregulation) government spending will drop to 1 per cent of GDP by mid-century with student debt accounting for an increase. Thus government spending on higher education spending will decline from $11 800 now to $ 9 400 (in present dollars). But add in student debt initially paid by the Commonwealth and the figure more than doubles to $23 000.

As to what student debt will do to the Commonwealth’s books, who knows. As the IGR puts it, “the expansion of the student population and the longer repayment periods associated with higher average debts both have the potential to lead to different repayment patterns from those that have been seen in the past. This introduces significant uncertainty around the estimates.” To say the least.

Something they said

Friends of the Group of Eight are amazed that it did not get a guernsey for either of the Senate committee hearings on today. Perhaps it is because chair Ian Young has been so clear and consistent on where the Eight stands. But then again other witnesses might repeat views already on the record. Including, perhaps, Dr Gwilym Croucher, higher education advisor to University of Melbourne VC Glyn Davis, who made his views known in a string of opinion pieces here. Despite where he works the university is anxious to advise that Dr Croucher appears today in a private capacity.

Winners of the week

This week was a political nup-a-thon, with whatever Christopher Pyne suggested being rejected, notably by Clive Palmer, who locked his Senate colleagues, again, into opposing deregulation according to the Pyne Package MkII, and even MkIII, (the Chapman-Phillips proposal for a taper on government funding to universities after student fees exceed a ceiling). His colleague, senator for Western Australia, Zhenya “Dio” Wang also had a winning week, making many friends. On Monday he had an oped in The Australian calling on the government to fund the Medical Research Future Fund, all $20bn of it, “without further delay”. Then on Wednesday morning the prime minister named him as a senator who understood the need for university reform – which lasted until lunchtime, when Senator Wang said he would hold the party line and vote against deregulation.

Senators Sue Lines (Labor – WA) and Bridget McKenzie (Nats-Victoria) end the week on policy centre stage. Senator Lines is chairing today’s Senate committee inquiry, established by the Opposition, which will likely hear about the flaws in the Pyne Package. Senator McKenzie will follow, with a Senate committee that will focus on its strengths. These are high-profile roles and a great deal depends on how the chairs handle the hearings.

But the success to celebrate this week is David Lloyd’s. The University of South Australia VC demonstrated something that will surprise politicians, you don’t need to blow your own horn or sing your own praises to succeed. On Wednesday Uni SA opened its James Morrison Academy of Music, with the genius jazzman trumpeting the occasion. On Womad eve the university also awarded Peter Gabriel, as in Genesis, an honorary doctorate with Professor Lloyd interviewing him to celebrate the occasion.


Not a moment too soon

For-profit voced is having a terrible time, with regular media reports of shonks gulling people into course of limited value, for which they, and the taxpayer are billed top dollar. And this is before the Senate committee into the industry hears one witness.a Rod Camm, CEO of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training knows it, promising to lift standards and lower the boom on misbehaving members. The public process starts next Friday in Melbourne, when ACPET will announce its revised code of ethics for members and new code of practice for using sales agents. This is very important, and not just for ACPET, the credibility of the national strategy for deregulated training is eroding fast and an image offensive is essential – which is undoubtedly why federal training minister Simon Birmingham will launch the codes

Still on life support

The Intergenerational Report states the Medical Research Future Fund is still alive and the government will allocate money until it reaches the $20bn promised in the budget. Don’t hold your breath.

Christopher Weir didn’t. Last month I reported Mr Weir, from Walter and Eliza Hall, was looking to crowd-fund research on a protein that might make a malaria vaccine. He needed a mere $7500 – which he raised before the campaign closed.

Not getting what they pay for

The Wellcome Trust has published what it pays in article processing charges, so that research it funds appears in fully open access or hybrid (free to read after a specified period) journals. In 2013-14 the Trust spent stg 4.6m to publish 2500 articles, up from 2100 the prior year. So that’s 4.6m quid diverted from research paid to publishers to publish research that they access for free. If that is not enough the Trust reports 237 papers are not available according to agreed terms. “This is unacceptable,” the Trust states. So why put up with it, given Germany and Norway have responded to “high prices” by banning OA fees being paid to hybrids? Because researchers like to publish where they already have or get their names in the big-name journals is why. As the Trust puts it; “such an approach would seriously limit the ability of many of our researchers to publish in their journal of choice.” Real open access is going to take an age.

Choose your poison

The British Medical Journal reports people with gout are significantly less to develop Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s enough to drive one to drink, quite a lot drink.

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