In opposition the prime minister promised to leave universities alone – he meant it. 

Alarmed not alerted

Anybody logging on to Deakin University’s  homepage around 6pm last night was greeted with the headline  “Emergency alert activated at Deakin”.  Clicking on the link you learned it was a test. Management must be very pleased to know that the response team can put a line of text on a website. But it seems not everybody got the message with the university tweeting its 10,000 followers “Please do not be alarmed, we’re testing our emergency response message on our website. This is TEST ONLY. No action required.”

Ignored, at best

Back in February Tony Abbott effectively promised to leave universities alone in government. He was as good as his word yesterday. For the first Abbott Government education is a synonym for schools. Over-stated? Here’s what the PM said;
“The Hon Christopher Pyne MP will be minister for education and leader of the house and will work with the states and territories to deliver real improvements across all aspects of education. The Hon Sussan Ley MP as assistant minister for education will continue her work with child care and early childhood education. Senator Scott Ryan will be parliamentary secretary to the minister for education.”
Maybe in the hard copy the words “research” plus “higher and further education” and “science” appear if you know the spell to cast, maybe a more rational organisation will appear when we see the administrative orders for the ministry but I doubt it.  It seems as if the education growth engine of the Australian economy will receive as much attention as Mr Pyne can spare and certainly he exhibited an occasional interest in higher education, opposing minimum ATARs for teacher education degrees, for example. Optimists can even argue that universities are at the cabinet table – but let us see how often the minister mentions them. Overall the intention is obvious – from having Senator Brett Mason dedicated to it in opposition, now the coalition is in government  higher education is on its own.
This could be good news for those of the baronies that quietly get on with their own agendas and create no problems. The NHMRC is already identified as a favoured child. Despite Jamie Briggs research relevance stunt the ARC will likely be left alone, as long as it quietly cops any cuts to come. The CRCs, CSIRO and chief scientist (all, it seems in Ian Macfarlane’s industry portfolio) should be ok, passing the “research relevance text.” And what of TEQSA? Perhaps it will be all right unles somebody in Minister Pyne’s office comes across the Lee Dow-Braithwaite report.
The ministry is very good news indeed for the various university and research lobby associations. Yes all their attempts this year to have cuts reversed and make education an election issue failed miserably. But with a government that manifestly has no interest in post school education and training, getting Canberra’s attention will require shameless lobbying and spectacular selling on behalf of each interest group. Plus a contact book with numbers for whomever Mr Pyne will listen to on higher education.
Thus the astute Vicki Thomson, working with what she had, put out a statement from the Australian Technology Network yesterday afternoon; “The ATN says the Prime Minister-elect, Tony Abbott, has recognised the critical importance of the university sector by ensuring it remains as part of a cabinet level portfolio and is represented by a senior cabinet minister in Christopher Pyne.”
Universities Australia took longer to find something positive to say, not getting a statement out until 7pm. Yes, Christopher Pyne is “energetic and experienced”, yes, “a single education portfolio characterises education as a life-long endeavour, a concept strongly supported by UA.” But chief executive Belinda Robinson could not disguise the obvious concern, :”while there are distinct advantages in bringing education together, there is a risk of higher education policy being buried in such a large and diverse portfolio.” She has a point. The government has not demonstrated distaste for post school educatioon but it has displayed its disinterest

Quick and to the point

There is a media training event for scientists (a snip at $780) in Adelaide today. And it is being sold hard! “Journalists are looking for a 10-second grab while you’re trying explain years of research.  This course can help you distil the essence of your science into an interesting story that works for the media and is still true to the science.” Presumably not in ten seconds.

Hoj rebuilds

Peter Hoj did very well outlining the University of Queensland’s response to the 2010 nepotism scandal to the firm but fair Steve Austin on ABC Brisbane radio yesterday. Granted the job was relatively easy in that none of the outrageous behavior the Crime and Misconduct Commission reported on Friday occurred on his watch. Nevertheless Professor Hoj is stuck with explaining how UofQ has changed and this is a big and ongoing issue. He was right to decline to guarantee nepotism would never occur again, for one delicious moment I thought Austin was about to put new allegations to him (he didn’t). And he did well overall in explaining what the university had done to clean up its act. The presence of a university  internal investigator with the authority to go direct to the chancellor and the chair of senate as required is an excellent example that the university is not in denial. But Professor Hoj needs to encourage his colleagues to pick up the pace. When Austin asked how the inquiry into alleged misconduct involving research by a retired scientist is going the vice chancellor said, “we are now putting together a plan to investigate other bodies of work.”  Good, but not good enough. As Professor Hoj  told ABC Radio’s PM on September 6, “I think the university would acknowledge that the first phase of the investigation took longer than required – or desirable, perhaps not longer than required. Those investigations are very tricky in nature and we are reflecting on whether we could have done it faster. We possibly could have done it faster.”

Immune Americans 

A research project by the University of Queensland and the University of South Carolina finds that four or more cups of coffee is bad for people under 55. Good news for the yanks, what the stuff they drink not being anything close to coffee.

Geeing up fellow travellers

Charles Sturt University staff vote today on a new enterprise agreement, against the strenuous opposition of the local branch of the National Tertiary Education Union, which explains why here. Campus unionists argue the pay rise in the agreement is less than appears and that Vice Chancellor Andrew Vann is trying to ram a deal through, “when the union has indicated that the gap between the parties is potentially very small.”  The union wants staff to knock back the deal; “to signal to management that staff expect transparency, consultation and respect in university decision making – not only on collective agreement matters but also on wider governance and university planning issues.” Good luck with that. The last I heard the Community and Public Sector Union negotiators agreed to the deal and Professor Vann obviously thinks the generality of staff have had enough and want to settle. So who has the numbers? I have no idea, although the union will be hoping its case convinces many of the mass of CSU workers who are not members. Around 450 of CSU staff belong to the NTEU, something like 20 per cent of total employees.

Star in their eyes

The announcement: “CQUniversity has been awarded five stars for online delivery, internationalisation and access in its first foray into the global university ratings system QS Stars.”  University media release, yesterday.
The detail: “Due to the complexity and the level of detail required in order to conduct a thorough QS Stars audit, this is an opt-in service, which, for a comprehensive audit, incurs a cost to institutions wishing to undergo the process. “ QS  information sheet .

Who knows and why worry?

“Can Australian native animals be the key to predict the future of male sexuality?” La Trobe University asked no one in particular in a presser yesterday. Apparently we need to know because, “the Y chromosome that determines male sex traits in humans is predicted to disappear in just 5 million years.” I’m guessing this is not an issue whichever minister is over-sighting science in his spare time will take to the first meeting of cabinet.