Plus the mess at Murdoch

Preaching to the converted

Parliamentary Secretary Scott Ryan explains things to the Deans of Arts Social Sciences and Humanities in a speech last week; “the humanities don’t prepare you for a specific job, but they do prepare you for a huge variety of roles and opportunities.” Like becoming a dean of art, or an MP.

Worried Wong

Is Labor preparing true believers for bad news? Senate leader Penny Wong is telling supporters to watch what PUP senators say not do, pointing to the way they have supported the government on repealing the carbon price, “watered down” Labor proposals for financial advice safeguards and frozen the superannuation levy. “The big question for the coming sitting period is whether the Coalition will keep doing its unprincipled deals with PUP on critical issues like deregulating university fees,” Senator Wong said. It certainly is a big question for Labor. If the government can stitch a Senate deal together the Opposition will be able to compete with the Greens in being outraged. But if the PUPs stick to their guns and join the Opposition to vote the deal down Labor will have a problem when next in office – not all deregulation supporters are on the government benches.

World-class modesty

“Universities should ‘stop inflating the language’ in their marketing communications and return to old-fashioned virtues, such as truthfulness, integrity, modesty and dedication if they want to win back public trust,” says European higher education agency chief Sijbolt Noorda. It’s a great idea and it will not be long until QS or Times Higher come up with a rating for rectitude, which universities then put up in lights.

Terrible timing

There is never a good time for a university council to suspend a VC but Murdoch University could not have had a worse one to stand Richard Higgott down, on the Friday of the university’s 40th anniversary week, before a major seminar on learning and teaching. Staff were surprised by the speed with which the university council referred Professor Higgott to the WA Crime and Corruption Commission following an internal inquiry into unspecified behaviour. The appointment of Pro Vice Chancellor Andrew Taggart as acting VC rather than either Provost Ann Capling or DVC Research David Morrison also surprised some staff. Professor Taggart’s regional engagement role is generally not seen as central to Professor Higgott’s strategy – last month the university announced an end to undergraduate teaching at its Rockingham campus in Perth’s south.

This new management disruption is ironic given Professor Higgott was expected to establish stability following turmoil in the university leadership before his arrival. However even with administrative reforms, such as the introduction of a fraud and corruption control plan last year which was praised by the WA Auditor General, Professor Higgott’s three years to date have seen continuing structural change with academic units decreasing by a third and 20 or so senior staff gone. He also upset the campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union during last year’s enterprise bargaining with what the union saw as dismissive behaviour. “Professor Higgott is very conscious of rank and privilege,” a Curtin veteran said yesterday.

Big win disturbs Canberra quiet

The ever energetic Jane “wizard of the lobby” O’Dwyer tweets from ANU, “symposium looks at art, mortality and fascination with death: People fascinated by death and mortality.” Surely a weekend in the nation’s capital is not that bad. But then again maybe it is given that the big ANU news yesterday was the university will launch a new homepage in November. Jibes aside, this is actually a significant achievement, as anybody who has had to build an integrated university-wide site knows. The new ANU gateway will consolidate access to content, which is now found on 50 sites across the university.

Quiggin leads but Craven will follow famously

ARC Laureate Fellow in Economics John Quiggin has added to his argument with the Group of Eight’s Mike Gallagher in a personal submission to the Senate committee on the deregulation legislation. Professor Quiggin, from the University of Queensland, argues that post school education and or training should be universal but that deregulation will not deliver. Rather, he suggests the Pyne package will create a learning dystopia; “all institutions will raise fees substantially, and most will reduce the number of places. Given the greatly increased debt levels with which students will graduate, and tighter repayment terms, demand for courses with limited earnings potential will decline even further.” Like economics?

Professor Quiggin’s was one of just 17 submissions posted on the committee website by Friday night– with the Australian Technology Network’s the only contribution from any of the major policy groups. There will surely be a bunch before the Monday COB deadline but you have to wonder whether many will include new arguments. The terms of this dispute are now set. Opponents of deregulation focus on what it will cost students, supporters argue the need for a new university revenue stream. The challenge for both sides is to convince the crossbench that students will pay an acceptable/outrageous price to increase higher education funding. This will make for interesting questioning by government and Opposition senators when the committee meets on Tuesday. Especially because the only scheduled witness is, Greg “goannas” Craven. The Australian Catholic University vice chancellor has never seen a media silence that he did not want to fill with an apposite remark (who can forget his calling private higher education providers “goannas” amongst Melbourne Cup thoroughbreds?). And the ACU’s Greg Craven will likely speak his mind to senators from both sides of the chamber. While he supports deregulation to empower universities he is not keen on the government’s plan to fund private providers, the “Ma and Pa Kettle Business Academy” as he describes them, at 70 per cent of what universities receive per student.

From UWS to VU

UWS is losing Kerri-Lee Krause, at the university since 2011 and “interim” DVC education since the start of last year. Professor Krause is moving to Melbourne, where she will become provost at Victoria University. On Friday UWS acting VC Rhonda Hawkins regretted Professor Krause’s departure, praising her, “contributions to blended and online learning and her extensive work on the evolving nature of academic work and its implications for quality and standards in higher education.” According to VU Vice Chancellor Peter Dawkins, Professor Krause will “lead our transformational agenda in teaching and learning, oversee the continued enhancement of our research performance … and provide leadership and support … to drive our colleges forward in a very competitive market environment.” Professor Krause will start on all that in January.

Quick off the mcmark

The University of Queensland won the race to have staff ready to do media comment on the Scottish referendum result – circulating names and contact details at 4.30pm on Friday, within an hour of Alex Salmond conceding.

Baffling apples and abstruse oranges

RMIT economist Sinclair Davidson thinks university rankings and the last Excellence for Research in Australia exercise do not add up. In 2013 he wrote a detailed analysis of the ERA outcome for economics, questioning the way departments were assessed as above/at/below an undefined world standard and asking why, “there is such a large discrepancy between the actual ERA ranks and objective information that can be derived from Scopus — the ERA’s chosen dataset.” Now he has pointed me at his new comparison of the last ERA with the recent economics ranking from ARWU and QS. While UTS was ranked a five, “well above world standard” and Griffith a two “well below …” in ERA now the ARWU has them level pegging overall. Professor Davidson is also puzzled by the new QS ratings for economics and how they relate to ERA. QS has UTS in the 101-150 band. But other departments rated as below world standard in ERA turn up in QS in the 151-200 group – hardly that far behind. And Macquarie, rated three, “at world standard” in ERA is in the 151-200 band as well.

I suspect the Australian Research Council‘s  metrics mavens would explain all this as what occurs when you compare baffling apples with abstruse oranges. Or maybe the departments involved have lifted their game/gone off their form very quickly indeed but you have to wonder what next year’s ERA will come up with and whether it will have as much to do with excellence as anomalies.