Another VC explains what is wrong with Minister Pyne’s package

That’s c for college

As in college of advanced education. Australian Catholic University VC Greg Craven was on Radio National this morning explaining why Minister Pyne floating the possibility of teaching-only universities was a very bad idea. For a start such institutions would not be universities as we know it and this would be very bad for students. The great advantage of universities researching is that students are taught by people who read and to some extent wrote the book, he said. If Australia wants “a tiny handful of universities as we understand them and to revert back to 30 CAEs this would be terrific.” But Professor Craven was adamant that real universities teaxch and research.

Brand building

Griffith University has joined Deakin and Victoria U in guaranteeing students commencing in the second half of 2014 will not be slugged with the increase in HELP costs when the new fee structure commences in 2016. I have no idea what this will cost Griffith but it is a powerful demonstration that the university values its students. As such it shows why Education Minister Pyne was smart to ask Griffith VC Ian O’Connor to head the working party (unless it’s a taskforce) charged with ensuring prospective students have comparative information on university performance on everything from student satisfaction to employment outcomes in a deregulated market. You can’t have a market without information and that means price signals. If Mr Pyne’s package gets up Griffith just bought itself an early branding advantage.

So did Murdoch University which also got on board, committing last night to “fee certainty” for students enrolling for second semester. “Failure to act would have adversely affected the high proportion of mature age learners and returners to education who are typically represented in this cohort at Murdoch. …The university was strongly influenced by the significant financial commitment faced by a major proportion of its student enrolment – those coming to a university experience as the first in their family to do so, or later in life,” Vice Chancellor Richard Higgott said. Brand building based on criticism of Mr Pyne’s plan may not be what the minister had in mind, but universities are certainly starting to sell on their own attributes to specific markets.

MOOC students can’t see the sandstone

Monash University’s first MOOC, “Creative Coding”, starts on Monday with 11,000 people signed up. As a way of selling both the university’s IT and art education (“can a computer be independently creative, and does the computer bring anything that is really new to art”) this is hard to beat. But if the strategy sounds familiar it should. Charles Sturt has been running (admittedly very programming focused) IT MOOCs for months. It’s year zero in the MOOC universe and the eight are not automatically alone in being great.

No known side effects

Griffith University has announced a new professional development course for pharmacists, for free! No, they have not stopped taking their free market medicine. The program, “which taps into” a Griffith short course in integrative medicine is offered online by the Blackmores Institute. Apparently it provides pharmacists and “other healthcare providers” with “practical information on key health conditions, to enable them to deliver evidence-based complementary medicine advice to their patients and customers.” Even better Griffith “will offer new, in-depth, one-day face to face workshops that will focus on specific topics in more detail.” These “master-classes” will occur annually in capital cities around the country, and be supported by Blackmores Institute.” Yes, that Blackmores, the self-described “natural heath product company.” At the start of the year La Trobe copped a fearful hiding when it announced it was considering a complementary medicine research centre to be funded in part by the industry. I wonder if Griffith’s professional education program will get critics commenting.

Precedent for backing down

If Chris Pyne decides to sacrifice the hiked HELP interest rate (6 per cent) to secure Senate support he will not have to look far for a precedent. Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities points to the apprentice support loans run by Mr Pyne’s cabinet colleague, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane which are indexed to the CPI (as HELP loans are now).

As to collecting HECs debts from deceased estates – as recommended by Andrew Norton a couple of months back and floated by Minister Pyne in the Australian Financial Review yesterday, good luck with that. Australians hate inheritance taxes – and what is the betting people would see this as exactly that. Then again, at least floating it will give him something to bargain with in Senate talks.

Andy Vann’s deplore-a-gram

Another day, explanation of what is wrong with Christopher Pyne’s reform package. Yesterday Charles Sturt University’s Andrew Vann joined the lengthening list of vice chancellor’s criticising the minister’s plan to deregulate higher education. As is to be expected from the astute and understated Professor Vann he provided a superior example of the genre, criticising the minister’s ideas on four grounds.

Choice: Vann rejects the idea that deregulation is required to create diversity. “Charles Sturt University is nothing like the University of Sydney, nor does it wish to be anything like it. We have very different missions, cater for very different student demographics, have different levels of research intensivity and we employ different kinds of staff. … I think what people from Group of Eight universities mean when they say ‘we don’t have enough diversity’ is ‘we don’t have teaching-only universities, and therefore we have to share our research money with universities that shouldn’t have it.’ This to me is not a good reason for seeking more diversity.”

Why bother?: Vann rejects the assumption that slugging students for more cash will rocket Australia up the international rankings. “I have previously suggested we might be able to pull this off by merging Melbourne and Monash or Sydney and UNSW, selling one of each of their campuses and investing the proceeds in research. I hate to be a grouch, but personally I’m not even sure what, apart from national bragging rights, would be the advantage of having two universities in the top 20 as opposed to six in the top 100?”

Increased fees will reduce student demand: This will be bad for the supply of skilled labour in the regions, notably in agriculture, engineering and vet science. It could create the risk of “rapid re-regulation” if universities raise fees far and fast.

Poaching: The Group of Eight universities will have the largest scholarship funds (20 per cent of their own fee income) and use the cash to recruit country kids.

And his overall take? “We have a great reputation for being entrepreneurial but I think we would be foolish to think that Charles Sturt University will be unscathed or significantly better off.”

What will ANU do?

It’s not just university administrations who are focusing on the financial impact of deregulation. At the Australian National University the student association has written to Vice Chancellor Ian Young asking in a series of detailed questions how the administration intends to set fees and administer the equity scholarships the Pyne plan prescribes. “How will ANU ensure and demonstrate to students that they are getting real value in their education and student experience?” association president Cam Wilson asks. Good question – a lot more people than the ANU student body will be interested in the answer.

Hep without hip

There was a great piece by Swinburne’s Katharine Betts in The Age yesterday on how people can, and hopeful will, happily keep working into what was once considered old age. It was standard Betts stuff, research not rhetoric base, but I can’t help but wonder if it was not inspired by the evidence of her sometime collaborator Monash demographer Bob Birrell, who at 75 or so is still writing and researching. Admittedly he has finally stopped distance running – proof that hips don’t wear as well as brains.

They don’t make them like Ming anymore

Among the flak Minister Pyne is catching are complaints that he bangs on about R G Menzies being the founder of modern higher education in Australia when, as we are all told, it really was Gough Whitlam. Well some one should tell outgoing president of the Academy of Science Suzanne Cory who praised Ming the Merciless (people under 80 ask your grandparents) in her farewell address yesterday;

Menzies was a great supporter of science and a visionary and strategic thinker. He shepherded the foundation of the Australian National University and established the Australian Universities Commission. … The commission’s recommendations were enthusiastically embraced by government – almost in their entirety – leading to an injection into the university research sector of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Of course only a cynic would suggest she was shaming the present government by comparison but you see how they could get that idea, what with the way she went on to add what a friend Mr Menzies was to CSIRO.

And while she added she was glad NCRIS has funding Professor Cory said she estimated the budget’s overall science spend was below $8.5bn, the lowest in five years. “This budget appeared to be about pulling money from lots of different programs and agencies and then reallocating a fraction of it to others. While acknowledging that science is not alone in its pain, this is not the long-term, stable approach this government promised science before it took power in September.”

I think the general idea is Ming would have been more merciful.