Plus Chris Pyne and Penny Wong: (courteous) Questions&(amiable)Answers 

Early morning uproar

So has the Group of Eight withdrawn support for the Pyne Package as The Australian‘s alleges this morning? Mr Pyne‘s office says,  “the Go8 supports the government’s reform proposals. Their own statement says so.” Vicki Thomson, executive director of the Group of Eight agrees saying “we have not withdrawn support for the current package. There are compromises being discussed and we do not support them.” But, and it is a very big big but, Ms Thomson says she does not believe the package the Eight endorses will pass the Senate and “it is time to press the reset button ” with a funding review. The Australian, despite a screaming headline that overstates the Eight’s opposition reflects this. Mr Pyne‘s office held the line this morning. “The sector has faced 33 reviews since 1950 and another review is not a substitute for action. The government does not plan another review. The government has the right policy for higher education and we will continue to press it,” a spokesman said.

Spot the difference

“Top tips for surviving uni and a zombie apocalypse at La Trobe can be found in the 2015 Student Survival Guide,” the LT SU promises. Says something about La Trobe that you need a guide to distinguish campus life from a zombie onslaught.

ANU new 4

Courteous questions and answers

Chris Pyne got a much fairer hearing on Q&A last night than last year, when he was shouted at by chanting protestors – there was even a question to Labor’s Penny Wong that was sympathetic to the minister and a statement from the floor that suggested it was better to be “a fixer than a faker”. It was largely a standard exchange, $100 000 degrees versus expanded access and quality but it was all civil enough. Except, perhaps, for host Tony Jones who asked Mr Pyne if he wanted to jump in on a flippant remark by US singer Michael Franti about politicians and Viagra. “That was mean Tony,” Senator Wong said.  “I’m used to it,” Mr Pyne just audibly and resignedly replied.

ATN forges industry links

The Australian Technology Network has gone very quiet for six months or so, with the lobby leaving the deregulation debate for others to argue. However the ATN broke cover yesterday, albeit on another issue, publishing a position paper on university-industry collaboration. It’s an issue that is obviously important to the five applied research-focused ATN members, in 2012 the lobby cooperated with the Group of Eight on ways to measure research impact. But on industry funding it seems the ATN prefers to go it alone with a strategy that obviously appeals to government – Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane launched the paper yesterday.

The direction of the document is certainly in-line with Mr Macfarlane’s push for closer university – industry links and research priority areas. The ATN also suggests that established research metrics, notably the ARC’s Excellence in Research for Australia, which reward the research strong Go8, are part of the problem.

“Research excellence, as recognised by journal publications and citations, is the criteria on which universities are ranked amongst their international peers. … As such, universities place a high value on publications as a measure of research quality and impact. Yet there is little incentive and no imperative for these publications to focus on collaborative research; there is no weighting to industry-research engagement or even research outcomes such as job creation, patents and product income.”

The ATN also proposes change in the way the feds distribute Research Block Grants (something the government is already looking at) in ways which will assist the technology specialists and irritate the Eight.

“(The RBG scheme) is allocated via a series of complex formulae, which rewards universities with a strong performance in traditional measures of research ‘excellence’ such as publications and income derived from competitive research grants. … Data used in the Research Block Grant funding model which recognises ‘industry engaged’ research (supported by non-Australian Competitive Grants) is less significant than the component recognising research excellence. To create a better balance between academic excellence and industry engagement – and realising that good commercial outcomes arise from quality research – we recommend that the government rebalance the RBG to provide more incentives for industry engaged research.”

It is a comprehensive, credible document with few surprises or omissions, although it seems strange that the government’s budget proposal to charge postgrads in the Research Training Scheme did not rate a comment. But it would not be a lobby wish list without one magic pudding proposal, – making it possible for self-managed and retail superannuation funds to invest in “early stage R&D.”

Universities Australia sort of welcomed the ATN plan yesterday, calling it “a valuable contribution” (perhaps they have a ban on hyperbole) but the interesting responses, if any, will be from Australian Research Council chair Aidan Byrne and the Group of Eight.


Madison Avenue, North Ryde

Last September Macquarie University was very pleased with its new corporate identity, including reclaiming the lighthouse named for NSW hero, early 19th royal governor Lachlan Macquarie, as the central element of its livery and affirming the university’s original positioning, “created to challenge the educational establishment Macquarie is the training ground of new generations of audacious world citizens and community leaders.” (CMM September 14). The rebranding was the work of agency PUSH Collective, which is still working on the relaunch. But six months on another agency, 303Lowe, has won the university’s student recruitment business after a competitive pitch. Given the likely billing split I know which one I would rather have. No wonder Don Draper drank.

Ombudsman in order

Rod Camm, head of for-profit training lobby ACPET says it is time for a national training ombudsman, given “complexity, fragmented funding approaches, information asymmetry and high prices,” in the various state training markets. There’s another reason, the industry urgently needs to demonstrate that students are protected from shonks and spivs, if only to ensure for-profit trainers do not end up in court. And with the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission investigating cases of people being sold courses when they did not understand content or cost there has to be a good chance of looming legal action. This is especially so given for-profit trainers have blamed rogue agents for cases of badgering or beguiling people into enrolling inappropriate courses. This did not help Origen Energy yesterday when it was fined $2m yesterday, in part for actions of sales staff employed by an agent.

Here’s hoping

Crossing your fingers can change your sense of where pain actually is, according to Patrick Haggard and colleagues at University College London.

Murdoch struggles to commit

What is it with interim appointments at Murdoch University? Former VC Richard Higgott, left last October, following news that he was being investigated by the Western Australian Corruption and Crime Commission. He was replaced, on an acting basis, by then PVC Andrew “the stroller” Taggart – who is still managing by walking around. Then HR Director Karen Lamont’s decision to leave was announced in February, she goes this week. Her replacement, ex University of Western Australia HR director Bob Farrelly, to be announced this week is also an interim appointment.

Murdoch top managers do not like making decisions about money either. The university’s hundred or senior staff not covered by its enterprise agreement are supposed to have annual salary reviews in December. At least some of last year’s haven’t happened and staff suspect that a decision on when or if, they will occur is also on-hold.


Insert names of under-performer here

“Declines in recent national and international assessments have spawned tasks forces and calls for improvement,” in school education, Thomas Hatch reports in International Education News. And in what failing nation? In Finland! – Ye gods where will we look now for comparisons to show how crook our schools are?

Warning DVCs R – the jig is up

Thanks to the reader who pointed me at a letter in The Age on Friday by one Bryan Lewis, who pointed to a university problem that dare not speak its name, at least when VCs are explaining how underfunded they are. Mr Lewis argues that as university students are cheaper to teach than school kids, “they carry much less financial burden in regard to meeting supervision and duty of care requirements. Logic says (unis) should be able to educate a student at a much lower cost.” Given this, Mr Lewis asked, why is money meant for higher education students being spent on other functions, notably research. Let us hope no one ever gives him a copy of Warren Bebbington’s paper making a case for high-quality teaching only- institutions.

Very detailed performance data

A month back a survey of the European University Association’s U-Multirank revealed participating institutions found it cumbersome and prone to problems with data, just like all the other rankings (Campus Morning Mail March 4). But the idea of such a ranking, which compares similar institutions on attributes they share, appeals immensely to people who loathe the idea of commercial first to last league tables and the EUA perseveres. And so the new edition of Multirank is out, with data from 1200 universities in 80 countries. Certainly it is frustrating to use but there is an enormous amount of data for those with the imagination to interrogate it and it is refreshingly free of “world’s top 100 universities for lacrosse and physics” lists.

Blather award

For this morning goes to the University of Plymouth for its “Tone of Voice” which is “vibrant, innovative and excellent,” the guide to talking in it is here. But what does it mean? Whatever the university wants. As comms consultants Lewis and Carroll put it; “when we use a word it means just what we choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”