Birmingham sticks to script: cuts are affordable

plus: Coaldrake and Stedman on what universities can do when money is tight

Chief Scientist’s STEM star set to shine


science awards season: the winners in Queensland and South Australia

Balanced diet

Last week Monash U was promoting hot jam donuts, waffles, marshmallows and a “chocolate fountain” on campuses. But now the university is announcing “healthy vending machines,” which offer green rated snacks and drinks. This is part “of Monash University’s efforts to be recognised as a healthy workplace.” Perhaps the chocolate fountain machine is gummed up.

 Greater expectations, lower resources  

With government “equivocal” universities need to find funding solutions Peter Coaldrake warns

In a major statement of the present and imminent condition of Australian higher education QUT VC Coaldrake and long-time policy colleague Lawrence Stedman warn the challenge for universities is becoming tougher, that while they enjoy community support “because they prepare people for the world of work, that world is changing fast.”

And while community expectations are becoming harder to deliver easily accessed resources are diminishing. The low hanging funding fruit was picked way back, they write in a new paper, prepared for a QUT lecture by Professor Coaldrake.

Nor will calling for more Canberra cash cut-it. “Vice chancellors have put the case for better funding for university teaching and research to governments over the years with varying degrees of logic, self-interest and bluster and have evidently failed to cut through … Society has never needed universities to be more effective and persuasive, but government is equivocal in its support.”

Coaldrake and Stedman also warn universities should not increase community expectations of what they can accomplish; “universities have been quick to champion predictions that many jobs of the future will require degrees, but many other jobs will not, and in the face of ongoing workforce disruption we need a robust and flexible training sector to enable an ongoing supply of relevant skills and adjustments to changing circumstances. … University policy should not be seen as independent of wider tertiary policy, all the more so as it crosses into sub-bachelor territory.”

But if governments will not fund the system properly they can at least keep out of the way.

“Government needs to steer a path between deregulation and heavy-handed interventions such as metric-based performance incentives that are supposed to entice universities in directions preferred by the government of the day.”

So what is to be done? Coaldrake and Stedman have six suggestions, set out at the end of today’s issue

ASQA appointment

Irene Ioannakis is appointed a commissioner of the Australian Skills Quality Authority. She joins Chief Commissioner Mark Paterson and the modestly monikered Professor the Honourable Michael Lavarch.

Dr Ionnakis has a background in training in WA. She joins from energy company Chevron.

Adding to achievement

Ian Gibson was building the base of additive manufacturing 25 years ago

Deakin University professor Ian Gibson has won the Freeform and Additive Manufacturing Excellence prize, for work which started when 3-D printing was beginning. Professor Gibson founded the Rapid Prototyping Journal a generation back and wrote the book on AI, co-authoring an industry manual that has sold a quarter of a million copies since 2009.

He found FAME at the Solid Freeform Fabrication Symposium in Austin, Texas last week.

CAUL chief continues

Margie Jantti has a second term as president of the Council of Australian University Librarians. She is library director at the University of Wollongong.

STEM STAR shines

A new resource for school maths launches Wednesday

The Chief Scientist’s STARportal, “that connects students with STEM activities,” opens this week. Dr Finkel first floated the idea a year back when he proposed a resource for school students which would be “a powerful online repository that is easy to access, easy to search – in fine-grain detail – and easy to post reviews” (CMM July 4 2016). Industry, Innovation and Science Minister Arthur Sinodinos will do the honours in Canberra.

Simon says, it’s simple

Education Minister Birmingham is sticking to his script. Total university revenues have increased and all he is asking is for vice chancellors find some modest savings. But this is not the bit that alarms universities most

The Education Minister is less responding than ignoring higher education experts’ swathes of statistics which they say show he is making permanent cuts to public funding for higher education. Instead Senator Birmingham continues to argue (a) there is still an overall increase in funds (b) universities can find efficiencies and (c) did he tell you there are more funds? Universities funding will still be “higher in real terms than in several of the last few years,” he told Ashleigh Gillon on Sky News.

This drive university lobbies nuts, they respond that while income from students will increase, when it comes to the feds; down, down, funding is down. But Senator Birmingham isn’t engaging. Instead he presents as the voice of reason and moderation; “there is absolute capacity there for universities who have, nowadays, record numbers of students enrolled in them, have seen strong growth in their funding over recent years, at more than twice the rate of the economy in terms of growth in many circumstances, to be able to find some efficiencies to deal with a slightly lower rate of growth for a couple of years.”

The minister is using the same strategy to sell his proposal to tie some funding to performance metrics, which many VCs really hate – some because the measures they might have to meet are not announced and some because they fear that they will lose money on whatever are adopted. To which the minister replies he is acting in the interest of students and how can universities complain about that? “Next year, all they’ll need to do to get their share of the performance funding will be to successfully undertake and implement that which they’ve promised to do in relation to admissions practices.” And down the track, Senator Birmingham says, all he wants unis to do is work with government to, “come up with the right type of incentive to ensure that unis are focusing on student success, student learning that leads to students getting great employment outcomes at the end of their degrees.”

Easy to say, hard to do, but it certainly sounds reasonable – which is what the minister wants. When universities go to see senate cross benchers they will have complicated cases and many, many sets of numbers. The minister will take what he sells as sweet reason and common sense. Those, and his undertaking to Ms Gillon when she asked if any campuses will be forced to close, “there is absolutely no need for such things to occur.”

Monash appointment

Naomi Stead will become head of architecture in Monash Art Design and Architecture in January. Professor Stead joined MADA earlier this year.

Never on this Sunday

JCU unionists boycotted Open Day

Union members at James Cook University’s Townsville campus did not participate in yesterday’s Open Day. They banned the event as part of their enterprise bargaining campaign. “Our members are usually willing to give up their weekend for free to participate in Open Day. But while university management continues to push for changes which may result in increased workloads for staff, along with a below-inflation pay offer, our members have no other option but to impose this ban,” National Tertiary Education Union Queensland secretary, Michael McNally said on Friday.

science awards season

The Queensland Young Tall Poppy Science Awards were announced on Friday night

Crop scientist Lee Hickey from the University of Queensland-is YTP Scientist of the Year.

Other winners include: Anjali Jaiprakesh (QUT-robotics), Sandip Kamath (James Cook U-allergy and clinical immunology), Indira Prasadam (QUT-musculoskeletal research), Ian McLeod (James Cook U-coastal restoration), Emily Callander (James Cook U – health economics), Tom Bridge (conservation biology – Queensland Museum Network), Ken Dutton-Regester (melanoma genetics- QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute), Alienor Chauvenet (conservation science-University of Queensland), Christopher Doropoulos (CSIRO, marine and estuarine ecology), Tom Bridge (corals-Museum of Tropical Queensland), Mostafa Rahimi Azghadi (electrical engineering-James Cook University),

The South Australian Science Awards are also out

The state’s scientist of the year is infectious diseases researcher James Patton (University of Adelaide)

Young Tall Poppy of the Year: Laura Weyrich (microbiome researcher-University of Adelaide).

Excellence in Research Innovation: Australian Centre for Visual Technologies, University of Adelaide and LBT Technologies.

STEM Professional: Duncan Taylor, Forensic Science SA.

STEM Educator of the Year-tertiary: Claudia Szabo, University of Adelaide

STEM Educator of the Year-schools: Thierry Herman, Le Frevre High

PhD Research Excellence: Joel Fuller, University of South Australia

Unsung hero-science communication: Ian Musgrave, University of Adelaide

ACT award

ANU plant biotechnologist Kai Chan is the ACT Scientist of the Year. He arrived at the university from Malaysia in 2007 and takes up a postdoctoral fellowship in Europe next year.

Credit worthy

The government says the new VET scheme is working

The feds are very pleased with the first six months of the new VET loan scheme, with assistant voc ed minister Karen Andrews pointing to a 10 per cent lift, to 75.2 per cent, in unit completions. This demonstrates the importance of only loaning money for fees to students “at high quality providers,” she says.

Nursing is most popular with 3500 enrolments followed by childhood education, community services, screen and media and beauty therapy.

Self help

Coaldrake and Stedman’s six-point plan for focusing on the future  

If government will not give universities the resources they need to meet community expectations Peter Coaledrake and Lawrence Stedham have six suggestions

(i) don’t rely on more overseas students to “fill funding gaps”. Packing them in “involves real risks of budget over-reliance, compromise of course quality and campus experience, and wider threats to institutional and national risk profile”

(ii) “get serious about understanding costs

(iii) more selective research, “both in internal investments and external applications

(iv) “a hard-headed approach” to teaching and learning investment, “not swayed by fads but not allowing tendencies towards local diversity and inherent conservatism to dominate

(v) “continuing reform in handling of academic work from promotions to role specialisation

(vi) universities must demonstrate they take workplace change “seriously”. This means “institutional-level at-scale approaches to work skills and development and ability to adapt and to use technology.