Plus higher ed’s five winners of the week

Greg “goannas” Craven goes on

Greg Craven has another contract extension at the Australian Catholic University, which will take his appointment to 2020. In announcing this acting chancellor Ted Exell detailed the VCs achievements, adding there were more to come in the 2015-2020 strategic plan. Strangely, he did not include the way Professor Craven has lifted the university’s profile though his carefully phrased policy comments. Like his celebrated suggestion in April that allowing private providers to compete for Commonwealth Supported Places in higher education was like “letting a handful of hungry goannas” into the Melbourne Cup.

Winners of the week

This week’s winners are winners for, well, winning. Like Mel Thomson from Deakin University, who won enough crowd funding via Pozible for her project to proceed. Dr Thomson is working on ways to find new drugs to make hip replacements safer in the imminent age of ineffective antibiotics. “Big pharma is not very interested in developing new antibiotics due to rapid evolution of resistance to their very expensively produced drugs. So it is now left to academic researchers in microbiology, like myself, to attempt to develop new treatments,” she says. This is a big win in the way it frees researchers with ideas of popular appeal from the tyranny of selection committees. (For people working on hard to understand projects, not so much.) And like Ryan Hsu, the outspoken apparatchik from the National Tertiary Education Union in Melbourne, re-elected as the Swinburne University branch president and the union’s assistant state secretary. Steve Chapman who now runs Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh won appointment as Edith Cowan U vice chancellor, taking over early next year. And Phillip Crone from Federation U wins respect for the mid-year entry campaign, typical of the university’s student benefit not institution attribute focused work. The “get six months ahead in 48 hours: apply direct for mid-year entry from June 10, and you’ll hear from us in 48 hours,” message is inspired. But the prize for winning something you have to wonder whether is worth winning goes to the University of Wollongong’s Christine Ewan. Professor Ewan won a grant from the Office for Learning and Teaching to work on applying threshold standards in course accreditation and qualification. “The definition of standards is itself a fraught task, largely because the term has many potential meanings and the dialogue is therefore often hampered by ambiguity,” she says. It’s a hard job, but somebody has to do it.

Assessing experts

The Australian Research Council is inviting applications for the 150 member college of cardinals, sorry experts, scholars who advise his ARCness Aidan Byrne. The experts assess and rank competitive grant applications and advise on “emerging disciplines and cross-disciplinary developments.” Members are likely to consider 150-200 funding applications a year (@ $100 reading rate per proposal) plus sitting fees. Details are here.

Citing success

The Thomson Reuters list of the most cited scientists for 2001-13 is out and though it proves nothing much what hack can resist creating a league table? Certainly not this one. At a national level the first thing to note is that when the ARC rates Australian institutions as world class in science it is only because the rating is against a global average, not just the Europe and and American institutions where most of the real work is done. This list makes the point. Some 78 researchers at Australian institutions appear among the world’s top 3200, compared to 1760 from the US and 390 from the UK. If it makes anybody feel better comparable Canada managed 91. While China had 190 entries, much of the period covered was before the massive investment in research got going. In the local market Monash and the University of Melbourne were way in front, just about evenly splitting 21 spots. They were followed by the University of Queensland, plus Adelaide and UNSW. All up Group of Eight institutions were home to around 50 cited scientists. While the University of Sydney is listed as a secondary affiliation for one researcher, that was it for the country’s oldest highest education institution. In contrast UTS, a kilometre up town had two primary listings. There was a surprising spread among other universities. Macquarie led with five, from Wollongong with three and Curtin with two while a bunch of others had single star performers. Demonstrating the strength of medical research, various health science institutes were home to 11 of Australia’s most cited scientists.

MOC not the MOOC

The University of Adelaide has joined the perpetual MOOC motion machine signing on with edX, well behind the early adopters. But rather than slow this seems smart as Adelaide intends to tap new and existing markets. For a start, there are the generic MOOC audiences, although as the university is not saying what it will offer it’s a bit hard to suggest which markets it wants to reach. Being from South Australia you would have to think wine science would be up there, but perhaps not submarine construction. The really interesting aspect of the initiative is using edX for on-campus students. In 2012 Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington launched a new undergraduate education model with lectures and common content provided on line to free resources for small group intensive teaching. It appears that instead of building its own platforms the university will use edX – the pay off for the provider being open access to Adelaide courses. This seems a seriously smart way of containing costs and extending the brand, making a MOOC for the world and a Massive Online Course model for on-campus students.

Costs up, demand down

The Regional Universities Network will hold a conference next week on “regional, agricultural and digital futures” at the University of Southern Queensland. RUN chair Peter Lee warns,“under the government’s proposed changes the cost of an agricultural science degree could rise significantly at the same time that the number of agricultural science students has dropped substantially.” Of course de-regulation would give regional universities a chance to do something about this by cutting costs and reducing course prices to meet the market, but I’m guessing this is not the sort of future Professor Lee has in mind.

Worse than worse than useless

For a moment yesterday it looked like the training establishment had embraced accountability when the National Centre for Vocational Education Research announced this year’s survey of 150,000 students would rate course and college, be they public or private providers. The survey results will appear on the Department of Industry’s My Skills website. But what looks like a way for students to rate providers isn’t. When I checked the NCVER said course ratings will appear at a national level. Whacko! – but knowing that x per cent of aged care or carpentry students all over Australia think their courses are excellent/indifferent/awful achieves sod all because student satisfaction with individual institutions will not be released. For prospective students wanting to know where to study this makes the survey worse than useless, only more so.