Australian Technology Network starts year in the “box seat” he adds

plus Predictive power of the ATAR

and Government says more sub-degree places being considered


Zombie stories never die

“First round offers 2017: securing a spot at university has become more difficult,” The Age announced yesterday. So much for student centred funding and early entry schemes.

Greg we hardly knew ye

Greg Hunt is now health minister, leaving the industry, innovation and science portfolio after a bare six months. Replacement Arthur Sinodinos is the fourth portfolio minister since the coalition was elected in September 2013.

Mr Hunt is a loss, he was across the policy and politics of his previous portfolio, selling science and innovation hard while always asserting they will generate jobs. However, he is by no means lost to the research funding world, with the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Medical Research Future Fund on his new patch.

This still leaves Senator Sinodinos with a full in-tray, a response to the Ferris-Finkel-Fraser review of the R&D tax concession being on top. He also will need to decide what to do about the idea of including more health and social service bids for Cooperative Research Centres, which Mr Hunt has hinted at, (CMM January 16). There is also the new round of CRCs and CRCPs to select. According to Tony Peacock from the CRC Association, the selection committee is done and it is now up to the minister. “It is often the case that CRC selection goes into January. Hopefully, we won’t see it drift into February,” he says. There is always hope.

Dowton quietly continues

The council of Macquarie University has appointed S (for silent) Bruce Dowton to a second term as vice chancellor. Clearly self-promotion was not a KPI for Professor Dowton, if his public profile was any lower it would be subterranean. Professor Downton will quietly lead in lighthouse land until 2024, making his second term twice the length of his first.

Arthur on-song

After every shuffle new ministers always assures us that the new job is is the one they have always wanted but in the case of Senator Sinodinos it might be true. Here’s what he said about innovation in his 2011 maiden Senate speech.”We need more commercialisation here of our own home-grown science and research, including technologies to exploit our alternative energy sources.  … Our workplaces must also embrace a culture of continuous productivity improvement. That means better work practices, more investment in technology and innovation in products, processes and services that will make possible higher real wages and living standards.” He also called for a sovereign wealth fund, so that “more Australian inventions and innovations can be commercialised here rather than abroad.”

ATAR’s predictive power 

University of Queensland Provost Aidan Byrne enters the ATAR argument by pointing to data in the Department of Education’s new report on completions (CMM yesterday). “I am not sure the department’s report quite understands the relationship between the ATAR and completions,” he tells CMM.  “It is clearly not the only factor, other things matter too, ( like part-time vs full-time for instance). But the relationship between ATAR and completions is striking ! In all my time as a physicist I seldom saw a graph that was so straight!” Professor Byrne points to table two in the document which demonstrates that people with an ATAR of 50 have a 50 per cent completion rate, rising in a straight line to 95 per cent completions for the same ATAR. “Amazingly (and coincidentally) the ATAR score is almost the same as the completion fraction!,” he adds.

Not as bad as it looks

Universities Australia was pleading for perspective on yesterday’s news of undergraduate drop-outs, around a third overall according to the Feds. Growth in numbers under student centred funding has not led to an explosion of attrition, UA correctly claimed. People with competing demands, from work and family, were more likely to give the study game away, UA added. Students who stop study return later, it pointed out. Good-oh, but while critics should look to a the sort of students a university attracts before judging its performance on completions this does not get off the hook those where attrition has increased while declining in comparable competitors.

Announcement on the way

On Tuesday Regional Universities Network chief Greg Hill  told CMM that lifting the cap on sub-degree schemes and more uni-prep programmes would help address attrition. It seems Education Minister Simon Birmingham agrees, yesterday saying the government is “looking very carefully … “to support universities in pathway programs, preparation of students going into university, potential expansion of sub-bachelor programs or places, associate degrees and the like, that could provide alternatives to the traditional three or four-year degree model.” Sounds like the first draft of an announcement.

Applauded ATAR

There is no denying the strength of the University of Sydney’ brand. Last night the country’s senior uni announced it “attracted the majority of the state’s top-performing students” with a 46 per cent share of first preferences from people with an ATAR of 99.5 or better. But what’s with emphasising the ATAR? Just about every university with a story to spin was out yesterday selling its entry scores when in November they lined up to agree with the Higher Education Standards Panel which criticised the gaming and complexity of ATARs by universities. “A paradoxical situation has arisen. Entry into universities has become more equitable. Yet there is evidence that families with less experience of higher education, which are economically disadvantaged or live in regional Australia, are less able to understand how admissions processes operate,” HESP argued (CMM November 16).

Robust institutions welcome accountability and competition says ATN outgoing chair 


David Lloyd does not envy the education minister his job, “if Simon Birmingham wants to extract money from the education system he has very few levers to pull,” the outgoing chair of the Australian Technology Network and VC of the University of South Australia says.  But there are all sorts of other issues to address, he adds.

Like the international market, which Professor Lloyd warns cannot be taken for granted. “Global politics are influencing international student behaviour. If all the dominos fall in certain ways, it could be bad for international students and bad for unis. There are no easy wins for government – every path has four or five trapdoors.”

And like expected changes to funding bands for Commonwealth Supported Places. Granted, the most expensive programmes to teach have the greatest rewards, however “changes to discipline bands is a two-way street. While universities have to deliver education as efficiently as possible government can’t cut funding to suit its financial needs,” Professor Lloyd says.

And like the prime minister’s less than universally admired innovation agenda, which Professor Lloyd says is essential. “As a nation of small and medium enterprises on the doorstep of Asia Australia does not have much of a choice. To be globally competitive innovation is the only show in town.”

And then there is the student centred funding, “an investment in the future” which he says government and Opposition must defend. Treasury is interested in cuts and there is a danger the idea will float into politics.”

In contrast to Senator Birmingham’s challenges Professor Lloyd says the ATN starts the year in “the box seat.” “National agencies are coming around to our agenda we are in a good place to be.

Universities are not commercial organisations but they can be pro-commercial. The biggest impact we can have is to consult with industry on the nature of degrees we produce. The quid pro quo is student work placements in industry. I would like to see the system more closely linked to student outputs as in Finland, where outcomes are more than academic performance and include employability and employer perspectives.”

It’s a model that will surely suit Senator Birmingham’s call for an employment focus in education. As Professor Lloyd puts it; “robust institutions will welcome accountability and competition.