Government plans to save $2.8bn from higher education

plus demand driven funding delivering for low SES students

No quality crunch with casuals in the classroom

After a year of enterprise bargaining in WA nothing has happened

Worth quoting

Smart move by Simon Birmingham in quoting Jeffrey Bleich in his speech last night. While the audience did not like much of what the minister had to say about how flush universities are, they adored the Obama appointed former US ambassador to Australia when he spoke at the Universities Australia conference in March.

Casual but professional

Leo Goedegebuure and Peter Bentley from the L H Martin Institute have crunched the numbers and found no evidence that increased teaching by casuals causes a crunch in classroom quality. While Professor Goedegebuure warns that the results are based on limited data, the results, he says, “are pretty robust.”

Goedegebuure and Bentley will present their findings at the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association conference in Sydney this week.

Simon Birmingham is a bit busy with a budget plan to sell scholars into slavery (if hysterics in the gallery are to be believed), but you can bet the news that low-cost casuals do not harm learning and teaching will interest him mightily.

Professor Goedegeburre and Dr Bentley report that between 2007 and 2014 the use of casual staff increased in all disciplines, notably in education, architecture and creative arts with the lowest growth in agriculture and natural and physical sciences.

Looking specifically at management and commerce and natural sciences, they find no correlation between quality as measured in student surveys and increasing use of casual teaching. “If the focus is on improving the student experience, the contract status of staff probably is a very minor factor,” they conclude.

The Birmingham strategy

The Government will save $2.8bn as universities take a hit and students repay more of the cost of study. But the Pyne plan is finally gone for good with 20 per cent funding cuts and deregulated student fees interred. 

Last night Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham announced his long-awaited plan.

The cuts: A 2.5 per cent “efficiency dividend” in each of two years extracted from the main government funding scheme for universities and an increase in the contribution students make under the HELP loan scheme are the core fundraising measure announced Senator Birmingham last night. Government grants to universities will be reduced by 2.5 per cent in 2018 and again in 2019 but the cuts will only apply to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, with research funding exempt. According to Senator  Simon Birmingham the “efficiency dividends” will cost public universities $2.8bn.

No helping debtors: People with university study debt will pay more towards the cost of their courses via their HELP loans and start paying it back on lower incomes.  Increased student contributions will be phased in from 2018 to 2021, when the taxpayer will fund 54 per cent of course costs, down from 58 per cent now. The government claims this will increase the cost of a four-year degree to graduates by $2000 to $3600.

The previous starting salary for study debt repayments will drop from $52 000 to $42 000, at which point graduates will repay 1 per cent of incomes, a move Senator Birmingham described last night as “fair, measured and modest.” However, the new repayment threshold will also apply to people with existing debts and thresholds for increased repayment rates will drop due to the government switching from average weekly earnings as to the slower growing CPI.

Accountability increased: Senator Birmingham also announced moving 7.5 per cent of each university’s Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding into a contestable pool tied to performance. From January universities will be assessed on admissions and financial transparency. From 2019 institutions will also have to meet criteria, to be negotiated, on student retention and “success”. Any funding withheld from a university will be provided to others “better meeting their performance indicators.”

“In a world where universities rather than Canberra bureaucracies determine the number of students they enrol and the disciplines in which they are enrolled there must be a mechanism that ensures accountability to public policy priorities, especially the quality of student outcomes,” the government’s policy paper states.

In a range of related accountability measures the government will include tax data in the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching reports, create cost of delivery reports published by QILT, which will allow institutions to benchmark in ways that are not supported by current financial reporting arrangements, “driving improvements across the sector. It will also support better informed policy decisions and provide students with a better idea of how their fees are being spent,” the government advises.  . There is also more money for TEQSA. And the all but interred HEPPP programme, which some commentators had written off did not die but will continue in the form of a funding pool plus money allocated according to a university’s number of low SES students.

Expanding access: The government will also fund universities to accept students in sub-degree courses, to assist underprepared people to make the transition to higher education. It also “recognises the importance of standalone paraprofessional or technical qualifications, and the flexibility that shorter sub-bachelor courses allow in meeting workforce demand. In addition, it allows industry more input to curriculum design to improve the job-readiness of graduates. “

Senator Birmingham also announced an end to the ad-hoc allocation of funding institutions for masters courses, creating a new student-centric (number unspecified) scholarship programme. But lest the universities of Melbourne and WA have conniptions, the government assures them, there will be “appropriate transition arrangements,” given their current funding agreements support their broad bachelor and professional masters models.

Further and better particulars: What modelling predicts the HELP hike will do to student demand was not apparent  – perhaps it’s in the Budget, otherwise it is going to  be a quiet night for Senator Birmingham. Unless he has a plan for training.

Ticking the boxes: Simon Birmingham is an astutely accommodating bloke – he has to come up with cuts to assuage cabinet colleagues.  But not so large that he sets off the universities, at least not more than their usual outrage. And he certainly does not want a high-profile policy that creates the equivalent of the “$100k degree campaign” that destroyed Christopher Pyne’s plan. But he also wants higher education to adapt to the funding times and the way technology is changing the way it is delivered. Whether you like all, some or none of the detail, in last night’s announcements he ticked all these boxes. In the process, he denied Labor and the Greens a new election issue and probably ensured enough crossbench support for his package to pass.

But there is one big, really big, proposal buried in the detail that Senator Birmingham might be thinking of implementing if he is still minister after the next election. He has commissioned the Higher Education Standards Panel to take a year to review : “the criteria for higher education providers … including the possibility of a teaching-only university category.” And wouldn’t that be a change.

Reaction: Funnily enough Senator Birmingham‘s announcement was a bit late for most of the media last night to chase reactions and reported responses  were spares. But Leigh Sales interview on ABC TV probably summed up early responses  – she focused on the increase in student repayments and then hammered away at why the Birmingham package is so different from Christopher Pyne’s, where were the government’s core values, she wanted to know. A long way behind a desire to make changes that the electorate will accept Senator Birmingham could have, but didn’t reply.

Universities Australia produced a balanced response which probably spoke for much of the sector. UA condemned the funding cuts with CEO Belinda Robinson calling them, “a false economy given the crucial role of universities in economic growth and job creation.” However UA welcomed “positive initiatives on access and equity that will be welcomed by the sector.” 

Begley’s back

Monash and UniMelbourne, JV BioCurate has a first CEO, clinical haematologist and medical oncologist Glen Begley. Dr Begley returns to Australia from California, where he works in biotech.

Demand driven funding delivers says IRU

Among all the anguish over funding, the Innovative Research Universities lobby reports what is still working in higher education – demand driven funding, designed to ensure everybody with the ability and inclination to go to university can. “Some have reversed the intent to argue that if demand driven funding was all about redressing lower access by people from low SES backgrounds it was an expensive way to do so,” the IRU suggests (CMM thinks he means elite uni VCs who dislike DDF).   However, “this argument handily ignores the real growth in the number and proportion of such students.” Thus, the IRU reports higher education participation from people in the lowest SES quartile is now at its highest point this century, 17.7 per cent. And of the 149 000 undergraduate places created under demand driven funding between 2010 and 2015 some 23 per cent went to students from the bottom SES quartile. The IRU has lifted its enrolments of lowest SES students from 18 per cent in 2010 to 21 per cent in 2015. “Members of the Regional University Network and other universities located outside the inner cities have also had strong growth in the number and proportion of low SES students,” the IRU adds. “Outside the inner cities,” huh? Gosh could that be those ‘inner city’ areas which are home to very old and very rich universities which advocate targeted entry schemes to attract low SES students? Schemes, the IRU suggest don’t work. “A focus on highly selective entry notionally targeting the best and brightest, even with financial supports for living costs, has made little difference.”

Spot the flaw

“If you want a reasoned discussion on HE finance data you release the report well in advance of decisions citing it,” Innovative Research Universities Conor King, on Minister Birmingham’s releasing the Deloitte Access Economics report on teaching costs, via Twitter yestreday. True, but since when did government or Opposition want a “reasoned discussion” in the rodomontade of budget season.

Meanwhile, back in the trenches

While lobbies and leaders argue about funding at a national level back in the trenches union and universities are slugging it out as usual. The WA branch of the National Tertiary Education Union points out that enterprise bargaining with the state’s public universities started a year ago but in three of four cases are going nowhere. Murdoch U management wants to roll back terms in the now expired agreement before a new one is in place, which, the union says, would allow the university to reduce employment conditions down the track. Curtin and Edith Cowan managements are demanding concessions on employment terms while offering a salarywell below CPI,” according to the union.

Only at UWA (who would have thought from the restructuring and retrenching new VC Dawn Freshwater) is there a possibility of “constructive” discussions concluding soon.

Not all about Aus

While everybody was lost in the wilderness of budget rumour yesterday a new university alliance demonstrated that Australia is not the epicentre of everything education. The Asian University Alliance was launched on the weekend at Tsinghua University in Beijing. It will, “promote the overall reputation and influence of Asian universities.”  Founding AUA members are: Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, King Saud University, (Saudi Arabia), National University of Singapore,  Nazarbayev University, (Kazakhstan) Peking University, Seoul National University, Tsinghua University, United Arab Emirates University, Universitas Indonesia, University of Colombo, (Sri Lanka) University of Malaya, (Malaysia), University of Tokyo, University of Yangon,  Indian Institution of Technology