A budget with an intensely political purpose

Supporters of the status quo in higher education got what they wanted in last night’s budget – no structural change to the student funding system.

But they paid a price for peace with carefully calibrated cuts to infrastructure spending, notably the Sustainable Research Excellence in Universities program (on top of previous reductions), which funds indirect costs of research. Universities are especially annoyed by this because the reduction will be hard to see in the bright light of the promised continuation of the National Collaborative Infrastructure Strategy and the surprise announcement of a new (albeit reduced) Future Fellowship round (below). In effect the government is funding researchers but saving on the equipment they use.

And, as promised, last year’s 20 per cent cut in money per Commonwealth supported student place, which is meant to be made up by universities charging students fees,  is still there, as of,  the now administratively and at present politically impossible, start date of January 2016.

The end result is intense irritation among peak university groups.

“For 12 months, universities and students have been in a holding pattern of policy uncertainty. In the interests of students having the information they need to make one of the most important decisions of their lives, the future of the (deregulation) bill must be addressed as a matter of urgency,” Universities Australia Belinda Robinson said last night.

“This budget takes us nowhere nearer the goal of the reforms that we support,” the Group of Eight’s Vicki Thomson added.

The other lobby groups agreed.

“The budget is … a holding pattern, waiting on the resolution of the reform impasse,” Conor King  from the Innovative Research Universities group said last night.

The Regional Universities Network welcomed NCRIS continuing but pointed out that sustainable funding was stalled in the parliament.

Last night interest groups all had one message, that after 12 tough months the government is piling on the pain.

On top of the SRE slug the Cooperative Research Centres take a second hit after last year (although Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane’s coming statement may address this one way or another). And then there is an ambiguous outcome for campus classrooms. The Office of Learning and Teaching is gone but there is $28m for the Department of Education to spend on its function.

But what is immensely irritating on campus will not generate much attention off and last night Education Minister Chris Pyne focused on school funding, lifting teacher quality, there is $17m to implement the recommendations of Greg Craven‘s report, and the financially insignificant move to collect HECs from people living overseas. All of which will be popular in the broader community.

A start (admittedly just $10m) to the Medical Research Future Fund from Health Minister Sussan Ley will also be received as a sign the government is committed to research (nothing impresses voters more than scientists working on cancer cures).

The government also pointed to its VET reforms, now being rolled out by Training Minister Simon Birmingham, replete with references to billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs for young people.

The result is a budget that takes post school education, and research, off the top of the Question Time fight card – and that is the minister’s purpose.

There is no doubt that Mr Pyne still believes deeply in deregulation and now he has bought another year to negotiate it through the Senate. It leaves universities still standing, but worse off, especially in terms of research infrastructure.

And they are sick of it.

“We are on our feet but the funding noose is still around our neck – universities simply cannot go on like this,” a veteran policy analyst said last night.

That Mr Pyne agrees the funding model must change has been clear for 12 months. What we learned last night is just how determined he still is to do the changing.

Future Fellowships survive

In a move not set out in the budget papers the government has committed to continuing the Future Fellows scheme, offering 50 four-year appointments in 2015.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne is expected to announce what amounts to a half round of Future Fellows in coming weeks. This will keep the programme active while the higher education reforms remain in the Senate.

Mr Pyne had tied the Future Fellowship programme to the Senate passing his deregulation legislation and the research community had written the fellowships off. However a spokesman for Mr Pyne says, “the government remains committed to the Future Fellows programme continuing and it will remain a part of the higher education reform legislation.”

The programme joins the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy as a target for cuts, which has survived.

The Future Fellows programme was established in 2008 to keep brilliant mid-career Australian researchers from moving overseas and to lure home others who had. It was originally intended to wind up from 2013, with that year’s expected to be final appointments. However it was reprieved for a year that May. Mr Pyne then announced 150 new fellowships in the Abbott Government’s first budget last year.

This should please the Australian Academy of Science, which highlighted Future Fellows in its budget submission, arguing “the scheme has revolutionised Australia’s ability to attract and retain the very best mid-career researchers. In many cases these researchers will go on to become the international scientific leaders who ensure that Australia contributes to and benefits from critical breakthroughs in knowledge and understanding across all fields of science.”

Last night there was widespread speculation that the Future Fellow funding would come from a new cut to the Australian Research Council however CMM understands the ARC did not take a new hit this year, and funding reductions that appear in the budget papers are the second instalment of 2014 cuts.


 Hilarity trumps hush

“Live comedy in the library every evening this week,” Uni Melbourne’s Rowden White Library promises. Guffaw quietly please.

 Compact answer to grad unemployment

While everybody was getting overexcited about an underwhelming budget Amanda Rishworth gave us less a broad than expansive hint of Labor’s plans for the sector. Not that the shadow assistant minister for higher education was setting out policy mind, but her ideas on graduate employment are a compact guide to Labor thinking.

Ms Rishworth also nails the big education issue at the election after next, graduate un and underemployment. Complaints about degrees not delivering dividends are a political perennial in the US and grievance here will grow as demand driven funding pumps more graduates into the job market. Thus Ms Rishworth warns, “our graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to find employment once completing their studies. … more must be done to ensure that graduates are prepared for work after graduation.”

But what? Why, work integrated learning of course. This Ms Rishworth explains “is a practise whereby universities partner with employers to provide placements and practical industry experience to university students. It is designed to improve employment outcomes for our graduates.” And while universities have industry – employment programmes government needs to step up. This is what Chris Pyne should be doing instead of dreaming about deregulation. “Centralising and standardising work integrated learning through the Department of Education as a gateway for universities and employers is just one way government can demonstrate their leadership and commitment to improved graduate employment outcomes.”

Another way that occurs to Ms Rishworth is for the government to develop industry specific programmes. “Christopher Pyne should be busy hosting roundtables between universities, industry and employers in coordinating and developing a sensible industry specific work placement agenda, helping build university to industry relations and developing a coherent national work placement framework.”

This sounds like a policy song Kim Carr could sing, indeed he has, telling the Universities Australia conference in March; “in return for public investment, Labor expects universities to work with the Commonwealth to help address national and regional priorities in education and the labour market. The key to making this partnership work is to find a balance between institutional autonomy and accountability for the use of taxpayers’ funds.”

And what could a Labor government call Ms Rishworth’s government-university agreements on student employment in industry? What about compacts?

ANU new 4

Too late to celebrate

It’s just a week to International Clinical Trials day and the NHMRC wants to know how we are all going to celebrate. Bit late now, there’s not enough time to get approval from the ethics committee for any half way entertaining experiment.

Lomborg gone but questions of judgement remain

The Fin’s harrumphing editorial yesterday criticising the university community and the oped on the facing page by staff association head Raymond da Silva Rosa will likely be the end of the Lomborg consensus centre controversy at the University of Western Australia. But the issue now permanently on the agenda is management judgement. “Who did the reputational risk assessment and due diligence and what did they say,” NTEU Western Australian secretary Gabe Gooding asks.

Brain spice

Swinburne wins university research of the year” SU shouts and it indeed it has – just not for anything that will knock UniMelb out of the number one spot on all the rankings. The university’s Katherine HM Cox, Andrew Pipingas and Andrew B Scholey took the prize at the Nutraingredients Awards in Europe (it’s a diet and nutrition supplements industry website). They won for a paper on curcumin’s effect on old peoples’ cognitive function and mood. Do not; as CMM did, think curcumin is a longer name for cumin, they are entirely different. Is this too late for Swinburne’s ERA submission?