Bad night for education

So much for the campaign to restore university funding. The only thing Kevin Rudd said about universities in last night’s leadership debate was that under Labor, there are, “early 190,000 more kids in university than when we first came to office.  It was not much, but it was more than Tony Abbott offered. The major parties do not see higher education as an issue the voters care about. As the Australian Technology Network’s Vicki Thomson, puts it, “productivity loomed large – they just don’t connect the dots.”

Phony War

There was a Friday flurry at the University of Sydney as labour law academic Professor Joellen Riley resigned from the NTEU, saying the union was dragging out negotiations there as part of a national strategy that did not serve the interests of Sydney staff who want a deal.  If she is right the Sydney unionists who are ready to sign a new agreement have a while to wait, because it looks like enterprise bargaining, just about everywhere, is on hold until the election. Observers say university managements are in no hurry to up offers already rejected by union officers at campuses across the country. Which leaves union strategists with two options, fold or tough it out. To fold now will lock staff into 2 per cent pay rises per annum for the next three years – which is a good deal less than they say their members will settle for. It will also leave managements with the whip hand on other IR issues, notably teaching-only contracts and the conditions of casuals, which make a case for fighting on. Union officers are also digging in for what they fear will be the real blue to come if the Coalition wins the election. They fear an Abbott Government will not only want to cut more money out of the system but also push university managements to exclude the union from negotiations.  Any concession now will be seen as weakness then, some say. The best the NTEU is hoping for is that their Green friends in the Senate hang on and Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie (both endorsed by the union) hold their seats in the House – so the union can claim a mandate for a tough response to whatever the Libs come up with. So what happens next? Expect protests to continue until polling day but the real argument starts the Sunday after whoever wins. After the April cuts the NTEU does not trust Labor anymore.

 Pendulous patrician

There were platoons of academic electoral experts around over the weekend but the palm for predictions goes to Malcolm Mackerras, now a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University.  According to the father of the election pendulum Peter Beattie will not win Forde. “The locals will see he has been parachuted in and they’ll see him as being a premier who carries so much baggage,” Tricky business parachuting with a lot a luggage.

 Mason makes his case

CMM has no idea which shadows will get what substantive seats of power if the conservatives get up but Brett Mason made a solid case for his keeping responsibility for universities if he finds himself a minister after the election. The senator spoke at the University of Western Sydney and delivered a well-crafted claim that the Liberal Party is by definition a friend to higher education. Thus he pointed to Paul Hasluck, poet and minister, historian and governor general. “He bridged the gap between men of action and men of letters; he understood both power and the power of ideas. In a world where intellectuals see politicians as barbarians and philistines, politicians dismiss intellectuals as self-indulgent poseurs, and rarely the twain shall meet, this is a rare feat indeed.”  And he made the too-oft ignored point that it was R G Menzies who set about expanding the university system, 15 years before Gough Whitlam came to power.
It was a speech that went well beyond the operational obsessions with funding ratios Mason will focus on if he is ever in office, arguing the conservatives are interested in more than instrumentalism in education. “Liberal education … is more than just about training, learning, up-skilling and credentialing – although all these are extremely important – it’s about what Germans call ‘bildung’ and can be roughly translated as education, self-development or acculturation.”
It was also a politically astute address in that Senator Mason managed to avoid policy all but altogether. Want to know what the conservatives will do in office, other than the promise to reduce red tape? Apart from the new “Columbo Plan” for contact with Asia there wasn’t a word.

First they came for the record shops …

Paris Cowan reports that at a Sydney conference on Friday academics argued the MOOC model was no threat to elite universities because what mattered most was the brand alumni had invested in. Just as record retailers and booksellers and um, journalists, used to argue that their product was unique. But what if there is a paradigm shift in education, what if employers want evidence of demonstrable competencies in a given field which universities no longer have a monopoly on providing.  Will it drive universities out of business? Who knows. But to paraphrase Stewie Griffen, I’m just asking.

Off to Melsyd 

In Amarillo Texas (as in “is this the way to…?”) high school student Josh Collins is a local hero for winning a scholarship to the University of Melbourne. CMM hopes he wont be disappointed when he arrives though, what with the opera house pictured in the local TV report about his achievement being somewhere else.

Speaking truth to pelf

CMM wonders why the tabloids have not seized on the NTEU’s research on VC earnings, especially the six who declare incomes over $1 million but suspects it is only because everybody is obsessing about the election. Rest assured vice chancellors, the humiliating headlines and outraged opeds will come. Whether the NTEU is wise to compile data on what VCs are paid compared to the modest income increase it is asking for members is another question. For a start there are always anomalies in working out who gets what. And not everybody embraces the old “no-one is worth a gazillion dollars a day” argument anymore, lots of people would not herd academic cats at any price.  Although, that the union found CQU’s Scott Bowman was paid a relatively modest sum in comparison to what his staff is paid might help with the retrenchments. And Charles Sturt’s “energetic Andy” Vann looks a positive martyr for staggering along on the lowest salary in the system, a modest $308,000. Well it’s modest when compared to the million plus packages paid by Melbourne, ACU, Newcastle, Monash, UofQ and Macquarie.
Overall the NTEU comes up with the less than conclusive conclusion that some universities are getting better value for the money the boss is paid than others. But this ignores the obvious question whether VC pay is comparable to their international peers. It’s not, as economists Timothy Devinney and Graham Dowling discovered when  they compared packages for US, UK and Australia university heads back in May. They found that the people who run top British and American universities receive much the same sums but heads of Australian institutions make much more. “There is also no reason to believe that Australian universities are any more difficult to run than major US universities or those in the UK or that the individuals chosen to run the Australian universities possess any special skills that demand greater compensation,” they write.
So how come the bar is set so high here?

Candidate of the day

Former Charles Sturt University psychology lecturer Dr David Mallard is standing for the Greens in Calare. If there is one seat where universities matter this is it, being home to the Bathurst and Orange campuses of Charles Sturt University.

Low impact

Readers with long memories will remember the push to include impact as a measure of research performance during the Gillard era (oh come on, Julia, redhead, used to be PM). According to a not especially enthusiastic paper from the Australian Research Council back in June “key stakeholders including government, industry and the community require more information on the benefits derived from investment in Australian research activities.” But that was 11, or is it 12, ministers back and incumbent Kim Carr is said not to like the idea. However, the conservatives might, what with their being lackeys of capitalism. So the research establishment is explaining why impact is a mistake, lest an incoming Coalition minister have the wrong idea about measuring performance. University of Sydney vice chancellor Michael Spence explains the problems with impact in an opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, (presumably Dr Spence will send Brett Mason and the members of the Coalition higher education working group a copy in case they missed it). “The innovation system functions best when different players contribute in unique ways.  Universities should not perform research like a profit-motivated enterprise would.  And they should not be encouraged to do so by government policy at the expense of their core mission: the generation and dissemination of knowledge to young scholars and the wider world.” CMM suspects the problem might be cuts to research funding in the next budget, whichever side is in power, than how the feds assess what it is spent on.

Message with meaning 

CMM is a fan of whoever makes the University of Ballarat’s TVCs – economic in production and clear in purpose. Like this one for  Open Day. Gold Lions it will not win, but the message “learn to succeed,” actually means something that will interest the market.

Promise of the morning

The ABC reports Health Minister Tanya Plibersek promising money for 60 new medical internships for international students to train the bush. Ms Pilbersek says interns who train in rural areas are much more likely to stay there. Now where has CMM heard that before? Why from Andy Vann, who argues for funding so his Charles Sturt University and La Trobe can create a new medical school in the country. Expect to see the minister quoted, at length.