A bit to be philosophical about

AFP reports the International Federation of Philosophical Societies has just wrapped up its annual meeting in Athens. Undoubtedly this helped indigent Athenians reconcile themselves to privation.

 Demand driven optimism

Conor King is a glass half full sort of bloke, so while CMM yesterday lamented only one mention of universities in the Sunday leaders debate  this pleased the cluey Mr King, who wonders whether it was the first time higher education had ever had a mention on such an elevated platform.  With no demand driven funding disasters to report and the coalition voting for the policy, the Innovative Research Universities strategist suggests the prime minister mentioning 190,000 more undergraduate places was a plus. And not just for the government. According to another observer, the PM’s statement is good news for Coalition supporters of open undergraduate access. Getting the issue unchallenged on the agenda during the campaign will make it harder for conservatives to demand it be dismantled, this celebrated cynic suggests. After all, what free marketer would want to re-impose government control over who gets to study what where?

 CQU staff farewelled

CMM has followed the change process (a calming term for wholesale sackings and cost cutting) at CQU since it started and is impressed with the way Vice Chancellor Scott Bowman has managed the letting of blood by the bucket. To date 160 staff have gone or are going. That only 35 are involuntary redundancies is good news of a sort but overall this is a horrible hit given the place, plus subsidiaries, employed less than 1200 people at its recent peak. Granted, there is general agreement that something had to be done, that the university was in in terrible trouble once the international student boom busted. Even so, while the union could have kicked up, there is no blaming or abuse. Of course this could have something to do with CQU being one of the handful of universities to have signed off on a new enterprise agreement. The university is committed to a 4 per cent per annum pay rise for three years.
This week sees what the latest update of the Formal Change Process plan describes as “post-implementation forum to inform staff of progress and elicit feedback.” Apparently the VC will continue to “acknowledge contributions of outgoing staff.” Which might make everybody leaving feel a whole lot better, given that while they depart surviving staff get a pay rise.  But probably not.

 Comrades campaigning

The National Tertiary Education Union’s election advertisement premieres tonight and the schedule says heaps about the union’s election objectives. It is running in Perth, Adelaide, northern Tasmania and far north Queensland. The first three are obvious choices. In WA Greens senator Scott Ludlam is facing the people. In South Australia his colleague Sarah Hanson-Young looks like she is in a losing race against local hero Nick Xenophon. Launceston and surrounds is the base of Bob Brown’s replacement Peter Whish-Wilson. A “variation” of the advertisement will also run in Hobart, where the union is not backing the Greens but sitting member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie. In Melbourne there are billboards backing rusted on union ally, Greens member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt. This is probably due to cost. You could buy a TV station in Tasmania for the price of a 30 second spot in Melbourne. But why Rockhampton, Townsville, Cairns? Perhaps union strategists in Rockvegas figure the loss of jobs at CQU will make voters receptive in the small community. As for Townsville and Cairns, there is no love lost between the union and James Cook University management, which shows no sign of budging in pay negotiations. Yesterday union negotiator Professor Robyn McGuiggan all but dismissed as irrelevant NTEU threats to increase industrial action, telling the local ABC that work bans to date have not had much impact.

 Ruthless and toothless going nowhere 

Back in 2010 the NSW Auditor General warned the state’s universities would be in strife when their ageing workforces started to retire. “Forty one per cent of academic staff are 50 years or older. This represents a significant proportion of total academic staff who are likely to retire within the next 15 years, potentially resulting in a significant loss of academic skills,”  the AG announced. Um, perhaps not. Peter Bentley has crunched the numbers and found the toothless are ruthless (alright, that’s CMM’s description) when it comes to hanging on at work. In 2006 there were 4,800 academics aged 55-59 while in 2011 there were 4200 in the 60-64 bracket. “The aversion of academics towards retirement is probably indicative of the high levels of satisfaction senior academics gain from their work and their ability to maintain high performance well into what would be considered the twilight years of other professions,” Mr Bentley writes.  Good-oh, but while there is no rush for the exists sooner or later the 40 per cent of academics aged 50 plus are going to give it away and there is a shortfall to replace them, with just 31 per cent of university workers being under 30. “It may be hard to replace these academics if casualisation and the ‘post-doc treadmill’ has dissuaded future academic leaders from remaining in universities,” he points out. It makes a case for better career paths for the army of part-timers that universities now use as an entirely expendable resource.


Griffith University’s Paul Williams gave Sunday night’s debate to Tony Abbott by a nose. ACU’s Scott Prasser agreed, although he added that the opposition leader should quit while he is ahead and not debate Mr Rudd again. Neither expert lamented the absence of higher education as an issue. In deepest greenest Melbourne, where university unionists’ money is being spent to re-elect Adam Bandt, Monash politics lecturer Narelle Miragliotta  thinks on “the balance of probabilities” Cath Bowtell will retake the seat for Labor. Then again Dr Miragliotta also argues “Kevin Rudd’s restoration to the ALP leadership may yet be an electoral game-changer”.

Labs in the lolly

Remember the regiments of researchers who took to the streets protesting against medical science funding cuts in 2011 that never occurred, (probably because the impact of the lab coated legions)? While they packed a prodigious punch in fact there were actually not that many of them. According to new National Health and Medical Research Council stats under 10,000 people earn an income one way or another from council funding. The NHMRC also reports a bunch of intriguing data of what is being researched and where.
Just 15 per institutions receive 85 per cent of funding, with Group of Eight medical schools and the big research institutes dominant. The only other universities in the leaders group are the University of Newcastle ($12 million in 2012) and the University of South Australia ($11 million). As to research; cancer and cardiovascular disease share half the priority area project pot, with $280m between them. At the other end, work on obesity received a touch under $40m while dementia was close to last at a bit over $20m.  But don’t think that the $860m the feds committed in 2012 is enough to go round. Last year one in five research bids were funded with a further 50 per cent being fundable but not making the cut for cash.  CMM suspects you could spend the entire Commonwealth budget on medical research and scientists would still call for more money.

Candidate of the day

Brendan Byron is the Labor candidate for Parkes. The Dubbo Daily Liberal reports the journalism student at the University of New South Wales is running on high speed broadband and encouraging young people to get involved in politics. While he optimistically asserted “only Labor” is interested in … “improving the quality in education,” he did not mention universities. CMM hopes he does not let his studies suffer in the hope of becoming an MP. In 2010 the Nationals’ Mark Coulton won the seat with 59 per cent of the primary vote.