Plenary pessimism

Universities Australia meets in plenary session today and a sober gathering is expected. While the organisation is impeccably apolitical observers suggest most vice chancellors are more comfortable with Labor ministers and are accordingly gloomy at the state of the polls.

 Bebbington plans to (discretely) expand

Last week’s rumours of course cuts to come at the University of Adelaide turned out to be wide-ish of the mark with VC Warren Bebbington briefing Adelaide media last night on his plan to contain the Emerson budget hit. The VC wants faculties to contain costs and come up with popular new courses (but not new degrees) that will attract more students, without dropping entry scores. He also plans to expand student numbers by 1500 – which may mean a significant assault on the top end of Flinders and University of South Australia’s businesses. With South Australia a steady state market more local students means taking on the opposition. Unless he intends to expand international enrolments, Professor Bebbington is on the record as saying this is a growth source for UofA. It sounds impressive and it is designed to keep campus peace – understandably so. Professor Bebbington’s master plan of a switch to small group intensive classes relies on the cooperation of his colleagues. The question is how will the community respond when they have a chance to digest the plan, which comes in the middle of enterprise bargaining? That the new plan does not call for staff cuts will help.

Labor by a (held) nose

While UA deliberates the National Tertiary Education Union denounces, on this its national day of action.  The union, in alliance with the national undergraduate and postgraduate associations, is mounting protests across the county. But against whom? Obviously the NTEU is not pleased with Labor. “We want to make clear that the April cuts were too much. We are already seeing their ramifications as universities say they can’t now provide a reasonable salary offer,” says national president Jeannie Rea.  
The message Ms Rea wants the country to hear is that it is all very well to increase access to higher education, “you have to give students who are the first in their families to go to university a chance to succeed.”
“It’s a credit to our members and university staff in general that they have done their utmost to maintain teaching and services for students but we have reached the last straw and quality education will suffer,” she told CMM last night.
“We welcomed Kim Carr as a minister for his passion for and understanding of the sector but he has not been able to convince his colleagues to meet Labor’s policy objectives.”
So that’s Labor gone to Gowings. Um, not quite. The union is not all that impressed by the idea of an Abbott government either. “The Coalition has not given an indication that they will treat higher education with any more respect than the last time around. A Coalition win would be a disaster for higher education,” she adds.
So when it comes down to a choice? Ms Rea says she hopes Labor gets up but wants to see the Greens strong in the Senate, which is why the union is supporting the party’s upper house campaign. And there is one electorate where the union is in a win-win position. In the seat of Melbourne the NTEU has a billboard campaign backing Greens MP Adam Bandt – but it will not be too terrible if he loses to Labor’s Cath Bowtell (a one-time NTEU officer). “She is a solid advocate for higher education. The problem is not her; it’s the party around her,” Ms Rea concludes.

Predictions and punditry

Labor preferences may not mean independent Cathy McGowan knocks off Sophie Mirabella in Indi, according to Dominic O’Sullivan. However the Charles Sturt University political scientist says Ms Mirabella faces a fight to hold her seat.
Stephanie Brookes from Monash University is CMM’s Tuesday pundit for explaining (@ The Conversation) what all that texting and tweeting and insta-selfie-gramming (I think I have that right) means. “As the campaign heads into its final weeks, both major parties will continue looking for innovative ways to facilitate a mediatised retail politics that responds to the changing social, technological and media landscape of campaign politics.”  Try explaining that in a tweet.

Say hi to DVC Richelieu 

U 0f Q economist Paul Fritjers explains how universities are run like the royal courts of absolute monarchies and why the scholarly serfs don’t rebel.
“the potential troublemakers lower down – academics – are generally harmless creatures, quite oblivious to what is going on around them. For the most part they keep their noses out of the big fights, concentrating instead on their own little battles with their peers, scrapping for scarce resources. They find pride and self-esteem in their lecturing and their latest research programs, forever congratulating themselves on their achievements and manoeuvrings. As long as they don’t truly challenge royalty they are tolerated. Occasionally, when some of the more politically savvy (or greedy) present a problem to court they can always be assimilated into the ranks of the royals.” Paul de Fritjers, “Universities as royal courts: a fable,” Agenda, 20, 1 (2013) 71-78, 74

A tale of two t-shirts

La Trobe University Bendigo’s open day was interrupted by union campaigning. Bendigo staff wore National Tertiary Education Union T-shirts and handed out leaflets to prospective students.” (Eloise Johnstone, Bendigo Advertiser, yesterday).  Also in The Advertiser: “La Trobe University was awash with redshirted volunteer students yesterday, who helped guide prospective students and their families around the facilities.”

 Making ATARS irrelevant

Whatever analysts announce, no side of politics is going to impose a cap on undergraduate places by setting a minimum ATAR. At least not until Treasury really spooks a government which then lets Finance take an axe to education. For a start, while elite universities would like a cap (as long as they got the money not spent on student spots) this would make the institutions that accept low scoring students cross indeed – and there are fewer of the former than the latter.
But for all the posturing over places there is a real debate underway about increasing student standards and it is thanks to NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli.  While federal Labor has grandstanded all year over the academic ability of teacher education undergraduates Mr Piccoli simply states that he wants a minimum ATAR for anybody who hopes to teach in one of his schools. The deans of education have largely ignored the implication of this, that they are enrolling students who are not up to teaching. But Charles Sturt’s executive dean of the education faculty Toni Downes has flown under the radar to sell an alternative entry strategy to the university’s core community, in rural NSW. Yesterday she told regional newspaper reporter Nicole Kuter that students applying to teacher education with low entry scores could have their applications considered by a selection board of principals.
This is smart stuff, given Mr Piccoli points to school leaders complaining about the academic ability of beginning teachers as a reason for increasing ATARS.  It also builds on a CSU existing alternate entry scheme, which admits “academically talented” students on the basis of a school assessment and report from their principal.  So how does this help kids who are not likely to rack up a high ATAR? The answer is “academically talented” is not a synonym for good at exams. Principals can nominate any student who they consider “a consistent achiever with the potential to succeed in University studies.” Which raises a point I bet Professor Downs is delighted to debate with Minister Piccoli, who is the best pick for a teaching degree, somebody with a high ATAR or a student whose principal reckons has what it takes to teach.

All pals together

Andrew Wilkie (Independent, Denison) and  Senator Peter Whish-Wilson (Greens, Tas) will speak at a forum on the importance of higher education in Tasmania today. Matthew McGowan, assistant national secretary of the NTEU will join them at a wine and cheese function tomorrow (well, it is the civilised south). Makes sense given the NTEU is endorsing (but not directly funding, mind) the senator’s campaign with TV advertising and is also backing Mr Wilkie’s re-election run. But it is a bit tough on Wilkie’s Greens opponent Anna Reynolds, who appears to have missed out on the union’s general support for her party.

History boys, and girls

The short list for the NSW Premier’s history prize is out, with ANU academics Frank Bongiorno and Shino Konishi and La Trobe’s Janet Butler nominated for the Australian category. Bongiorno is there for his The sex lives of Australians while his colleague Dr Konishi is in the running for her The Aboriginal Male in the Enlightenment World. Dr Butler’s book is based on the war diaries of Australian WWI front-line nurse Kit McNaughton.  Other books short listed for prizes that appeal to CMM include two by University of Newcastle historians, Roger Marwick and Euridice Charon Cardon’s Soviet Women on the Frontline in the Second World War and Juliet McIntyre’s history of wine in colonial NSW.  Dr McIntyre research and teaches wine history, which sounds like good fun, at Newcastle.