They’re still standing

From deregulation to innovation, from VET FEE helpless to the arrival of impact, 2015 was a knockout mix of policy and politics. Here’s CMM’s pick of some of the higher education and training veterans who got knocked down but got up again.


Sharon Bird: Labor’s training shadow minister hammered away at the VET FEE HELP crisis all year, correctly denouncing the government for not doing enough to stop spivs exploiting the state. But she and her senior colleague Kim Carr also pushed for policy – making the case for a voced student ombudsman. In fact she did so well everybody seems to have the VET deregulation mess originated with Labor governments.

Simon Birmingham: First the frypan of training then Malcolm Turnbull dropped Simon Birmingham into the fire of higher education. But the senator stayed cool, defusing the deregulation debate, without actually announcing the policy is off the agenda. As MYEFO made clear yesterday, nothing will happen until after the election but if the minister is in place in a year’s he will push for funding change. By then CMM suspects “sofly softly Simon” will have calmed the debate down to the extent that a slimmed down version of the original Pyne package might have a chance of passing the Senate.

Scott Bowman: The vice chancellor of CQU with his plan for world domination, starting with Queensland. Professor Bowman makes the most of what he has got to expand higher and further education access for people who now do not have much of a shot. CQU was broke when he took over and now it is growing and (despite malevolent rumours to the contrary) the university improved it s ERA rating.

Aidan Byrne: For much of the year the Australian Research Council looked like yesterday’s research funding agency, sticking to output as advocates of impact made the running. But at year’s end chair the ARC is in a position of power, set to drive the impact agenda in conjunction with its next Excellence for Research in Australia. How did this happen? You need to ask chair Aidan Byrne – but then again don’t bother, he will very politely not tell you. This is a bloke who (as Lin-Manuel Miranda put is) “talks less and smiles more.”


Kim Carr: Labor’s portfolio shadow did more than denounce deregulation this year; he set out an alternative to the consensus on unmet demand and fee deregulation (as long as the feds fund it). Senator Carr wants more money for universities, an independent higher education regulator and studentt funding linked to the ability of individuals and the needs of the economy. While the left likes them all VCs are more cautious but if the senator is allowed to stick to his sell Labor will go to the election with a clear policy.

Ian Chubb: The retiring chief scientist (as in leaving the job, not as in shy) has had a boomer of a year. He has played a big role in putting science, research and education both, centre stage – an unprecedented achievement. And he successfully sold the government’s priority research areas and its emphasis on applied research. So successfully that much of the old guard are only now realising that times have changed. Successor Alan Finkel has firm foundations to build on.

Greg Craven: The Australian Catholic University VC has gone uncharacteristically quiet in recent months but that may be because he accomplished so much for teacher educating universities, like his, early in the year. The work of his Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group successfully made a case for regulation but one that stopped short of minimum entry scores for education degrees. The resulting regulatory framework, released on Monday by the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, is tough but still leaves universities in control of how their education faculties teach.

Leanne Harvey: Anybody who has looked at the Australian Research Council’s Excellence for Research in Australia knows what a huge job the new edition is – especially as a second volume will appear next year. So good on the ARC’s executive GM, representing the entire team, that worked on this enormous analysis Australian research.

Emily Hilder: Research chemist Emily Hilder moved from the University of Tasmania to the University of South Australia where she is director of the Future Industries Institute. With 124 publications and $17m in ARC funding in a decade her applied research emphasis is what the feds want and what the SA economy needs.

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Conor King: The executive director of the Innovative Research Universities group has done what he does best this year, influenced the policy debate by ensuring all the arcane issues are on the agenda. While he would never admit to it, his work for the Watt research funding review heavily influenced at least one key outcome. He also got involved in one public dispute –taking on Kim Carr over demand driven funding. He does not talk much but people listen when he does.

Linda Kristjanson: Swinburne finally got its act together this year, negotiating peace with the National Tertiary Education Union. VC Kristjanson may not have enjoyed cosying up to the comrades but she did what was needed so that the university could go after productivity improvements from academic staff, redesign its suite of higher education courses and expand a student focused work-integrated learning programme. Swinburne starts ’16 in a vastly improved condition.

Eeva Leinonen: The incoming VC of Murdoch University makes the list less for what she has achieved at the University of Wollongong than for her willingness to have a go at the mess that is Murdoch U. While Andrew Taggart did his best to set a new course after Richard Higgott’s departure his acting title meant much was on hold. Professor Leinonen has a job to do.

David Lloyd: With a focus on providing accessible education for young people on his patch and building a research profile for his University of South Australia VC David Lloyd is one to watch. He made some astute hires this year and his comments at the Times Higher conference in Melbourne stood out for a sense of service among the institutional triumphalism. But surely his big win was the creation of a bi-annual $100 000 scholarship for cultural research funded by the estate of the late author Terry Pratchett – in perpetuity!

Lara McKay: Most university corporate campaigns are as average as they are interchangeable. Swap brand names on most and nobody will notice. But not the University of Melbourne’s “Collision” brand strategy, which shamelessly asserts research leadership. The creative is good and the strategy better – both the result of a brilliant brief. It’s an impressive achievement for everybody involved, notably marketing director Lara McKay.

Andrew Norton: This year was like every other for the Grattan Institute policy observer, his analysis of higher education funding kept all sides of the funding debate within sight of sanity, although his habit of asking difficult questions he already had answers for drove people with patches to protect nuts. Sometimes people in power try to ignore him, as with his paper this year suggesting universities would not be underfunded for teaching if they stopped using this money to support for research. But this never works. Mr Norton identifies and explains issues, which do not go away.

Tony Peacock: If there was ever evidence that things work out in the end for people who keep plugging away it is the cooperative research centres as represented by their association head Dr Peacock. Cuts come and he keeps making the case for his members, money is restored and he does the same. At year’s end the CRCs are in their strongest position for years – a new round of offers is imminent and applied research, which is what CRCs exist to do, is centre of the government research agenda.

Christopher Pyne: Yes there is the minor matter of defeated deregulation but while Christopher Pyne gets knocked down he gets up again and has adapted fast to his new science and innovation portfolio. Giving money away must be much more fun than taking it back. How fortunate that he never cancelled NCRIS.

Peter Radoll: Professor Radoll was a motor mechanic for 11 years before starting to study at the University of Canberra, where he took bachelor and masters degrees. He went on to do a PhD at ANU and is now back at UoC as dean of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership and Strategy.

Jeannie Rea: You do not have to agree with the National Tertiary Education Union president to recognise the brilliance of the campaign she led to defeat deregulation of undergraduate fees. Once the “$100 000 degrees” warning got into the heads of parents with kids now in high school deregulation as presented by Christopher Pyne was gone. Sure it came down to the Senate crossbench, but they got the idea that deregulation was political poison from the NTEU. The union was not alone in this campaign but its rallies and social media, speeches and online advertising was always on-song. And Ms Rea was always on message – like it or not, the union’s effort personified by her is a casebook for comrades who want to stop policy. CMM suspects the health unions were watching.

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Belinda Robinson: Perpetually poised, elegantly assertive, the Universities Australia chief executive exudes authority and evidence when making a case. That the uncertain coalition she represents stayed solid so long in support of deregulation demonstrates her capacity to convince. She also has a great sense of political timing, recognising deregulation was off and research and innovation on before ministers started avoiding the former and applauding the latter. She did not solely script the central role universities are now supposed to play in transforming Australia into an innovation economy, but her strategy for UA certainly helped.

Michelle Simmons: Last year CMM reported Professor Simmons as an achiever for progress with her UNSW colleagues towards a quantum computer. Not much has changed, apart from ever more money being invested by governments and business in their work and progress that CMM is not smart enough to understand. When CMM first interviewed Professor Simmons she was about to have a baby – that child is close to ten now. Just because quantum computers will be/could be fast beyond what we can now imagine does not mean that creating one is quickly done. For her patience and commitment Professor Simmons is a STEM star for all women researchers.

Deborah Terry: The Curtin U VC keeps her head down and achievements up. This year she has secured a deal with the Freemantle Dockers, quietly consolidated in Perth by bailing out of a joint venture in Sydney and in May was awarded a medical school. No, CMM need not say more. Except of course for the university’s big improvement in the ARWU rankings. Analyst Kylie Colvin calculates Curtin U rocketed up the rankings in this year’s issues rising from 302 to 271.

Vicki Thomson: Vicki Thomson set a high standard as head of the Australian Technology Network secretariat, one she has exceeded in her first year representing the Group of Eight. It seems to CMM that she accepts that as most other universities dislike the eight she may well make her members’ case as forcefully as possible. Which she does, using every opportunity to explain how they are the firstest with the mostest on just about every metric that matters. She is also building the brand, in London last week working with investors on a research commercialisation fund. And last night she received the Insignia of the Knights in the Ordre de Palmes Academiques (no less) from the French Ambassador.