How to vote in Vic

The Victorian branch of the National Tertiary Education Union asked parties running in the state election whether they backed eight core union objectives, including preference for unionised labour, more funding, regulation of VC salaries and improved “representative democracy” in institutions. The Victorian Socialists and The Greens responded with perfect scores and Labor was in favour on all issues except VC pay. The union says the Liberals and Nationals did not respond.

A free speech inquiry that really matters

The Ecological Society of Australia has commissioned a survey of academic freedom to comment among ecologists and conservation scientists. “The information collected will help to generate a better understanding of the constraints on ecologically-trained professionals when contributing to public commentary on issues about which they have expertise.”

The survey is being conducted by RMIT researchers, Georgia Garrard and Alex Kusmanoff.

It asks researchers if they must have employer approval to comment publicly, including in peer-reviewed journals, whether they self-censor or have had reports on environmental impacts edited by their organisation and in which discipline areas.

Australia bails on adult-skills report

Australia will not participate in the next OECD survey of adult skills.  The decision to withdraw from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies was confirmed last night by informed sources. In contrast, Department of Education and Training secretary Michelle Bruniges chairs its better-known school equivalent, PISA.

The Department of Education and Training did not respond to a request for comment yesterday however a training policy expert describes the decision as, “a complete abrogation of responsibility by the federal government, let alone leadership.”

PIAAC “measures adults’ proficiency in key information-processing skills – literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments – and gathers information and data on how adults use their skills at home, at work and in the wider community.”

The 2017 report found Australia’s performance ranged from “very good” to average, ahead of the US and UK but behind Japan, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Some three million Australians were said to have low literacy or numeracy.

Third win for Richter

The University of Adelaide’s Katharina Richter is one of MIT Technology Review’s 2018 Innovators Under 35 for ANZ, SE Asia and Taiwan. Dr Richter works on antibiotic resistant superbugs. She was named an SA Young Tall Poppy of science in August, (CMM August 1) and PhD researcher of the year in the SA Science awards (CMM August 13).

Chief Scientist says do the math

The Chief Scientist has slammed assumptions that a fast-changing economy will require adaptability rather than discipline-based deep abilities, notably in maths.

Addressing a STEM education conference at QUT yesterday, Dr Finkel warned against assuming that a changing labour market means educating students to be “capable generalists,” saying an absence of school maths makes university harder and reduces people’s choices.

“We know what happens to those students who opt for easier courses with more soft skill components in school. They arrive at university – and discover they are in the same unprepared position as that ten-year old holding a clarinet in her hand for the first time the same day she was enrolled in the school band.

“They have got to grapple with a discipline like science, or commerce, or architecture, whilst simultaneously trying to fill the maths gap. And at that stage, what choice do they have? “They can drop out of university. They can find another course – after drawing a cross through all the courses involving maths. Or they can struggle through – and then find themselves at the end of the degree, competing for a job with students who were better prepared, and thriving from day one.”

And as for the idea that immersion in a discipline kills creativity, tell that to “virtuoso jazz players.”

It was a speech with themes familiar to Finkel fans, the danger of students trying to game the ATAR by doing easier maths, the need for universities to specify maths as a prerequisite for subjects where it is an essential.

And the Chief Scientist makes the case for teaching maths, for the content it offers and the character it builds.

“It’s a skillset that’s fundamental to science, to commerce, to economics, to medicine, to engineering, to geography, to architecture, to IT. And partly, because it’s the textbook example of why you need to learn things in sequence through hard work, with the guidance of an expert teacher – and the very clear message from schools that it’s a priority. You can’t just trust your passions to help you meander through it.”

Devils coping with cancer

The deadly facial tumour that has long afflicted Tasmanian Devils is easier for females to bear. Uni Tas researchers find that afflicted males can lose 25 per cent of their body weight because of the cancer, while females may lose 5-10 per cent. And it appears devils are adapting and could coexist with the disease.

This is good but a cure would be better, Pozible crowd funding of a University of Adelaide project for a treatment is still open.

Labor promises future funding for Griffith U Logan

Labor has promised $8m in government for two initiatives at Griffith University’s Logan campus.

The proposed $300m Universities Future Fund would allocate $5m for a research, teaching and health service focused on pregnancy, birth and infants. There would also be a $3m data lab, to provide, “better evidence about what work in tackling disadvantage, collective impact programmes and improving outcomes for children.”

The Griffith announcement follows a $20m promise for the fund to support agriculture research at Western Sydney U.


Campus free speech: easier demanded than delivered

Whatever emerges from the French inquiry on campus free speech, University of Sydney general counsel Richard Fisher sets out what may well be universities response.

At a conference organised by APN Educational Media, Mr Fisher outlined his university’s obligations, to encourage “dissemination, advancement, development and application of knowledge informed by free enquiry as well as the participation in public discourse,” but also its need to ensure the “safety and wellbeing of staff and students as well as visitors to the campus.”

“I accept that that the balancing act may result in the university refusing its consent to or precluding an invited visitor coming onto a campus. That decision might be made having regard to the possibility that the presence of the visitor may cause such controversy and disruption that it puts safety and wellbeing of others on the campus at unacceptable risk,” Mr Fisher said.

Which is pretty much where the University of Western Australia ended up in September after Chancellor (and now the government’s campus free speech reviewer) Robert French and Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater addressed conflicting obligations. An off-campus group had booked university space for a speech by a US critic of transgender medicine, which outraged members of the campus community. “There is an ongoing task to be undertaken within the university about the development of workable principles which strike a balance between the values of respect for human dignity on the one hand and freedom of opinion and expression on the other, the wrote.

Days later Professor Freshwater told the university community the booking was cancelled. “The university holds firm on the principles of freedom of expression and maintains its position that it does not wish to set a precedent for the exclusion of objectionable views from the campus. However, in this case the event hirers could not meet their obligations of the venue hire contract, providing no confidence that UWA could ensure safety on campus.” (CMM August 20).

Appointments, achievements

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has received the Engineers Australia award for outstanding service to engineering. Marlene Kanga (boards of Academy of Technology and Engineering, HEARing CRC among othe roles) is professional engineer of the year.

James Cook U has awarded an hon doc to Bonita Mabo for her advocacy for indigenous schooling and the rights of Indigenous Australians and Australian South Sea Islanders.

Ingrid Day joins the Australian Institute of Business, (“the practical business school”) as academic dean. She moves from the University of Adelaide where she was ED teaching, learning and student experience in the professions faculty.

The University of Melbourne has announced three Woodward medallists, Geoffrey McFadden for malaria research, Katherine Kedzierska for work on immune system response to the H7N9 strain of bird flu and Cordelia Fine for her study of cultural and social causes of gender gaps. The Woodward Medal is awarded for published research over the past five years.