Plus VC Stirling charts a new course for Flinders

 Time to make online education entertaining

And universities all over watching the new industrial blue in WA

Here’s to the ladies who launch

Or in this case a lady, Edith Cowan Uni’s Samantha Ridgway who is raising money to launch her own rocket. As in a 14 metre, N2000 rocket she built herself and still needs a couple of grand to get to lift-off (have you see the price of rocket fuel?). Her Kickstarter campaign ends tomorrow. Ms Ridgway’s research isn’t in rocketry, her ECU hons degree is in chemistry and she is about to start a PhD on the risk of dredging releasing blue carbon into the atmosphere. Still, this project is a hell of a way to demonstrate to girls that they can indeed do anything, including building 1200 kph rockets.


Fine fellows, well met

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel is one of 21 new fellows of the Australian Academy of Science. Notable among the 15 men and six women are UoQ physicist, Halina Rubinsztein Dunlop and Neville Nicholls from Monash “the world’s pre-eminent expert on the nature, causes, predictability and impacts of inter-annual climate variability.” Toby Walsh (UNSW) is honoured for work on theoretical artificial intelligence and Anna M G Koltunow (CSIRO) for plant genetics.

Dr Finkel’s citation praises his work in creating scientific instruments for “academic neuroscience” and in pharmaceutical development. “He has been a strong and effective advocate for governmental and industrial support of innovation and research in science and engineering,” the Academy states.

The new fellows come from a range of elite research institutions, with the University of New South Wales having three, and the University of Sydney, ANU, CSIRO, the University of Adelaide, the University of Queensland and Walter and Eliza Hall two each. All Group of Eight members, except UWA are represented. James Cook is the only university outside the Eight to have a new fellow, coral reef ecologist David Bellwood.

Watching the west

Where Western Australia goes in wages and conditions at universities the rest of the country follows and managements across the country are watching closely what is going at Curtin, Edith Cowan and Murdoch universities, where bargaining is stalling before it starts. The National Tertiary Education Union and managements are facing off over the terms of negotiations on each campus, even before they start arguing about wages and conditions. The universities, with strong support from the Australian Higher Education Workforce Association, are presenting similar approaches to EB Seven, unlike last time when they rolled over early and generously on the union wage claims, thus creating a precedent hard for other universities to ignore. WA managements are also keen to talk directly to staff in an attempt to erode the NTEU’s authority in bargaining.

CMM hears universities with similar interests in other states are closely watching WA. What matters most to university managements, for now, is less pay rises than changing terms and conditions of employment in existing agreements, which they say make efficiency improvements impossible.

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Stirling’s big bet

The undertakings are anodyne and the specifics sparse but the overview for Flinders University’s 10-year plan is a bold document, which wagers VC Colin Stirling’s career. His chosen headline quote from Royal Navy navigator Matthew Flinders spells it out; “I have too much ambition to rest in the unnoticed middle order of mankind.” To rise above that station Professor Stirling undertakes to; “chart a course that takes us to the top ten of Australian universities and the top one per cent in the world.” That can mean whatever Flinders wants it to mean in 2025, it’s list of where it ranks now on a mass of measures illustrates the options. Nevertheless CMM suspects few people would name Flinders in their top tens now and to commit to changing perceptions on a huge scale is a considerable commitment.

The plan, as is the nature of university vision statements is light-on for how he intends to do it, but there are important pointers to the planning ahead.

Flinders will adopt the now orthodox emphasis on applied research and “proactively engage with business, industry, government and non-government organisations to deliver outcomes that promote economic development and change lives for the better.” It will embed research as part of courses and provide “work integrated learning opportunities”. And courses will focus on employer need, being “informed by the needs of business, industry, healthcare and other public sectors.”

There are no clues on the cash to pay for all this, they will be in operational plans to come but there are indications of changes in workplace culture. The plan sets out an academic staff structure where; “new specialist academic roles will enhance our capacity to deliver exceptional educational programs and provide a career path for the finest educators. These new roles will enable us to increase our investment in outstanding research, building critical mass, and developing research leaders of the future.” To CMM this seems to signal a plan for teaching-only academics and elite researchers. As for professional staff, Professor Stirling has already commented on “excessive bureaucracy and hierarchy” ( CMM February 12) and now wants them “to contribute to our vision by delivering agile systems, processes.”

“Our future success will rely on dynamic staff, ready to embrace the challenges and opportunities presented in a rapidly changing environment. It requires a culture of trust and empowerment, built on the bedrock of common values and a shared sense of purpose,” the plan proposes.

Sounds like a restructure on the way.

Monash loses one of its own

Monash business academic and veteran climber Maria Strydom died descending from the summit of Mt Everest over the weekend. She talked about mountaineering and the climb to come in a Monash interview  in March.

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ANU offline

With 5000 resident students ANU has the stats to show what students consume online out of hours and as its ever-insightful DVC Marnie Hughes Warrington reports in her new blog  post, university learning content isn’t up there with the leaders. In fact it isn’t up there at all, rating 17 out of 23rd with 1/55th of the data consumed from Google video. Granted, you can access hours of course notes for minutes of video of whatever it is students like to watch. Even so, it’s a big gap and one that demonstrates the difference between how universities want and what students like to consume.

“If you consider the text heavy nature of our formal curriculum—evident in the use of the learning management system as a text repository—then you realise how out of kilter we might be with the people we teach,” Professor Hughes Warrington suggests. And arguing that education and entertainment are distinct is not much of a defence. As she puts it; “wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where university staff and students see education as fun?”

WSU goes for growth

The comrades are content at Western Sydney University that the new Sydney CBD campus, in cooperation with Navitas, will not nick students from others in the university, “which rely on international students to just get by” (CMM May 16). After meeting with Vice Chancellor Barney Glover, the university branch of the National Tertiary Education Union reports Navitas will do the recruiting, teaching and administering with WSU staff monitoring, moderating and quality assuring. Funding this has anything to do with the 2 per cent expenditure cut now in place across the university, which is due a post census decline in enrolments.

Invest in VET

Australia and Australians all depend on tertiary education qualifications, which are general pre-requisites for entry to the labour force, specific pre-reqs for many jobs and “an important source of new skills for the future labour market,” the Mitchell Institute’s Peter Mitchell argues in a paper released this morning.

Professor Noonan argues the VET FEE HELP catastrophe has damaged the reputation of training and reduced the funding available to support people more suited to vocational than higher education. “Without a new and sustainable funding model and measures to improve quality and confidence in VET, the VET sector is not well placed to underpin growth in participation in tertiary education into the next decade,” he warns.

The danger is that a failing VET system will let down a generation.

“The labour market of the future will be tough, competitive and challenging as well as exciting and skills, capabilities, persistence with and appetite for further learning will determine (young people’s) success, not just in work but in life generally,” he writes.

The challenge is how to fund post school study, especially in the VET sector, which has not shared the extraordinary expansion in higher education. “Without a new and sustainable funding model and measures to improve quality and confidence in VET, the VET sector is not well placed to underpin growth in participation,” Noonan argues. He supports his case with scenarios demonstrating the considerable challenge to maintain, let alone expand post school participation rates. To increase it for HE and VET by 2 per cent pa through to 2020 and 1 per cent a year after will require 450 000 enrolments. For VET to maintain existing participation rates through to 2030 means an extra 82 000 15-24 year olds in study.

The need to invest in expanding enrolments should set the context for funding debate, he argues.

Dolt of the day

Is CMM. In Friday’s email issue I named the former chancellor of RMIT as Denver, not David Beanland. Denver is a former Liberal leader in Queensland and now chair of the National Archives. How did CMM confuse the two, you ask. Stupidity, plain stupidity, CMM replies.