Plus three VCs who won this week

Not so much

Staff at La Trobe’ Navitas franchise in Melbourne went out for an hour over conditions and job security on Wednesday. “As a publicly listed and highly profitable company, Navitas has never argued that it is unable to afford fair working conditions, only that it is unwilling,” National Tertiary Education Union  official Genevieve Auld said. This was just before hours before Macquarie took a suggested $27m in business away from the company in Sydney. I bet Navitas will be even more unwilling now.

Sticking to the script

The Innovative Research Universities senior staff conference was on in Adelaide this week and yesterday Chris Pyne popped in to chat with VCs and address their senior staff. It was the standard polished Pyne effort, including nice things about IRU universities, compliments for their bosses, and praise for IRU executive director Conor King. Especially for his fee modelling under deregulation, “by thinking about the possibilities, and engaging with the new, the IRU is helping to move the thinking on from the scaremongering.” What ever they think about deregulation, Mr Pyne has ensured they are seen as his pals.

The speech was based on Wran’s First Law of Political Communication, which states, when you are absolutely sick of saying something the audience is just starting to hear it. Thus Mr Pyne explained for the umpteenth time why deregulation is good for students, universities and Australia. He also had a message specifically for senators, that universities leaders are engaged in designing the new system – mentioning La Trobe VC John Dewar’s legislation and financing working group, UWS Chancellor Peter Shergold’s quality, deregulation and information project and Griffith VC Ian O’Connor’s quality indicators for learning and teaching project. The Adelaide audience was attentive – but who has a clue what senators heard at a distance, as distinct from what the minister said.

Winners of the week

Vice chancellors generally get blamed for whatever is going round but three of them had big wins this week. Warren Bebbington from the University of Adelaide nailed his colours to the mast of deregulation in a Sydney Institute speech. He suggested fees rises will not be as bad as opponents argue and that Minister Pyne’s plan could create great opportunities for regional universities to turn themselves into elite teaching institutions. And he warned critics what could occur if deregulation is defeated – the funding cuts could pass the Senate but with no way raise replacement revenue.

At Macquarie S Bruce Dowton’s master plan started to appear. Professor Dowton has moved deliberately but discretely since taking over from Steven Schwartz in September 2012, with a number of senior staff suddenly realising they wanted to leave their jobs. He upped the pace this week, announcing Council had approved a new medical faculty to include the university’s postgraduate programs. It was followed by Macquarie advising it no longer needed Navitas to run its pathway programs. A relaunch of the university brand is also scheduled for later this year.

The third winner is Martin Bean who is leaving the UK Open University to take over as VC at RMIT (below). No, he has not done anything yet but the chance to run a cosmopolitan campus in the heart of marvellous Melbourne is a big win indeed.

Dewar the doer

As the ancient ad for the eponymous scotch put it. Certainly a great deal depends on Professor Dewar. The changes to funding categories for Commonwealth Supported Places announced in the budget were hurriedly assembled by the bureaucracy and algorithms not ideology account for much of the controversy, notably the funding cut for environment courses. The various lobbies have all modelled alternatives and it is down to the Dewar group to find a way to make universities happier with the distribution of course cuts. No pressure, professor.

In Ziggy’s image

As suggested last week (CMM July 3) RMIT’s new boss will be Martin Bean, now VC of the UK Open University. It’s an innovative appointment for deregulatory times. Bean is more entrepreneur than academic, with a background in private sector IT learning systems. The OU has a huge reputation and Bean is admired in the UK, although there are the inevitable cavils. A decline in student numbers after a fee hike led to claims that he betrayed the university mission. There is grumbling in GB about his OU pay but its declared cash component is less than outgoing RMIT VC Margaret Gardner makes. The other big Brit criticism is that he wanted a speechwriter – as if a university chief who values well-crafted argument and understands the importance of making his case in the marketplace of ideas is a bad thing.

This is the sort of appointment people expected from physicist and businessman Chancellor Ziggy Switkowski and what RMIT needs. The university is about applied research and teaching all sorts of students in many different ways – which is what Mr Bean knows about.

Get them ready

I have banged on a bit this week about the excellent First Year in Higher Education Conference and why this work really, really matters. One final example makes the case complete. The National Centre for Vocational Education Research “no frills” conference heard yesterday that some 15 per cent of UWS commencing students enter on the basis of a TAFE qualification but they are ten times more likely to drop-out in the first month than other entrants. Makes the case for more support – and HECS eligible sub-degree programs.

Honour remains

The oped by Greg Craven in The Australian yesterday was to his usual standard – well argued and leaving readers in no doubt about what he thinks. The subject matter is especially sensitive for the VC of the Australian Catholic University – the need for the royal commission into institutional responses to the sexual abuse of children to stick to its task. It’s a subject ACU takes seriously. Just last week the university removed Ronald Mulkearns’ name from a building at the Ballarat campus. Back in the ’70s and ’80s it is said  then Bishop Mulkearns did not act against child abusing priests in the region. But what, I asked the university last Friday, of the honorary doctorate ACU awarded Father Mulkearns in 1998? A week on the university has not responded.

Arcane Research Council

On Wednesday ERA Whisperer Owen Pelly came over all annoyed at ERA 2015, specifically “the egregious” System to Evaluate Excellence in Research rules 131 and 132. These deal with subject reassignment of conference papers and journal outputs to different fields. According to the Australian Research Council’s ever amiable Excellence in Research for Australia experts this is intended to deal with situations where up to 60 per cent of a paper is on discipline x but appears in a journal which is ERA coded as covering field y. The rules advise universities that if they reassign more than 40 per cent of research in ERA submissions, “the ARC will monitor the use of the reassignment exception and monitor the disciplines to which research outputs are assigned during the submission phase for ERA to ensure the integrity of the data which goes to evaluation.” You are warned. Although, as only 6 per cent of papers in ERA 12 were reassigned this does not seem like a case of rampant gaming to me. Yes I realize that my finding this fascinating seems strange.

Old CRCS are supposed to fade away

The long awaited CRC inquiry is still awaited but Parliamentary Secretary Bob Baldwin assured a cooperative centre community audience this week it will occur this year. “We want to look at why some CRCs have been more successful than others and how we can use tax-payer dollars to help more CRCs excel,” Mr Baldwin said. Despite cancelling the 17th round, “we need people to believe in the CRCs,” Mr Baldwin declared, adding, “we also want you to become self-sustaining in the future.”

This puzzled people in the audience, as the whole idea of the CRCs is that they wrap-up once their work is done and pass on their output to their member organisations. “The default position is they shut down once they’ve done their job and only keep going if the industry still needs them,” one said.

If ‘success’ is measured by keeping going then they will compete with, rather than complement, members” another warned. This should cheer Mr Baldwin up – publicly funded organisations that do not want to exist forever.

But some are more equal than others

The NTEU campaigns hard on career paths for casual staff – but maybe the comrades at La Trobe did not get the memo. Here’s what the local union says about the new round of staff cuts; “long-term teaching / research academics being replaced by teaching “pack horses” who will not have the opportunity to develop or maintain discipline knowledge. “Pack horses”! At least it is clear what they make of their casually employed colleagues.