Peace at ANU

Serious scientists

Very serious. Walter and Eliza Hall’s (and ex CSIRO) biostatistician Terry Speed won the prime minister’s $300,000 science prize for his work on the characteristics of cancer cells last night – in the international year of statistics no less!. The supports acts are equally impressive, notably physical scientist of the year, UNSW’s Andrea Morello who works in quantum computing. Even the university’s explanation for idiots is hard to understand but if Professor Morello and his colleagues get it right their work will help transform the world by increasing the processing power of computers to a level we, well me, cannot conceive.

ANU agreement

There is a breakthrough in enterprise negotiations at the Australian National University, with union chief Stephen Darwin calling on staff to vote for an agreement adopted last night (once the union’s national executive gives it the nod). The deal is based on a 3 per cent per annum pay rise for four years plus improved conditions, including undertakings that will assist staff during restructures. It is not long since management was suggesting 2 per cent was all it could afford and the union was stating it would settle for no less than four per cent so it seems both sides decided to split the difference after direct talks between Mr Darwin and Vice Chancellor Ian Young. “This is a great achievement given the hostile agenda that the union initially confronted in these negotiations,” Mr Darwin not especially generously said last night.  With deals done at ANU and U Sydney the stage is now set for a run of similar agreements at G8 universities.

Plus ca change

There was understandable anguish yesterday over the COAG Reform Council’s finding that just 72 per cent of young people are in full time work or study. Sound familiar? It will to anyone who remembers the middle 90s, when a third of teenagers were neither in full time work nor education/training. On the very day COAG RC issued its report the excellent National Centre for Vocational Education Research put out its handy VET stats summary – which includes some very big numbers indeed. Like 1.9 million students in the system, which includes a third of all Australians aged between 15 and 19. But while overall enrolments are up on last year at 95,000 apprentice and trainee starts are still below (albeit only be 1000 or so) the 2011 level.

Pointing to the positives

The COAG Council’s deputy chair Greg Craven says reading and numeracy across primary and high school will improve as the results of early childhood education reforms flow through the system. Given Professor Craven is also vice chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, one of the country’s largest teacher trainers his optimism is understandable. Better to focus on the positives lest somebody ask whether the problem is in the ability of trainee teachers and what they learn at university. Somebody like, well say NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, a long time critic of what he believes are too low entry scores for teaching degrees.

 Hilariously undead

Apparently it was Halloween last night, which is as good a reason as any for University of Adelaide academics Ben McCann and Peter Pugsley to urge us to watch French and Asian horror films, rather than US ones. “Hollywood desperately needs fresh thinking and new ideas,” Dr McCann says. Singapore for example is experimenting with horror comedy. That’s what we need stand-up zombie comedians.

Best left unsaid

University of NSW VC Fred Hilmer’s suggestion that the constituent lobbies within Universities Australia should meet to talk tactics reflects a reality that many of his colleagues will prefer stays unspoken. UA resembles the Holy Roman Empire on the eve of the 30 Years War – it has no power over members and is incapable of advancing all their interests, because the various member groups often have contradictory aims. And when they want something done the lobbies come to arrangements among themselves, for example the work on research impact by the Group of Eight and the Australian Technology Network last year. Motherhood campaigns, such as the fruitless attempt to make higher education an election issue aside, UA does a vast amount of useful work representing higher education as a whole. And if it did not exist the now unaligned institutions would need to form their own lobby to compete for government attention against the G8, ATN, Innovative Research Universities and Regional Universities Network. But like the HRH in 1618 when the Hapsburgs, Brandenburgers and Bavarians started squabbling, UA can do little more than stay loftily above the fray.

What’s Spanish for “not interested”?

As other universities cut back on languages Deakin is expanding, announcing a new Spanish course and promoting its Chinese, Arabic and Indonesian programs. Good stuff indeed, as VC Jane den Hollander says, “they are four of the five most dominant languages of the world economy. A future Deakin graduate will be as likely to work in Shanghai as to work in Sydney or Melbourne.” Even better, the university is providing the courses despite less than overwhelming interest. The number of Arabic students is up by seven, to 43.8 EFTS over five years. Indonesian is down by a third, to 50. Chinese has a respectable 160 students, but enormous this isn’t. It goes to the problem with the government’s New Colombo Plan, everybody understands the importance of education in and about Asia, as it long as somebody else does the study.


Today’s “the government does not believe in science” statement comes from Greens MP Adam Bandt who tweeted yesterday: “ ‘Prime Minister’s Prize for Science’ awards tonight in Canb. Good thing Parl House security doesn’t screen for irony.” This will keep going until the next election or the PM adds “as well as science” to a minister’s title.

The victor still spoils for a fight

As reported yesterday Swinburne University accepted the Federal Court’s verdict that it breached its Enterprise Agreement with staff by failing to consult over the closure of the Lilydale campus in 2012 with an apology and hefty donations to charity. However, the local National Tertiary Education Union is singularly unimpressed. According to union rep Josh Cullinan “these findings by the Federal Court are a damning indictment of the current senior management at Swinburne. Unless there is real change we are deeply concerned that the apology will be mere lip service.” The union took the opportunity to announce a new action against Swinburne, claiming the university had not consulted with staff over “its secret arrangement” to outsource the work of subsidiary Swinburne College “to a wholly owned separate entity.”

No can do at UQ

Union members are taking low-key industrial action (selective work bans and the like) at the University of Queensland, protesting at what they say is management’s go-slow enterprise bargaining strategy. “We go in, they say ‘no’ and we leave,” says union negotiator Dave Callaghan. Expect the pace to pick up after the ANU deal is discussed.