Chat of the Titans

Australian Catholic University VC Greg Craven appeared before the Senate committee on deregulation yesterday, where he answered questions from Kim Carr (other senators got words in, just not many). It was a classic Carr performance, polite but very firm, focused on what he sees as the dangers of dodgy private providers, the possibility of university leaders over-paying themselves and what he considers the myth of Labor cuts to higher education funding. Professor Craven’s response was a model of art, he made the case for deregulation and argued universities would not charge up, because principle and market reality made it impossible (but see below). He also went in hard on private providers, suggesting they should not be funded by the public, but if they are not with much.

Remember them?

The Country Education Foundation states the ignored obvious in its Senate deregulation submission: “right now, many thousands of country students are entering the critical final weeks of their high school studies, a period requiring their total focus in order to achieve the best marks possible. The continuing uncertainty surrounding the higher education reforms is causing additional concern and stress at a time when they can least afford it. The CEF would therefore urge decision makers to provide certainty and clarity sooner rather than later.” Quite right – about time somebody spoke up for some of the people this is all about.

Rate of return

With the cost of courses dominating the deregulation debate the Group of Eight is subtly striving to move the argument back to its own ground, the need for world-class Australian teaching and (especially) research universities. Yesterday the Eight released a report summarising industry thinking on what international students look for. And while teaching is important so is research, because the latter drives the rankings. “The UK and USA are perceived as offering higher quality education than Australia which can be explained by the position of Australian universities in world rankings such as the Shanghai Jiao Tong (ARWU) and the Times Higher Education rankings; if Australia is to improve its reputation for university quality we should ensure we can perform internationally at the heights of research.” I wonder what increase in students fees at Go8 universities will generate really improved rankings?

Newcastle goes ahead

The QS list of 50 top universities under 50 is out and the University of Newcastle will be pleased to have moved up 12 places to 19, overtaking UTS, Uni Wollongong, QUT and RMIT. Deakin University also joins the 50, in last spot. All up there are ten Australian institutions on the list – but none among the first eleven, which come from Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Canada, the US, Netherlands and Spain.

ACU expands

While Professor Craven was Senate-bound yesterday his research chief Wayne McKenna was announcing another stage in the five year plan to lift ACU’s research performance, the creation of two research centres, taking the total to seven. The Institute of Health and Ageing will launch next year, led by Marita McCabe, who joins from Deakin. The Institute for Religion, Politics and Society will focus on Asia in its first five years. Its director is Bryan Turner who joins ACU from the City University of New York. I wonder how much the seven centres are costing and where the money will come from, especially as Professor Craven does not expect ACU to pick up a poultice from deregulation.

Local hero

With Rod Camm moving to ACPET the Adelaide based National Centre for Vocational Education Research has a new CEO, South Australian training and employment official Craig Fowler.

Highest stakes in deregulation debate

By announcing yesterday it will charge $48 000 for an undergraduate degree under deregulation the University of Western Australia did that cause no good. While reform advocates focus on policy, giving universities the independence to set fees to suit their own strategies, opponents of the Pyne package concentrate on the politics of what students will pay. And after a week or so where policy predominated UWA swung the debate back to politics. Labor, the National Tertiary Education Union and social media commentators all got stuck in, denouncing deregulation “The UWA decision to dramatically increase undergraduate fees reinforces what the NTEU has been warning of since the federal budget: this is just the beginning, …students will be paying up to triple what they do now for an education, and medical students will be looking at fees of over $100,000, not including interest,” union president Jeannie Rea said. “With many students undertaking postgraduate qualifications, $100,000 debts will quickly become a reality, with law likely to be more than $95,000 and medicine more than $100,000,” is what Kim Carr thinks will soon occur in some universities. Mr Pyne shot back that $48k is a way south of $100 000 and in any case the HELP loan scheme means students can borrow the lot. Fair enough, but once the argument is about student debt not university improvement crossbench senators will likely listen to those who say they speak for undergraduates rather than vice chancellors.

And Labor knows it. In Reps Question Time Opposition Leader Bill Shorten asked the Prime Minister twice why the government was taking us down “the American path,” Amanda Rishworth followed up, also twice. The best Mr Abbott could manage was that students could still borrow their course costs, that the system would be able to compete internationally and what is more Labor MP Andrew Leigh had supported deregulation in the past! Chris Pyne followed up with his standard sell of deregulation in response to a dorothy dixer, adding that his plan was major micro-economic reform; claiming former Labor education minister Chris Bowen is in favour of student-pays via HECS. But while his heart was in it, the numbers, if only 48 000, were against him.

No relaxing in Perth

While no one knows what deregulation would do to demand the impact is an especially known unknown in Western Australia, thanks to next year’s school leaver half-cohort. In 2001 the state government increased pre-school and school entry ages to bring them into line with the rest of the country. This means the university entry classes of 2015 and 2016 will be half those of a full year, making the recruitment challenge all the harder for the four universities, especially if the possibility of price hikes put people off. But if it is crook for kids it will be cruel to casuals. The universities all pushed for increased use of sessional staff in the recent rounds of enterprise bargaining because of the half cohort and the prospect of changing demand will mean more insecure employment. “Of course the universities could take the opportunity to improve the student experience and decrease class sizes but we won’t see that happen,” a veteran observer says.

Purely applied research

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane never misses a chance to sell his applied research plan. Yesterday’s energy green paper was replete with references to the way science and industry must cooperate. Thus the minister pointed to the Entrepreneurs’ Infrastructure Programme, which will assist small business “by connecting them to the research sector. SMEs should play a key role in any science and technology sector”. And he explains how pure research should also have practical objectives. “Strong partnerships between government and industry on technology research and development are an important way of ensuring that research investment is well-targeted. This includes governments usefully investing in pre-commercial research and development … .” Good-oh but I wonder whether Mr Macfarlane thinks this should extend to Australian Research Council funding. And what the ARC’s minister Chris Pyne thinks? Perhaps not much, what with the way he is a bit busy just now.

But what does it all mean?

There is no doubting that the Innovative Research Universities lobby has its own interests at heart but even so the IRU’s submission to the Senate inquiry presents a calm and balanced guide to what deregulation will mean for universities in capital cities and big regional centres. The IRU accepts the inevitability of change but urges moderation to reduce what it considers inequitable impact. While the group endorses the government’s proposed five new funding tiers for Commonwealth Supported Places it calls on Canberra to reduce the proposed 20 per cent reduction to support for CSPs. It advocates sticking to the CPI as setting the interest rate for student loans. It recommends pooling funds for the proposed scholarship scheme rather than allowing universities to spend what they raise. The IRU also opposes fees for research students. And like the Regional Universities Network it advocates assistance for its members. “Universities need support to make the transition to a market based system through a structural adjustment fund. IRU universities serve outer metropolitan and significant non-capital city regions. We need to test how well the potential students in our catchment areas will respond.” Excluding the scholarships idea (unpopular with richer universities) and a smaller CSP cut (poison to Treasury) there does not seem anything here the government could not wear if concessions got the package passed. The question is will the crossbench listen.

Great minds thinking alike

Greg Craven is sure deregulation will deliver price competition, telling yesterday’s Senate committee hearing that there is no need for a price cap, but just in case the government could always appoint an oversight body (say TEQSA) tasked with looking at proposed fees and knocking back any that are unconscionable. La Trobe Vice Chancellor John Dewar has a similar idea, telling a Melbourne CEDA lunch yesterday, that while price caps would distort the market there is a case for a regulator. “Rather than constraining the market in advance my preference is for there to be some way of monitoring the market, and some way to intervene if it fails – e.g, through excessive and unjustified price increases, or through closure of courses or campuses of strategic significance. When other sectors of the economy have been deregulated, such as energy, water or telecommunications, such mechanisms have been put in place – why not here?” Um, because those utilities are monopolies/oligopolies and universities (except in Darwin and Tasmania) have lots of competition.

Carr clarifies 

Because Jenny Macklin’s office did not respond to questions re Labor policy on student welfare payments (CMM yesterday) Kim Carr generously did. His office states Labor supports assisting relocation scholarships for students from regional areas and will oppose freezing of indexation payments in low-income areas.