Can Softly Softly Simon Succeed Where Crash-Through Chris Couldn’t?

Peace at last

Swinburne University finally has an enterprise agreement, with 98 per cent of the 1237 staff who voted endorsing the deal proposed by management and the National Tertiary Education Union. “The university’s decision to offer the union less an olive branch than grove worked,” an observer of the long struggle said last night.

ANU Sept 15

Think globally but act locally

Like politics, all education is ultimately local – a point David Lloyd will make to the Times Higher Education conference today when he chairs a panel discussion on “teaching future global leaders: where elite universities are getting it wrong.” The University of South Australia VC points to the origins of Stanford University, established, he says, to educate and train locals for the world of work. But Stanford now takes 750 or so Californian kids into first year, out of an annual school completion class of 750 000. In contrast, UniSA takes around 50 per cent of eligible school leavers in the state. “You need to keep an eye on who you are there to serve,” Professor Lloyd says.

Deregulation off agenda

There were two messages in Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s speech to the THE conference in Melbourne yesterday. One was an admission of defeat on fee deregulation, announcing reform is off the agenda until 2017, at the earliest. While it remains government policy (if only because the savings that come from the related Commonwealth funding cut are still on the budget books) and the minister did not outright dump it, fee deregulation in its existing form is gone until after the election, if not forever. The other message was why the existing higher education funding model is unsustainable.

But there was no light between political bat and policy pad and the Opposition, Greens and National Tertiary Education Union will struggle to find examples of anything they can use to warn that “$100k degrees” are still imminent.

Although they were quick to try. “Minister Birmingham has only ruled out deregulation up until the next election, suggesting that these reforms are really just resting rather than dead and buried. The community must keep campaigning on this issue to ensure that these reforms stay in the ground,” Greens higher education spokesman Senator Robert Simms said soon after the minister spoke. “Only Labor’s positive plan for more graduates, not $100,000 degrees will give universities the funding certainty that they need,” the party’s higher education spokesman, Kim Carr, added. Good-o, but it will be hard to keep an issue alive given the minister made it plain yesterday he is listening not selling.

This is a smart strategy – Senator Birmingham has defused higher funding as an election issue while creating time and space to sell the idea that change to the existing model is essential. In any case, even if the Senate changed its mind and passed the Pyne package in its November sitting (the legislation is not withdrawn) there would be no time for universities to announce and explain fees for a ’16 start.

So what happens next? From the minister, CMM suspects not much beyond regular statements of a commitment to funding research, the case for extending HECS to VET and other private-provider students and backing demand driven funding. He will likely leave it to the lobbies to argue out who should pay how much and to whom.

But in every speech Senator Birmingham makes the issue of how to pay for everything will always be there. “The first challenge in Australian higher education policy now is to find a sustainable, stable basis for funding the demand-driven system, where funding incentives help to create informed and rational decisions by providers and students alike,” he said yesterday. And he will ask if anybody, especially Labor, has any better ideas. He started yesterday, suggesting that “some of his political opponents” want to recap bachelor degree places. CMM suspects he meant Labor. Senator Carr has explicitly rejected caps, however this will not stop the minister from trying to make the case that Labor’s higher education policy, released last month, will reinstate central planning.

Will softly softly Simon succeed where crash-through Chris failed? The best chance of change is to get everybody into the argument, as Universities Australia put it, yesterday; “UA is ready to work with the government, Opposition, minor parties and crossbenchers to shape a coherent policy package that allows our universities to deliver the innovation and skills needed to keep Australia competitive.” University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington agreed; “the major underlying problem has not disappeared. We must find a sensible and equitable way to address the chronic underfunding of Australian universities. I look forward to working with the new minister and indeed all sides of parliament, in the best interests of our university and the future sustainability of the sector in general.”

This will take time, but as Senator Birmingham told Ian Henschke on ABC Adelaide radio yesterday; “I’m very keen to achieve as much as I can in the next twelve months, but hopefully much, much more in three years thereafter.” And if the government is returned but still can’t fashion a deal on funding reform? Well, the minister could always say he accepts the higher education community cannot agree on change, just before announcing budget cuts for 2018.

Uni Melb Genomics

Backing his judgement

QUT VC Peter Coaldrake is a bloke who backs his judgement. Yesterday his university announced Carol Nicholl is its new executive dean of education. A reader with a long memory advises that Professor Coaldrake was also on the selection panel that appointed Professor Nicholl as founding chief commissioner of the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency, a post that turned out to be something of a challenge for her.

Struggling to cover cover-prices

Information service provider EBSCO predicts journal price rises next year of 4 per cent to 6 per cent. With local currency impact added this will likely mean Australian libraries paying up to 30 per cent more for journals priced in US dollars 26 per cent for sterling publications and 17 per cent for those with a Euro price. “Most large publishers are still focused on selling some form of bundled e-package content … causing librarians to be faced with funding these big deal purchases often by cutting material expenditures in other areas,” EBSCO states

“If this doesn’t call for some analysis of the impact of big deals and big publisher profits, what will?” CMM’s open access correspondent replies.

HES HECQN electronic banner 01-10-15

Faculties finished

At the University of Sydney VC Michael Spence is asking for staff advice on a simplified structure, although one move is all but announced. “Other Australian research-intensive institutions are much less complex: Group of Eight universities have between six and 10 faculties whereas we have 16,” Dr Spence told staff. So faculties will go, but which ones?

Jury’s out

Charles Sturt U has long taught policing and criminal justice so it was probably only a matter of time before it decided that what the world needs is a CSU law degree. Standby for outrage from lawyer lobbies and faculties warning there is already oversupply of law grads, which is true. But CSU obviously thinks there is room for a new product, “with a particular emphasis on rural and regional law.” It will find out soon enough once grad stats appearing on QILT and enrolments change accordingly.

Argument bigger than Bjorn

The argument in Adelaide over Flinders U accepting or rejecting federal funding to give Bjorn Lomborg an Australian base is now way beyond the views of the Danish economist. And everybody knows it. Greens SA senator Robert Simms told reporters yesterday “the federal government should not turn Flinders into a Liberal propaganda unit. It’s not appropriate for political parties to influence the research agendas of universities” Not that Senator Simms would ever do any such thing. As Flinders VC Colin Stirling put it on Adelaide radio yesterday; “Were I to accept the argument raised by some staff and some members of the public that they don’t like what Lomborg does therefore I should stop my staff from working with him, then who’s next? Tell me? Who would be the next person that we would disavow from any interaction with our academics?”


Dolt of the day

Is CMM. In yesterday’s email edition the University of Wollongong was cited as in the Times Higher ranking 300-350 band. In fact, it is in the 250-300 group. Thanks to the really early rising reader who pointed out the error.

Accountability on employment

The New Zealand Tertiary Education Union is outraged that the government is calling on universities and polytechnics to report on former students’ jobs and incomes. This the TEU warns, ”will end up distorting the way educators do their jobs.” Huh? “It risks favouring people who teach short-term skills to get their students into immediate but temporary jobs over those who teach the less immediate but more enduring trades, skills and knowledge,” the union adds. Not once data accumulates over a few years. In any case, students have a right to know which institutions deliver on their claims about employment-focused courses.

Back on Tuesday

CMM is taking Monday’s public holiday off.

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