Plus student stats: big numbers getting bigger

Heard it all before

Christopher Pyne addresses the National Press Club today and the corps of his critics hope he will announce no increase in the HELP interest rate and no cut to public funding for Commonwealth Supported Places, plus delaying regulation until everybody in higher education agrees. It isn’t going to happen. My guess is Mr Pyne will stick to the script and take his package to parliament largely unchanged – where it will be thrown out by the Senate when first presented. But it’s the second time that will matter. University managements are grievously conflicted over deregulation. They loathe the cuts, but not as much as they lust for the power to set their own fees. The outcome of the debate will come down to whether the more politically skilful want their own fees more than they fear Canberra cuts – and whether they can convince the Senate crossbench.

Big numbers getting bigger

The 2013 student statistics are out and they demonstrate what a high stakes game higher education is. For a start there were 1.3m higher education students last year, up 4.5 per cent on 2012. The vast majority of the growth came from locals, up 5.5 per cent with international enrolments increasing by just 1.5 per cent to 328 000. Commencing student numbers also grew, by 5.5 per cent, providing “an early indicator of how the higher education system evolves over time.” I think this is the feds’ way of saying “strewth! look at what the demand driven system delivers.”

Growth by discipline will delight those who worry we will run out of STEM graduates. The top specific field was engineering, up 10 per cent, followed by IT, which increased by 8 per cent. Demonstrating the market does respond to news of over-supply, education courses grew by just 2.5 per cent. Demand among international students stayed the same, with management and commerce accounting for over half the commencements and overall enrolments. If Asia ever loses faith in the market economy every business faculty in the country is in strife.

As to what deregulation could deliver, private universities and what the feds call NUHEIs (for non university higher education institutions) roared ahead, up 14 per cent to just under 100 000 students. In contrast, Open Universities Australia took a terrible beating last year, with year-end enrolments totalling 49,000 – down 16 per cent on 2012. Perhaps the most optimistic news in the figures is that attrition rates for 2012 commencing domestic students are effectively stable for the public system as a whole at 13 per cent- 6 per cent what they were a decade ago. The University of Melbourne lost the least, under 5 per cent and Charles Darwin U the most, over 25 per cent

Foote votes with feet

Macquarie University is making much of its plan to create a faculty of medicine and health sciences, which was not enough to keep Simon Foote, dean of its Australian School of Advanced Medicine. He is moving to ANU to become director of the John Curtin School of Medical Research.

While it’s westward ho for Barton

Win one, lose one. The Australian National University also lost a senior scholar yesterday with environmental and British imperial historian Gregory A Barton moving to the University of Western Sydney. Professor Barton is a prolific author and editor of the journal Britain and the World. UWS runs to fashionable cultural studies but has a strong history line-up. Barton is a major addition to it.

NTEU nails it

Agree with it or no, the National Tertiary Education Union defined the deregulation debate yesterday, saying while it is sympathetic to leaving interest on student loans where it is this is “deflecting attention from the core issue of the inevitable fee increases due to the Abbott Government’s 20 per cent funding cut and the removal of the fee cap.” The union argues the average 20 per cent cut would amount to very different losses of revenue, depending on each institution’s relative dependence on funding for Commonwealth Supported Places. While the University of Melbourne would be down 2.9 per cent in overall revenue, the University of the Sunshine Coast would take a nearly 9 per cent hit.

The future foreseen by the union is accordingly bleak; “each university is now faced with a very difficult choice: significant increases in student fees and debts and/or compromising the scope, nature and ultimately the quality of the teaching, research and community service they deliver to their students and communities through severe cost cutting measures.”

And this is without private providers stealing Commonwealth Supported Places (a prospect the union abhors).

More advice than inquisition

University of Western Sydney business dean Clive Smallman wants to assure staff there is no review of the school. Far from it, apparently Vice Chancellor Barney Glover has appointed Professor Allan Hodgson (accounting @ University of Queensland) to “coach” the school, but definitely not review it. “We may have some challenges ahead, but let’s celebrate what we’ve done too!:” Exactly what a reviewer, sorry coach, likes to hear.

Brand management

According to biz journalist Max Nisen, Proctor and Gamble is reducing its range, finding,  “the sheer profusion of brands is now a burden.” Given ANU’s Ian “the gent” Young’s suggestion last week that deregulation could lead to smaller student numbers at many universities, the same brand shedding could occur. Want to know if you are at risk? Thinking there is no comparison between consumer brands and faculties is a sure sign you are.

Cash from crowds

University of New South Wales academic Ben McNeil is fronting a UNSW crowd funding campaign via Thinkable. It looks straightforward, a pitch for projects by young researchers who might, (more likely will) not make the ARC cut. Some of the five promoted research funding projects are standard stuff – manageable scale, fashionable focus, understandable outcome and as such calculated to appeal to a general audience. Aspro Lucy Burns wants to study pattern of drinking among people 45 plus. Dr Alishia Williams is interested in cognitive training for sufferers of obsessive compulsive disorder. Dr Martin Reese plans to study how “novel” drugs he has developed can help with heart disease and Aspro Nick Di Girolamo is keen to continue research into using stem cells to treat corneal blindness. The project that intrigues me is Dr Tristan Sasse’s proposal to use algorithms from neuroscience to map ocean acidification.

Deakin University, using the Pozible platform, wrote the book on Australian research funding by crowd, with a different approach to UNSW. Pozible sets a target, with donor money refunded if it is not reached by a deadline. In contrast, Thinkable creates a continuing relationship between donor and researcher. Interesting to see whether this approach, with its unavoidable continuing fulfilment costs, flies.

Whichever works, crowdfunding is part of the future for every researcher with the capacity to sell (a synonym for explain) their work. As the excellent Research Whisperer said yesterday; “crowd funding is not just about the money. It’s about the skills that you learn, the networks that you build, and the boost for the dissemination of your research.”

Of course there is a downside. How long do you give it before a DVC R somewhere makes it compulsory for young researchers to raise money? Or before university fundraisers try to take over crowd sourcing for research.

You don’t say

“Australian businesses wanting to succeed in China must perfect the art of networking the Chinese way,” Deakin University advises. Entrepreneurs who think speaking loudly and clearly in English is enough take note.