Plus too many kids neither learning nor earning

The new mandarins

The head of BBC World Services is the new VC of the UK Open University. Peter Horrocks replaces Martin Bean who returns to Australia to run RMIT. Both men are more managers than scholars with track records as information entrepreneurs.

Dull razor gang

There is substantial smoke and many mirrors in Finance Minister Mathias Cormann’s weekend announcement in The Australian of committees for the chop. For example, news that the functions of the National Advisory for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment will go to the Department of Industry was announced in April. As was the end of the National Skills Council. And the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency is already gone.



The work of the Advancing Quality in Higher Education Reference Group, chaired by Griffith VC Ian O’Connor is surely complete, having reported on student access to information under deregulation. The Commission of Audit questioned the need for the Higher Education Research Data Advisory Committee, the Higher Education Research Reference Group and the International Education Advisory Council – none being areas where government is short of people with plenty to say. As for the decision to wind up the National VET Equity Advisors Council Service Leaders Group, I dare say the voced community will cope somehow. The announcement is not clear on which agencies the Higher Education Standards Panel and the TEQSA Advisory Council will merge with, perhaps each other. But with Commonwealth oversight of vocational education now separate to higher education, who knows? And as for the Education Investment Fund Advisory Board – what’s to advise on? The money is long gone and the fund winds up January 1st. What is interesting is the decision to use “a department” (Health?) to provide back-office functions for the National Health and Medical Research Council but the Australian Research Council is exempt.

Overall none of this looks like it will save a razor gang of money – certainly nowhere near the money Education Minister Chris Pyne promised to spend in Deregulation MkII.

Disclosure: I was retained by the Commission of Audit to work on its report.

Less higher and more further education

The accepted wisdom that what regional Australia needs is ever more graduates may not be universally applicable, at least according to the inaugural report from the Industry Department’s chief economist Mark Cully. Certainly as regional manufacturing declined between 2006 and 2011, regions where the proportion of the population had post school qualifications were “more likely” to have improved workforce participation rates. But not all tertiary education is equal. Areas where more people held Certificates III and IV had better employment figures than those with increased numbers of higher education graduates. Mr Cully suggests one reason for this is that people in work complete VET part time. But another is that “local economies require a balance of workers with certificate level qualifications and university qualified workers. … This may imply that regional labour markets struggle to absorb large cohorts of university graduates.”

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Preparing to fail

Australians have embraced the idea that education is the engine of individual prosperity and national growth. According to the Bureau of Statistics, in May 2.9m people, 19 per cent of the working age population were studying. Some 40 per cent (1.2m) were in higher education, 900 000 were attending TAFE or other institutions and the balance were still at school. A higher proportion of women were studying for undergraduate degrees (42 per cent) than men (36 per cent) while blokes led in upper Voced qualifications. But not everything is changing, 21 per cent of males are studying engineering, while just 1.6 per cent of women are! (That does seem very low.) And as for rhetoric about Australia preparing for a global knowledge economy, the percentage of students in IT fell 8.5 per cent to 3.3 per cent between 2001 and this year.

There is other news that is alarming as it is appalling. While 59 per cent of school leavers are studying of those who aren’t only 58 per cent are employed – which means there are 50 000 plus young people who are not earning or learning. This is truly terrible. Of course some, hopefully many, will work out what they want to do and get on with it – but those that don’t are preparing for a life of tenuous connections to the world of work.

Here to help

The Group of Eight is all but alone in making the case for pure research as the (industry minister) Macfarlane – (chief scientist) Chubb applied research bandwagon picks up pace. Last month the Go8 argued, “in many cases the advances made by fundamental research are essential to advances across a wide range of different technologies but this impact can take many years to become apparent.” (Campus Morning Mail, November 20). And now the Eight is having another go, arguing government and industry should outsource the risk of research failure by letting universities work on ideas that may, but probably wont, go anywhere. In a paper released yesterday the elite research universities secretariat details the high failure rate of innovation and the way even ultimately successful research can take decades to deliver practical results.


“Universities do research which is high risk in the sense that it is often distant from immediate practical application, whether commercial or other, because this complements the less risky research performed by other parts of the innovation system. University research looks ahead and beyond the immediate. This leads to the creation of the new, strategic and unexpected opportunities that provide the basis for innovation going beyond incremental change to the creation of new technologies, processes and understanding. As such it provides the seed bed for the development of new firms and even new industries, as well as opportunities for existing business. (And it is always important to acknowledge that university research supports government and the general community, creating the knowledge that can improve national wellbeing in its many aspects without direct commercialisation and without generating profits.)”

It takes real ability to combine selflessness and self-interest.

 Cash injections

Submissions to the Review to strengthen independent medical research institutes closed last week and while the feds are not saying when, or if, they will be released you can bet what submissions from the sector suggest – that there is nothing wrong with them that more money will not fix.

The IMRIs and their allies are certainly not burdened by modesty – pushing for the Medical Research Future Fund with single-minded self-interest that is irritating other research policy people, even some in the health sector. It’s not hard to see why, given the engaging frankness of some of the sector’s submissions to the IMRI review. Like that from the Association of Medical Research Institutes, which begins, “by all available measures of impact and success, Australia’s independent medical research institutes are the jewel in the crown of Australia’s health and medical research sector.” To shine even brighter they need, and I know this will surprise you all, more resources. In particular longer-term National Health and Medical Research Council grants would be good, especially for contract-funded researchers, and access to Australian Research Council medical science grants would also help. I’m guessing that would be on top of whatever ends up in the MRFF.