Let’s (not) make a deal

Elections come and go but enterprise bargaining goes on forever. It would be easy to assume that with the election out of the way unions and management would want deals done on pay and conditions. Easy but wrong. For a start, what the new government will do about funding is still unknown. Sure, Tony Abbott promised in February to leave universities alone and there are assurances of no cuts to education funding. But politicians of all persuasions have a habit of referring to “education” when they mean schools. That university funding did not cut through as a campaign issue could leave higher education exposed to a new government looking for savings. Close observers of the incoming government also suggest Jamie Briggs was not on a frolic of his own when he justified intervening in researching funding last week. There is, they suggest, good reason for university managements to wait and see if the new government turns out to be more interventionist than expected before signing off on agreements.
There is certainly no rush to do deals. Based on negotiations across the sector (I summarised them here) my guess is we will see a bare half a dozen or so agreements by Christmas – with a rush in the new-year once precedents are set, and negotiators on all sides cannot bear the idea of any more meetings. As to pay rises, it seems that 3.5 per cent per annum for three years will strike most university managements and staff as a fair-ish thing.

Research breakthrough

The University of Tasmania reports, “Green tea prevents rats from getting diabetes.”

Crossed wires

Is Charles Sturt one of the universities with an imminent agreement? It will be, if Vice Chancellor Andy Vann and the Community and Public Sector Union have anything to do with it.  The university has offered 3 per cent pay rises per annum from this year to 2013. And the CPSU is happy to accept, on the grounds that 83 per cent of 400 Charles Sturt staff asked said they would settle for this. According to Professor Vann, the local NTEU negotiators were also agreeable, but were over-ruled by the comrades in charge. “ After the completion of bargaining the university received advice that the (NTEU) national office had over-ruled their state and local delegates and made a decision to withdraw support for the ‘in principle’ agreement. This decision is extremely disappointing and we understand it is based primarily on the quantum of the salary increase.”
Not so, says the NTEU. Campus organiser Kevin Poynter wrote to members on Friday that the VC had jumped the gun by announcing there was an agreement “before negotiations are completed. This is a direct attempt to cut your voice out of this process—and is an unusual and highly controversial step for university management to take,” he said. But what of Professor Vann’s allegation that the union’s central office had overruled the locals? Mr Poynter was not commenting when I called, referring me to NSW state secretary Genevieve Kelly. She says that she told CSU management within minutes of the last meeting ending that there were still outstanding matters, mainly the pay rise. Professor Vann’s plan is to put the proposed agreement to a staff vote on Thursday week but Ms Kelly says he should not push for a ballot. “He is bringing on a fight we don’t need.” She adds that she is asking for a meeting with the Vice Chancellor today and that the union is keen to keep talking.

Memories aren’t made of this

Californian professor Elizabeth Loftus is visiting La Trobe to talk about her work on the way we can remember things that never happened and what that means for the law. “We can, through suggestion, create entire memories in the minds of people for things that never happened,” she says. “This can have significant implications for witnesses.” Now I understand what Kevin Rudd was doing with his victory in defeat speech on Saturday night. (Professor Loftus lectures at La Trobe tonight.)

Easily entertained

Our hedonism correspondent enviously advises of a James Cook University jolly“veterinary science students from Townsville recently ventured out to western Queensland for their annual Sheep Week adventure.”

Wheels of justice grinding slow 

It got a bit lost in all the election unpleasantness but University of Queensland Vice Chancellor Peter Hoj had what I imagine he hoped was the last word on the recent research scandal there. Last week UoQ announced that it had requested the European Journal of Neurology retract a paper because it turned out the research it was supposedly based never occurred. This is serious stuff, appropriately handled by the university, but slowly, very slowly. It turns out the first allegations were made in September, that’s last September. It took until June for the university’s investigation to determine there was a problem. As Professor Hoj ABC radio, “I think the university would acknowledge that the first phase of the investigation took longer than required – or desirable, perhaps not longer than required. Those investigations are very tricky in nature and we are reflecting on whether we could have done it faster. We possibly could have done it faster.” As an example of scholarly understatement this is hard to beat.  And of all universities you would think UofQ would recognise the need to be seen to be dealing with serious misconduct matters as quickly as possible – if only to get them out in the open and over. The handling of allegations that led to the resignation of previous VC Paul Greenfield did drag on.
The University of New South Wales also has a research misconduct inquiry underway, involving a cancer drug. In this case while allegations were raised in 2009 the specific complaints now being addressed only came up earlier this year. Here’s hoping they are dealt with in a lot less than 12 months.

New front RUNer 

David Battersby, a founding father of the Regional Universities Network and present chair is stepping down. Understandably so, given he has to bed down the merger of his Ballarat University with what was Monash’s Gippsland campus. (The new venture is named Federation University Australia). Professor Battersby’s successor at RUN is Southern Cross University’s vice chancellor, Peter Lee.

ARC free funding

A couple of weeks back CMM came across Amanda Franklin’s crowdsourcing bid to raise money for a small research project. The University of Melbourne Fulbright Fellow, now studying for a PhD at Tufts, needs the money for a field trip to study the mantis shrimp. She is using micro-fundraiser Microryza, which markets research proposals for a per centage of the take.  The idea is obvious, set up a stall in the marketplace of ideas and hope enough people decide your work merits their backing. However, unlike most obvious ideas it appears to work. In this case it seems there are enough people who think shrimp are worth researching. With six days to go Ms Franklin has already raised the $US3900 she needs. The Australian Research Council should hope Liberal MP Jamie Briggs does not hear of crowd sourcing, letting the wisdom of crowds select and support research is exactly the sort of idea that will appeal to populist MPs. And the finance minister.
Of course it is much easier if you win a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant. Admittedly they are not easily awarded but they give researchers the chance to get on with their work without worrying what MPs thinks. Like the research team from the University of New England which has just picked up $1.3m for their work on breeding dairy cattle in East Africa.

But will Clive Palmer hold the balance of power

On Dit at the University of Adelaide breathlessly reports that election counting has resumed, in the student union elections that is. And at UofQ nominations are open for the senate.  Gosh, which football hero will Mr. Palmer put up?