Plus training special: why voc ed is like Kafka

Only in Sydney

If there is something the Harbour City loves more than an ICAC inquiry it is talking about property prices – especially in the city’s emerald east, home to the University of New South Wales, where million dollar hovels are the norm. This week the university is featuring the work of Real Estate Economics Fellow Nigel Stapledon who says that on the basis of interest rates and price to rent ratios Australian property prices are not alarming. Depends if you are selling or buying.

Where was Amanda?

There were questions on higher education deregulation in the Reps yesterday, but not from the brand new shadow Amanda Rishworth. Instead Cathy McGowan (Independent-Indi) asked Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce whether he would meet deans of agriculture to discuss developments. Of course he would, the minister replied, before going on to explain why deregulation is good for country campuses and the kids who attend them. And then Education Minister Pyne got a chance to quote the Australian Technology Network’s support of his scholarship scheme. “Universities are starting to recognise the enormous benefits flowing to students and taxpayers from our reforms.” He went on to welcome Ms Rishworth, saying she was the 13th Labor minister or shadow in higher education in six years. “They might change the faces but Labor does not get the need to let universities do their best.” It was Mr Pyne on political, if not policy form. Despite defending deeply divisive polices he has the initiative. Yesterday Labor MPs were all over social media opposing fee increases – so why not in the House of Representatives?

Get HEEP to this HEPPPy HEPP

Innovative Research University Executive Director Conor King wonders what the feds are doing by announcing the government’s new program to encourage participation by people from low SES backgrounds will have a three year reporting cycle, instead of an annual one. “Rather than unleash the bonds around the previous program the government on current plans will merely alter the shape of the knots, ” he says. This knotty yarn, as Mr King explains, started with the creation of an equity program following the Bradley Report called the Higher Education Equity Program. This morphed into the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, which the new government has replaced with the Higher Education Participation Program. “The HEPP will consolidate the two largest components of the HEPPP into one, (it) will reduce the reporting burden on universities and provide greater freedom for them to target their activities under the programme for best value and effect,” the Department of Education assures us. Not so, says Mr King, “the objective is to enrol more low SES students. The funding that rewards doing so successfully, and the risk of losing funding if numbers drop, removes the need to monitor the specific activities and expenditure a university may undertake to achieve a positive result.” So the only thing that has changed is what was HEEP became HEPPP and is now HEPP. Everybody clear on that?

McKenzie moves on

Geraldine McKenzie is leaving Bond University, where she has variously been PVC Research and Dean of Law, leading the latter in what VC Tim Brailsford yesterday described to staff as, “challenging times.” Professor McKenzie is moving, but not far, relocating to Southern Cross University where she will be DVC Research.

Never let a chance go by

You can’t blame Criterion Conferences for making the most of its opportunities. What would have been a standard lunch and lecture on administration costs in August is now being badged as a crisis response. “Are your processes prepared for the budget cuts? With Christopher Pyne’s reforms well under way, funding rates are being cut and the deregulation of fees loom, now more than ever. Universities need to be addressing how they can be making efficiency gains,” Criterion claims. This will particularly appeal to people from La Trobe, where efficiency is a big issue following Monday’s announcement. That and because DVC Brian McGaw is a headlined speaker.

First Colombo Fellows

The Governor General launched the New Columbo Plan pilot program last night, with winners of the 40 inaugural scholarships set to go to Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia and Singapore. The four country fellows are: Emma Roberts (ANU) to Indonesia, Jason Emanuelle (Monash) to Japan, Rebecca Wardell (ANU) to Singapore and Sarah Mitchell (Uni Adelaide) to Hong Kong


Think universities are a big deal? There are three million students in the training system and what they need is too often ignored, but not yesterday.

Macfarlane’s manifesto

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane delivered a fine, fighting speech yesterday, letting the training establishment have it with both barrels. “In recent years the skills and training system has become complex and bogged down in red tape. Its excessive complexity and duplication has created a disincentive for participation for employers and students, which means Australia is not taking full advantage of opportunities to build its most productive workforce,” the minister said. And in case anybody misread his intent he elaborated; “Employers are concerned they aren’t getting the skilled workers they need. “Training providers feel weighed down by red tape, endless process and excessive regulation “Students, parents and employers tell me they can’t always get the information to make the right decisions about the training they need” Mr Macfarlane went on to explain what he is going to do to fix it, emphasising industry’s role in general and promising an industry controlled advisory group, “to help the government deliver the broad reform agenda.” He detailed programs to support apprentices and to lift their present 50 per cent completion rate. And the minister promised to reduce the bewildering bureaucracy in regulation. That he isn’t entirely happy with the Australian Skills Quality Authority seems clear from the way he announced ASQA was not increasing fees “for the foreseeable future, that isn’t going to happen.” Business and private providers in the audience obviously approved – but what of the TAFE establishments back in the states, after all, reforming federal ministers come and go but they endure. I once wrote a speech for a federal voc ed minister comparing TAFE bosses to the cast of Kafka’s The Castle. They applauded politely and paid no attention at all.

Yes it is that bad

And if you think Mr Macfarlane is exaggerating, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research released figures yesterday showing the contract completion rate for trade apprentices and trainees starting in 2009 was 47 per cent. And that is an improvement! It was 46 per cent for 2008 starters.

Anguish over ASQU

A review of the Australian Skills Quality Authority commissioned before the last election was also released yesterday. And it rather made Mr Macfarlane’s point that voc ed regulation is a shambles. There are 21 findings, ranging from skeptical to scathing. The review accepts that the training sector is “broad and varied,” that ASQA was only established in 2011 and that it has built broad support. Even so, there is a sense in the review that ASQA is overwhelmed – which is not surprising when nobody seems to know exactly what it is meant to accomplish. “No single entity amongst ASQA, the Industry Skills Councils (ISCs), and the NSSC (National Skills Standards Council) has clear responsibility for issuing guidance about the interpretation of the Standards and training packages to providers. There is some suggestion that ASQA is responsible, but they are not funded for this task.” Mr Macfarlane and his industry advisers have their work cut out for them.

Optimism over experience

Swinburne Vice Chancellor Linda Kristjanson has endorsed the Business Council of Australia plan for VET, which calls for a national strategy integrating all tiers of education and public and private providers. She adds it is time for the powerful to step up for Voc Ed. As a dual sector university Swinburne is well placed to do just that, which makes a case for a victory for optimism over experience. With universities and private providers getting into the act and a minister intent on change perhaps it will be tougher this time for the old guards in the states to sit out the siege in their castles.