Palmer says no on deregulation

On ABC Radio’s AM this morning Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer said his senate colleagues plus ally Senator Ricky Muir will vote against deregulating university fees. Free universities are party policy and “free means free,” Mr Palmer said. He also dismissed fears that the government would cut university funding, saying it “is just scaring poor academics.” And he rejected university lobby arguments that deregulation is essential to increase funding, “the extra money would be used to increase salaries and employ more academics on tenure.”

Great and good gather

Australia’s vice chancellors will assemble for a long-scheduled meeting at the University of Newcastle today for a Universities Australia meeting. Whatever is on the agenda, no prizes for guessing what they will discuss. The Senate committee on the deregulation legislation reports at 3.30pm.

Hot stuff

The University of New South Wales is sticking with the fossils. Vice Chancellor Fred Hilmer told staff yesterday Council had decided to maintain its $50m holding in fossil energy investments, (from a total portfolio of $309m). The investments are indirect, via independently managed unit trusts. Professor Hilmer referred to the university’s long research record on global warming and alternative energy, dating from the ‘60s in the case of solar energy. He decried “token political actions” and quoted Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, “who warned of the risk of using investment funds in ways ‘that would appear to position the university as a political actor rather than an academic institution’.” Professor Hilmer added “fossil fuels will be needed for many years to come to provide the energy and materials on which millions of lives depend.” This should heat things up at UNSW – and lead to demands for debates on energy investments at other universities. In announcing it will sell out of mineral and energy stocks ANU started a debate, which will run and run.


From each according to their means …

University of Sydney VC Michael Spence’s proposal yesterday to fund student scholarships from higher student fees got a big wrap from Chris Pyne in House of Representatives Question Time yesterday. It demonstrated the expanded access for prospective students from low SES backgrounds, that deregulation would deliver the minister said.

But not everybody was impressed with Dr Spence’s scheme. As Fairfax’s Michael Pascoe put it, “odd game whereby uni pretends much higher fees are needed to offer more scholarships needed because of higher fees.” And the National Tertiary Education Union had a go at calculating the fee increase Dr Spence will need to double the university’s scholarship spending to $160m. According to the union, to make up the proposed Commonwealth cut to funding per EFT and generate an extra $80m, student fees would need to be $20 000 a year, above the informal Group of Eight benchmark of $16 000 per annum the University of Western Australia has said it will charge domestic undergraduates if the Pyne package passes. Although Uni Sydney has quoted scenarios based on “a similar approach” to UWA Dr Spence declined to say what his university will charge when interviewed on ABC Radio’s AM yesterday, so who knows if the union has done its sums correctly. Nor is it clear whether the Uni Sydney plan commits more than the 20 per cent of new fee revenue Mr Pyne wants universities to spend on scholarships.

And then there is the big question, whether the two-thirds of Uni Sydney students who would pay full fees would mind subsidising those Dr Spence seeks to assist.

Eight points of principle

The National Alliance for the Public University launched on Friday with a charter of principles for higher education. It is a statement of what the existing system should be in the best of all possible worlds, properly supported by the state, governed by collegial cultures, pursuing different but equally important missions, providing education as a fundamental human right and operating “independently of market forces and political interference.” The founders are eight academics from the universities of Sydney and Western Sydney, plus one from RMIT and by last night their charter had 200 plus signatories, led by Nobel laureate John Coetzee  from the University of Adelaide and his colleague Brian Castro. The charter points to Chris Pyne as arch villian but it would be interesting to see who would sign if they asked every MP and senator for endorsement.

Member for research

The Greens continue their push to become the university party with Adam Bandt, their only member of the Reps, convening a forum on research funding for Thursday week. “R&D funding is at a record low. Successive governments have failed to protect research, support researchers and put in place strategies for the future,” the Greens claim. The need for a bucket more funding is easy to argue when there is no chance the Greens will ever having to bake a research magic pudding in Treasury’s oven, but it appeals to influential people. Speakers joining Mr Bandt include Nobel laureate Peter Doherty, medical researcher and social media maven Krystal Evans and (what a surprise) National Tertiary Education Union president Jeannie Rea. Mr Bandt’s seat covers the University of Melbourne so pitching on research is obvious. Even so, after taking the seat from Labor when Lindsay Tanner retired in 2010 the party expected to win it back from Mr Bandt last year. Which it didn’t – another win and Mr Bandt will turn the seat into a personal fiefdom – and become the researchers’ representative.

In demand in debt

Australian Catholic University VC Greg Craven made a pragmatic case for deregulation yesterday – that demographic change dictates we need more nurses and teaches. ACU depends on both disciplines for a swag of students so this is predictable given the regular warnings of an oversupply of teachers and nurses. However, he has a point. One projection in the National Teaching Workforce Dataset (CMM, October 21) shows no over-supply of teachers for 20 years. And Health Workforce Australia predicted (admittedly in 2012) that Australia would be 27 per cent short of nurses in 11 years.

But what is especially impressive is the way Professor Craven linked workforce projections to the case for deregulation, “the reality is that successive governments of both political persuasions have cut university funding. By deregulating university fees, universities will have greater funding certainty and will be better placed to finance the education and training needs of Australia.” Fair enough, although critics point out that teachers and nurses will have a hard time repaying student loans if the Pyne plan as presently configured goes ahead.

Desperate appeal or delighted assurance?

In taking his only question in the House of Representatives yesterday Minister Pyne mentioned that the Member for Fairfax, Clive Palmer was in the chamber and that as a big supporter of extending low SES access to higher education he was bound to be happy with the University of Sydney’s announcement (above). A desperate appeal to the PUP leader or assurance that Mr Palmer has changed his mind on deregulation? We might know today.


On track

The University of Western Sydney is very pleased indeed that the state government is considering a tramline which would run past its existing Parramatta campus (there is already a branch rail line with a nearby stop, but trains are infrequent) and into the CBD where the university will build a facility for 10 000 students. This route is one of four the government, which goes to the polls in March, is considering and all of them will service Parramatta centre, so it is only a question of whether UWS wins big or bigger.

Public transport delivers for universities in Sydney. Macquarie, which was connected to the suburban rail system in 2009, has no stats on student use but staff say since then people from the Central Coast – a long trip down a notoriously clogged freeway-have started attending Open Day in strength. One of the light new rail options would also connect it to Parramatta.

While a couple of UWS campuses are remote from railways the worse served university is UNSW– demonstrated by the long queues of busses at Sydney’s Central Station in the morning picking up students for the five km 20 minute inner-city crawl to Kensington. But this will change with the completion of another new tramline connecting the university to the suburban rail system around decade’s end.

Meanwhile in Melbourne, the state government’s proposed cross-city rail expansion misses UniMelb (admittedly the Labor version has a stop there) and down at Monash they are very pleased with a proposed new bus stop at the nearest railway station to the vast Clayton campus.

In breaking news

Flinders joins Finland’s digital health revolution,” Flinders U announcement yesterday. Apparently the university will develop apps so Finns “can visualise” their health data.