In breaking news

At the University of Wollongong, Fiona Probyn-Rapsey is changing the acronym of the school she leads, Humanities and Social Inquiry. Apparently HSI annoyingly autocorrects to HIS, and so from December it will become HASI (“rhymes with jazzy).

There’s more in the Mail: Warren Bebbington on Glyn Davis’s new book

There’s more in the Mail: Warren Bebbington on Glyn Davis’s new book 

In Features, on the (CMM website and at the end of today’s email) recently resigned University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington reviews Glyn Davis’s long-awaited new book on the Australian university, from whence the single-system came, where it is now and how it could change.

Professor Bebbington finds much to commend in the arguments presented by the University of Melbourne VC, who steps down next year – perhaps because he has also similarly written on the need for a diversity of missions in higher education, (CMM July 9 2014).

And Davis is just the man to make change happen, Bebbington suggests, “Canberra urgently needs wise counsel and persuasive advice if a new policy framework is to be formed. Freed from his vice chancellorial duties at the University of Melbourne, there is little doubt Glyn Davis could provide it.”

No no-speaks

Brush up your Klingon at the Adelaide Language Festival next Wednesday. Hosted by the University of Adelaide, the event includes basics on 26 languages and information on learning more about them. Including “artistically constructedStar-Trek speak.  Funnily enough Jay, the dialect used by SA politicians when the power goes out, is not on the agenda.

Selling science the Finkel way

Happy the researchers who attract the Chief Scientist’s interest, he can make the incomprehensible understandable, the abstruse amusing and the unfathomable fundamental. He did it the other day in a speech on genome editing for cancer treatment in which he set out the four ways researchers can inform and inspire Australians to embrace their achievements.

“Speak human to humans”: media consultants will tell you that you can’t reach an audience without a clickbait headline or spraying abuse. But you don’t compete in that market. When it comes to health, people are seeking credible information, consolidated in one place. … I don’t mean media releases on new discoveries: I mean materials connecting the science to the decisions we face in daily life.”

Think out to the ten-year horizon”: “Change takes time. Change carries risk. And change has to co-exist with constant care. …That’s the bottom line for politicians. It is incredibly easy to get terribly, terribly wrong. Help leaders think and plan ahead.

Regulate to facilitate”: “A patchwork quilt of regulations might indeed be effective at protecting the safety of the public, but at great economic cost – and the unmeasurable cost of progress foregone. The broader point of regulation is to facilitate progress. Regulation done well is our best friend! It gives us certainty. It rewards the quality providers. It channels our efforts to things we can actually implement. So let’s be even better at regulation.”

Australians assume government works”: “We assume that when we go to hospital, there are protocols and safeguards. We assume that the medicines we get from the chemist are safe. We assume that our researchers are proceeding with integrity. We assume because in almost every case, it’s true: the system protects us. … You in the audience are the people Australians will listen to. They will look to you for guidance in the years ahead. You have a responsibility to work with the regulators, to help them in their quest to modernise the rules to balance safety and progress.

Four boxes really worth ticking.

Thunderbirds were go but they’re back

The new CGI series of Thunderbirds is on the agenda for the University of the Sunshine Coast’s children’s media symposium this Saturday. There are (and CMM apologises for this) no strings attached.

Union and management agree at Swinburne

Industrial peace prevails at Swinburne University, with management and the National Tertiary Education Union jointly recommending staff approve a new enterprise agreement. The deal was done in a couple of months (CMM September 26), contrasting with the last bargaining round adopted after an  age of acrimony.

Staff will receive 2 per cent annual pay rises from next year to 2021 plus a $1200 payment in March and there are superannuation improvements for all fixed-term staff. The gains come at no apparent cost to conditions. Overall the agreement is in-line with deals done at universities across the country.

Pyne explains the Military Educational complex

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne says the government is working on a defence industry skill and STEM strategy, for release in mid 2018. In an Adelaide speech celebrating Magna Carta (no its not a submarine) Mr Pyne worked in a flotilla of facts on government initiatives in trades and STEM education to keep the naval building programme afloat. First off the slips will be the long anticipated naval shipbuilding college, scheduled to start in January. It will, “focus on increasing the number of people with key entry-level trade qualifications” and because the college will be industry-driven it “will be looking to collaborate on workforce skills curricula.”

The choice for 150 people at Flinders U: leave or compete for new jobs

Flinders U is restructuring professional services in line with the academic structure announced this time a year back (CMM November 25 2016). Last November voluntary departures delivered the 200 head count cut the university needed but yesterday’s announcement involves taking 150 FTE positions out of the university structure. However, with new positions created, the final reduction will be 26. The 150 staff whose existing jobs will go will be able to apply for new positions from December 4.

The big staff losses are in lower level administration positions with the number of HEW Four jobs predicted to drop by around 25 per cent.

Solvers for the Senate

Australian students are among the world’s best collaborative problem-solvers,” says Education Minister Simon Birmingham. Perhaps he could suggest they fill vacant Senate spots.

Really hard numbers: ANU economists create a DYI free-trade impact model

Tom Kompas and ANU colleagues have built the first large scale model with inter-temporal rules (how decisions at one point in time shape future circumstances), which countries can use to assess the decades-long impact of free trade deals. “Since our model is inter-temporal, producer and consumer behaviour is optimised in the long-run, thus enabling us to simulate, in particular, producers’ anticipation of future tariff reductions, taking into account future investment decision in advance,” they write

They tested the model for Vietnam in a free-trade scenario, using the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement and found, “Vietnam gains considerably from the TPP, with 50% of the gains realised within the first ten years despite our assumption of a gradual and linear removal of trade barriers.”

All good, even better the model is universal – plug in the data and get results for country of choice. Professor Kompas says the model, published in journal Economic Modelling is available free for the next 50 day.

PhamVan Ha, Tom Kompas, Hoa Thi Minh Nguyen and Chu Hoang Long (all Crawford School of Public Policy @ ANU), “Building a better trade model to determine local effects: A regional and intertemporal GTAP model,” Economic Modelling, 67 (December 2017) 102-113

Bebbington on Glyn Davis’s new book

The Australian Idea of a University

Glyn Davis

Melbourne: MUP, 2017, 170pp

Reviewed by Warren Bebbington

As Glyn Davis prepares to return to the professoriate after 16 distinguished years of university leadership, he has produced a deft and insightful book on Australia’s public universities, their nature and future prospects.  His title may echo Cardinal Newman’s classic, but the Australian idea of a university, as he makes clear, has been an altogether different and rather static concept, “a still point in a turning world.”

For contrary to the cornucopia of institutional types in the US, Australia offers just a single model for the public university.  In the mid 19th century, our first universities were created under British influence. Mimicking the pragmatic goals of London or Edinburgh rather than the idealism of Oxford or Cambridge, they shaping what Davis calls a “metropolitan university” model—publicly owned but self-governing, urban and commuter-based, secular and with merit-based admission, comprehensive but with a strong emphasis on professional training, and later adding research to their teaching mission.

“If we understand history,” says Davis, “we need not be its victims.” With an elegance which masks deep research, he portrays the whole history of Australia’s university development. Sydney and Melbourne began a first wave of university formation, embracing the metropolitan model; a second wave in the 1940s and 50s saw universities like UNE and ANU founded with different ideas in mind, but soon edging towards the earlier model. A third wave in the 1960s saw universities like Macquarie, Latrobe and Murdoch organised around interdisciplinarity, and featuring such novel programs as  Environment, Asia, or Culture; yet these too felt the pull of the archetype, and were drawn inexorably to the same template.

If the standard Carnegie classifications for types of higher education institutions were applied, Davis laments that every Australian public university would fall in a single Carnegie category—the doctoral university.  He asks how, in a nation of separate settlements scattered across an entire continent, a single model came to prevail. His answer is “path dependency,” a concept adapted from economic analysis, which in social scientist Scott Page’s formulation argues that a single unit type becomes increasingly prevalent, partly through habit, but also through self-reinforcement, positive feedback or financial rewards, and regulatory lock-in.

Change to the model proved near impossible, first in the face of academic predilection and student preference, but ultimately through the national imposition of uniformity by reforming Education Minister John Dawkins. After rehearsing the upheavals of the 1980s, Davis offers a quite even-handed assessment of the Dawkins legacy—urgently needed expansion of university places was achieved nationally, financed by a path-breaking income-contingent loan scheme (HECS), but achieved by the elimination the nation’s entire array of small specialist colleges, the legislated imposition on all institutions of substantial size, diminishing of funds-per-student, and the de-emphasising of the teaching mission in favour of a universal research obligation.

Thus a single, traditional model became uniform in all public universities. But “ancient traditions are no guarantee of continued viability”: Davis reminds us of how in the 19th century, the expansion of railroads across the USA created economical national distribution and wiped out whole local industries. Today public universities are challenged by the internet university, in which course content is pared down to merely what is needed to prepare for a job, and the MOOCs, where content is liberated from courses altogether. “Path dependency continues only so long as key variables remain unchanged”, he says, and technological ferment “breaks the constraints that encourage conformity.” In the face of this, the uniform Australian idea of a university, he says “may have run its course.” It is time now for real diversity: under attack from technological disruption and a growing array of for-profit and private providers, much greater institutional diversity will be needed if our public universities are to endure, animated by experiment, innovation and resilience.

Yet he is far from pessimistic about the capacity of the public universities to endure. “For most students, higher education is about knowledge rather than just content, and here context and immersion matter.” He quotes economist Joseph Schumpeter’s observation that creative destruction is not necessarily incessant. Many internet providers have faltered or failed, while some public universities have already acted decisively to address the challenges unfolding. Purdue University in the US has purchased leading internet provider Kaplan University and harnessed its powers to public university ends, while others have spent heavily on new accommodation and facilities designed to entice students away from isolated work on their tablets and back to campus.  Public universities will cope with the challenges, he says, because their work competing for international students has prepared them well for the competitive environment.

But a changed policy environment is also needed, one that allows innovation and rewards difference in our public universities. From Canberra, Davis would like to see a new national policy framework that embraces the entirety of post-school education;  a new fee setting approach that pays much closer attention to actual course cost and ends complex cross-subsidies; a fifth wave of new, specialist public institutions—small, without a research requirement, each dedicated to a specific field of knowledge; and a revived Australian Tertiary Education Commission, akin in its powers to the Hong Kong University Grants Committee, which has achieved a system differentiation unknown in Australia.

It is a compelling case for decisive Federal Government action. But where is the Federal Education Minister with the courage and parliamentary support to act on such a plan? For most of the past decade, neither side of politics has had the stomach for bold change in higher education policy. Canberra urgently needs wise counsel and persuasive advice if a new policy framework is to be formed. Freed from his vice chancellorial duties at the University of Melbourne, there is little doubt Glyn Davis could provide it.

Professor Warren Bebbington was until April Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide