Plus: science innovations that sell, Gail Gago comes a gutser, and Spence’s Sydney strategy

Healthy high

Casey Roulette (Washington State U) and colleagues have found Congo hunter-gatherers who smoke a lot of cannabis are light-on for intestinal parasites. And there you were thinking medicinal use was just an excuse.

Collected  cosmopolitans

Christopher Pyne has established the Coordinating Council for International Education to finalise the government’s national export strategy, (submissions on the draft plan closed on Friday). Mr Pyne will chair the new council, which will include relevant ministers, Julie Bishop (Foreign Affairs), Andrew Robb (Trade), Ian Macfarlane (Industry and Science), Michaela Cash (assistant Immigration) and Simon Birmingham (assistant Education and Training).

Industry expert members are Phil Honeywood (International Education Association), Kate Carnell (Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry), Belinda Robinson (Universities Australia), Sue Blundell (English Australia), Bill Spurr (Education Adelaide) and Malcolm White (TAFE Directors).

Appeal to the people

Vicki Thomson knows her way around the policy and politics of university funding, so when the director of the Group of Eight says the best hope of sustainable university funding is making the case to the public you can be sure she has thought through all the other alternatives. Certainly governments haven’t acted, despite years of effort, on the convincing case universities have made that the existing funding model is unsustainable, basically because the continuing decline is easy to ignore . Ms Thomson spelt out the problem in a speech yesterday.

“Funding damage, even dire funding damage, will not close a university. We will keep on keeping on. There is no headline response to ensure a political rethink. On the surface all looks deceptively fine. No abandoned campuses with emotive tumbleweed vision for the television cameras. No hundreds of employees pouring from the gates as a final factory siren sounds and making tearful statements about large job losses and the death of a local community. No campaign of distraught parents or parade of local shop keepers bemoaning the loss of revenue from us. Our plight is not visible to the harsh spotlight of media, nor stark enough to engender political retreat. But it can, unfortunately, negatively impact far more people both directly and indirectly. I have explained this to every politician I have met with in Canberra.”

But while politicians listen, they do not listen hard enough to grasp that they must, not should, must act, she says.

That’s the problem. The solution is to explain, explain, explain direct to the electorate what universities do, why it matters, and what will happen if quality declines.

“The most important strategic alliance Australian universities can pursue in 2015 is a strategic alliance with the Australian taxpayer. … When you are a sector which does not change votes – when you are a sector that is not generally front of mind in the community – then you are, increasingly, at a political funding disadvantage. … (but) if we have taxpayers on board – if we can ensure the taxpayer understands our value to them – now and into the future, then we have a chance of extracting decent funding policies out of Canberra.”

Vice chancellors and lobby groups around the country have said similar things in private since the Senate’s second rejection of Minister Pyne’s deregulation proposal and we will likely see information and advertising campaigns before the next election. And these can work – that no government dares take on the Pharmacy Guild demonstrates the political power that comes from being loved and trusted by the voters. But building that sort of relationship with the community takes time, much more time than there is before the next election.

ANU new 3

Call for cold hard cash

The Vinnies Canberra CEO sleepout is at ADFA (well that’s security sorted) on June 18 and Uni of Canberra DVC Research Frances Shannon will be there. Perhaps it’s an experiment to establish a frozen misery metric (DVC R’s like metrics). You can sponsor her here.

Gago comes a gutser

The South Australian government is now copping a second week of criticism over its decision to exclude for-profit training providers from competing for a swag of publicly funded students. The plan is to give 90 per cent of places to TAFE in 2016, to give it a chance to get its act together. Unsurprisingly this did not go down well with advocate of a competitive market, federal training minister and South Australian senator Simon Birmingham, who says it puts the state in breach of an agreement with the Gillard Government. But what is interesting is the industry anger and critical media commentary the TAFE near-monopoly has generated. As Leon Byner put it on Adelaide radio 5AA yesterday, “this seems to be another one of those unenviable positions the government finds itself in where the only people that think it is right are them.” Which is strange. TAFE has a vocal Greens and Labor cheer squad and teacher unions have political clout and know how to use it. Yet state minister Gail Gago seems friendless in this fight.

She surely must have felt that way after her 5AA interview with David Penberthy yesterday. The minister explained that giving TAFE a guaranteed 90 per cent share of 51 000 training places for 2016 was not the whole story, that when all programmes are included the private sector could compete for 25 per cent of places. But Mr Penberthy was not impressed, nor was the state opposition’s training spokesman David Pisoni who called in and got a very generous run. Ms Gago has lost the politics of this fight, which makes the policy position hard to hold.

Swinburne stands up

Swinburne U committed to marriage equality in a statement yesterday. “We have a deep and abiding commitment to working with LGBTIQ students and staff to ensure that we are supporting our people and saying no to prejudice, hatred, discrimination and abuse wherever it exists,” the university announced. Swinburne has form on standing up for all its students. In August 2014 student recruitment chief Jeffrey Smart responded to a facile homophobic comment on the university Liberal Club facebook page in a piece which was as measured a call for respect for all as anybody could hope for.

Spence’s Sydneys strategy

Michael Spence’s discussion paper on a new undergraduate model did not surprise all University of Sydney staff with some suggesting that it was “almost a re-run” of the 2010 strategy. Even so, there is a mass of detail in the document, far more than the lines about being older and thus needing to be more prestigious than the University of Melbourne, that has had much of the attention this week. But there is no doubting that the inspiration for one of Vice Chancellor Spence’s ideas, a generalist undergraduate degree plus a professional masters, comes from Marvellous Melbourne.

The paper extensively explores the case for this and other options, but only briefly acknowledges the key question – who will pay, at least upfront, the student fees for generalist bachelors-professional masters degrees. “While many students taking vertical double degrees at the University of Sydney and other institutions enjoy access to Commonwealth Supported Places while enrolled at the undergraduate level, we should seek confirmation that the Commonwealth remains committed to this arrangement. This is, of course, a critical question for students,” the paper states.

Too right. How students should pay for undergraduate degrees followed by vocational masters has got lost in the deregulation debate and while this is no reason to stop Uni Sydney following Uni Melbourne and UWA sooner or later, the whole question of how students fund a second degree to qualify for professional accreditation needs to be dealt with.

Staff are also ambivalent about talk of cutting courses, saying there is already an orderly process for closing and commencing degrees and they fear more vocational masters will mean heavier workloads and more teaching only positions. “Work intensity will increase with generalist degrees,” one said. But above all people hope that management has not made up its minds on which options in the paper to adopt, especially if they involve staff cuts. The university’s enterprise agreement requires management not just to discuss but consult with staff about workplace change another staffer says.

Smoothie science sells

The Cooperative Research Centre Association is pleased with the Miles Review, which found for the programme and which Industry and Science Minister Macfarlane supports. Yes there are two points the CRCA does not like, the no exceptions 10 year lifetime for centres is one and excluding proposals without an immediate commercial purpose is the other. But overall the review’s conclusion, and its recommendations for streamlined applications end a year of uncertainty . “I have already had several meetings with companies that can now see themselves in a leadership role in proposing a CRC,” CRCA chief Tony Peacock says.

Shark Tank for Science

Maybe its just CMM, but it seems many of the entrepreneurs on TVs The Shark Tank  spruik cooking and cleaning products. Perhaps it’s what interests the audience, unless it shows Australians in general aren’t interested in paradigm shifting products that depend on serious science and engineering. (Imagine pitching a quantum computer made out of Ipads in three minutes.) But not so, demonstrated by the new round of federal funding for accelerating commercialisation announced yesterday by Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane.

Among the big winners, with a $1m each, is Clarinex Technologies, working on wireless to connect “the internet of things.” Another is One Atmosphere, which wants to commercialise its emergency buoyancy system for aircraft. And ARC funded AquaHydrex will build a pilot pant that uses sunlight to extract hydrogen (for fuel) from seawater. But what do you bet the one that will generate investor attention is Innovative Vending. It gets $50 000 for a system to sell smoothies.