Plus all smiles at PM’s science prizes and Birmingham hires an HE expert

Humanities achievers

The Times Higher subject ranking of the world top 100 universities in the arts and humanities published over night. Just three Australian institutions made the cut, with Uni Sydney (for a change) at 29 ahead of Uni Melbourne at 38. ANU is 43rd. Overall Stanford leads Harvard, MIT, Oxford and University College London.

Applause all round

Last night Prime Minister’s Science Awards were way different from the early Abbott administration when scientists were upset at the absence of a dedicated minister. The PM praised Chief Scientist Ian Chubb as “a champion of science” and urged him to ignore retirement and keep working till he dropped. Professor Chubb’s response brought the house down.

Mr Turnbull also thanked former minister Ian Macfarlane for the “great work you have done for Australian science.”  And he committed to putting science at the centre of the national agenda. “The alternative is not an option if we want to seize opportunities and not be cowered into fearful desperation then we have to be everything scientists work enable us to be. We have to a nation that recognises disruption is an opportunity not a threat. We have to recognise the central role of science,” Mr Turnbull said. Innovation and Science Minister Christopher Pyne was equally enthusiastic. People will remember this next time the NCRIS funding runs out again.

ANU Sept 15


In case anybody had missed the National Tertiary Education Union’s opposition to private providers in higher education, the comrades have  convened a conference, on “challenging the privatised university”. It’s on at UoQ on November 24-25 and will feature people agreeing with each other on “the ways in which privatisation, neoliberal ideology, corporate funding and influence have changed the nature of universities from public good to private interest institutions.”

Nick nails it

Journalists hoping for a grand bargain on deregulation before the election that they can condemn should brace themselves for disappointment. Nick Xenophon explained why in a recent but unreported (as far as CMM knows) talk to NTEU members in Adelaide. “Once you deregulate universities that’s it. It’s a lot like privatising electricity assets you don’t get them back. It will never ever change and any change such as this ought to go to the people as a key election issue unambiguously. So if the Liberals want to run deregulation let them take it to the people at the next election.” However you count the Senate crossbench numbers it is hard to see a deal without Senator Xenophon and he isn’t voting for anything.

Uni Melb Genomics

Brown back

Simon Birmingham has a higher education advisor, Darren Brown, who did the job for Julie Bishop when she was HE minister in one of the many Howard governments. Mr Brown is ex DFAT, and has worked on a range of ministerial staffs plus a term at ANU as director of international strategy.

Still Bjorn

The government has given up on its proposed Bjorn Lomborg research centre, with Education Minister Simon “softly softly” Birmingham telling Robert Simms (Greens-SA) in Senate estimates yesterday that Chris Pyne had pulled the plan in the “last short while of his time as minister”.

This is politically sensible, with the exception of Flinders, university managements across the country did not want to touch the plan with a bargepole, lest they soil said pole, especially after an inept attempt to set the centre up at the University of Western Australia was abandoned in the face of a staff revolt. Even at Flinders, Vice Chancellor Colin Stirling seemed more interested in using the issue to assert the principal of academic independence, and incidentally his own authority on campus, both of which he did well, than in backing a Lomborg centre. As he said last night; academics at Flinders had engaged the university community in preparing a proposal for the feds, which was distinct from the UWA model and “aimed to address some of the globally significant issues of our time … Universities should be places for contesting controversial ideas without fear or favour – and Flinders has shown itself to be a champion of this notion.”

Senator Birmingham made the same point in Estimates yesterday but the government was on a hiding to nothing by keeping the plan on the books. In striking the government’s colours the minister placed another education issue where the PM wants it, off the election agenda.

ANU Sep 15 2

Lomborg no loss

One person’s principled stand is another’s Machiavellian manipulation; Flinders NTEU president Ron Slee on the end of the Lomborg proposal, yesterday. “Such attempts threaten to undermine one of the core purposes of universities: to engage in free and curiosity-based research, undistorted by extraneous interests.”

Enjoy TEQSA standards while they last

The Tertiary Education Standards Quality Agency is doing a terrific job, according to, well TEQSA. The agency’s annual report tabled in parliament shows it performing within specified times on KPIs – course and institution registration, for example. And when there are not numbers, well people tell TESQA it’s terrific. “Feedback from higher education peak bodies indicates high levels of satisfaction with TEQSA’s approach to its quality assurance and regulatory activities.”

Not, mind you, that it can keep up the good work; “despite TEQSA consolidating its regulatory approach, the agency anticipates that processing times may increase over the next two years due to resourcing reductions announced in the 2014 Budget which significantly reduced the agency’s budget through to the 2017-18 financial year.”

Old staples

Among all the digital economy talk, notice what the winners of the two big Prime Minister’s science prizes work on? ANU’s Graham Farquhar is scientist of the year for research on photosynthesis and its impact on climate change and water-efficient crops. And Graeme Jameson from the University of Newcastle won the innovation award for a technology that retrieves coal dust worth billions upon billions in export income. Agriculture and mining – it’s still a bunch of what Australia does.

US ahead

From Washington, DFAT’s Taylor White diplomatically reports that CMM missed the main point yesterday in reporting on US plans to allow international STEM graduates stay longer there after completing. In fact students who do an undergraduate and postgraduate degrees can stay for a total of six years in the land of the b and the home of the f – way longer than here.