It’s humour Jim, just not as we know it

ANU VC (and Nobel physics laureate) Brian Schmidt responds (via Twitter) to reports a US university based its COVID-19 student return to campus on modelling by two physicists. “Exactly why I ask my public health experts to design our response. While almost everything is ultimately physics, a university is not a spherical cow.”  Glad, he cleared that up – (it’s a joke about researchers working on improving milk production, “assume a spherical cow, in a vacuum”).

There’s more in the Mail

In Features this morning

Jay Cohen (Charles Sturt U) wants teaching on-line to work in the way people learn in life, through self-direction. It’s this week’s piece in commissioning editor Sally Kift’s series on what is needed now in teaching and learning.

Steve Larkin, makes the case for Batchelor Institute – First Nations ways of doing, informing western education. A new contribution to a series by Indigenous academics and policy people from commissioning editor Claire Field.

Merlin Crossley (UNSW) on epigenetics, what it means and where research is – nobody knows what’s next.

Deakin U sticks to job cuts strategy

Management consulted with staff but still likes its original plan

In May Deakin U management announced a savings-plan to deal with COVID-19 revenue reductions (CMM May 26.) It commenced consulting with staff on job losses, as the Enterprise Agreement requires, but separately in each of 15 operating units.

This was not well received by all at Deakin U.  Staff complained there were a bunch of other ways to save money and they were happy to help management plan for the future.

And the campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union argued that university-wide change required consultation at an all of university level and went to the Fair Work Commission – which agreed.

So, the university met with the union and asked staff for their views, although the comrades did not think managements’ hearts were in it.

And now the process is complete and the university is going to do pretty much what it announced in the first place. Word is 300 FTE positions will go, plus a further hundred that are now vacant, as originally planned

Cash no cure-all for SA med research

The South Australian Productivity Commission says the state’s share of medical research funding has declined and there are all sorts of reasons why. Two stand out

They are governance issues with the state’s Health and Medical Research Institute and a flawed model for working with the state’s three public universities and public health system.

The commission makes its case in a report on HMR in the state.

SAHMRI was established to arrest the decline in South Australia’s share of national research funding. While it has achieved some important successes to date, … it has been challenged by conflicts in its objectives and membership model and by flaws in the business model for medical research institutes (MRI) more generally,” SAPC states.

And no, it is not all about money; “the Commission considers the case for new money to be invested in HMR – argued for by many inquiry participants – has not been made. Instead the focus needs to be on freeing resources through efficiencies by eliminating duplication, cutting complexity and creating additional dedicated time for clinician research.”

And if that does not upset some at SAHMRI one of the options to fix things might– merge with either Uni Adelaide or Uni SA (both, unlike Flinders U are nearby).

It’s a classic of the productivity commission genre – well-argued, evidence-rich, and solution-focused but not much fussed by political practicalities.

Clever questions on casual pay

At Macquarie U, the union has asked the VC specific questions about how management ensures casual staff receive the right-rate of pay

The questions are the same as asked at Uni Wollongong, (September 4) and are being sent to VCs across NSW. This is such a cunning plan you could attach fangs and call it a Fair Work Commission judgement.

At UoW management responded with specific undertakings, which National Tertiary Education Union officials will unquestionably commit to memory and quote back at the university at the first allegation of casuals not being paid the right rate.

“Modest improvements” what credit recognition needs

Peak advisory panel decides case for major change not made

The feds have released the Higher Education Standards Panel’s advice to Minister Tehan on updating the arrangements, plus a report commissioned by the Department of Education to assist HESP.

Consultants Phillips KPA provided in great detail its usual comprehensive consideration of existing circumstances and carefully presented recommendations on what needs to change. They include one, the significance of which is inverse proportion to its brevity, a call for “an implementation plan for improving transparency of credit recognition and assessment principles for non-formal and informal learning.”

HESP, however is less ambitious.  Its advice to the minister recommends amending guidance to providers, “in order to drive the modest improvements needed in sector application of credit recognition policies.”

Overall it recommends minor amendments be made to the Higher Education Standards Framework.”

Government deeds not words: research culture under attack

Ministers are not explicitly criticising universities but the very basis of research and international academic exchange is under threat

The last couple of weeks in Canberra could have been worse for the research community. But then the government introduced a bill to oversight connections with foreign governments by the states and “associated entities” – which includes universities.

Late Friday Universities Australia warned the bill gave the minister for foreign affairs, “the power to monitor or cancel international agreements.”

Perhaps universities are not the government’s primary focus, but as UA CEO Catriona Jackson puts it, “now that we have seen the detail of the legislation, we hold grave concerns regarding the effect the laws may have on research collaboration, which is the lifeblood of knowledge and job creation.”

The bill requires organisations covered to get approval from the minister before starting a negotiation, including MOUs with any part which is legally binding. They will also need a tick to vary a pre-existing arrangement and must advise the feds of all already existing.

As UA puts it, “tens of thousands of research projects may be within scope.”

The bill will go the Senate’s foreign affairs and related legislation committee, which is due to report on November 5.

It follows peak science lobbies giving evidence to a Senate committee hearing on the impact of farming on the Great Barrier Reef feeling obliged to call for respect for research and science . And the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security is to inquire into “foreign interference” in universities. (CMM September 1).

This is all very bad news indeed for universities used to presenting themselves as a force for good but denied the resources they need by short-sighted governments.

While ministers are not explicitly attacking universities, the very basis of research and international academic exchange are being questioned – as if oversight is required to check researchers act in the national interest.

What Australia needs now: single-sector training


VET can skill Australia for the immediate post COVID period and become the engine room for the economy for the next 20 years

As the learned Claire Field regularly reports in CMM, work towards national consistency in qualifications is underway. But we need way more –connecting skills planning to industry policy.

Jurisdictions that win out will be those who have clear future-industry plans and can articulate these to the training providers that can build content around future jobs.

But states and territories will also need to work with the Commonwealth, to ensure what international students study fits national strategies and local needs.

For all this to work, institutions will need to adopt cross-sector partnerships and dual-sector providers develop systems in-house to create job-generating skills bases. The recent announcement of TAFE NSW combining with four universities to create a training centre at the “aerotropolis” planned for the new western Sydney airport is a great example.

This joining-up can break down barriers and introduces VET students to higher education opportunities. For a Cert IV student to be studying with people working towards a degree is an essential way to do this. Joining-up will accomplish more than lifting standards of education, and skill acquisition among individuals, it will create skills-based mobility across the workforce.

The nexus between future planning and training is crucial. Business as what used to be normal will not be enough to repair the long-term damage the virus has already done. A connected training system is a big part of the solution.

Dirk Mulder is CMM’s international education correspondent


Katrina Falkner is confirmed as executive dean, Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences at the University of Adelaide.