Plus VET for-profit providers promise to protect students 

Why doesn’t her bum look big in that?

Marika Tiggemann has Australian Research Council funding to explore the implications of printing warnings on photo-shopped models in magazines who are not as perfect as pictured. “There’s lots of evidence that looking at thin, idealised images are bad for women’s body image because women compare their bodies to what they see in magazines and feel bad when they don’t match up. … The theory behind a disclaimer label is that if women are told these images aren’t real they won’t compare themselves and therefore won’t feel bad,” Professor Tiggemann, from Flinders U said. Of course they could just stop reading Mascara Monthly.

What a little MOOC-light can do

Swinburne University will run a six-week MOOC on autism in April-May next year. This is an outstanding idea and a testament to the creators’ marketing smarts and community service savvy. It is hard to imagine better brand building than a course that will appeal to a vast international audience looking for information they can trust in a hugely contested area. There will be people all over the world who would never know of Swinburne but for this course. Like the University of Tasmania’s MOOC on dementia, Swinburne obviously understands short on-line courses can create not just new forms of socially important education but markets. It will not be long until government realises the potential for community information (as in education, not as a euphemism for advertising) campaigns in health and social services – and they can buy an awful lot of MOOC for the money a TV campaign costs.

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Safety in numbers

The Murray financial system inquiry has implications for everybody in an industry super fund, except on important point, perhaps UniSuper. Mr Murray calls for independent boards instead of ones strong in employer association and union representatives. But Unisuper is relatively light on for the latter. Managements appoint four directors, staff two and the unions two and these eight chose three independents. I asked the fund what it thought of this, and the other relevant recommendations yesterday and a representative said the inquiry’s take on retirement income was especially interesting and that UniSuper would be commenting when it had reached “a considered view”. Something to look forward to, and as a fund member, no I am not being facetious.

Eight says enough

THE Group of Eight did not go the Oliver Twist in its statement on Deregulation MkII yesterday. This distinguishes it from Universities Australia and the Innovative Research Universities group (CMM yesterday), which are demanding Mr Pyne up his second offer to include a smaller, or no, cut to funding for Commonwealth Supported Places. Instead Group of Eight chair Ian “the gent” Young focused on the strengths of the minister’s second offer, without making new demands. It followed a similar statement from Warren Bebbington, VC of Go8 member the University of Adelaide, which made a realpolitik case for the existing offer (CMM yesterday). This is a significant, if silent spit in the university lobby. Universities Australia is determined to extract more money from Canberra and people aware of its discussions with cross bench senators say the lobby is convinced that enough of them will only vote for deregulation if the government’s proposed cut to CSP funding is less than planned. However it seems the Go8 will settle for what is on the table.

High price of probity

Private provider training chief Rod Camm has launched a pre-emptive strike against the looming Senate inquiry into the for-profit VET sector. Mr Camm, chief executive of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, is calling for an industry ombudsman to provide “a simple, national consumer-focused complaints handling process for students,” covering all public and private providers. The TAFE lobby and its allies point to shonks and spivs gaming the training industry and charging government and students for courses that deliver not much. But while there is a whole agency assigned to accredit VET providers, students are essentially on their own. Mr Camm also proposes a binding code of conduct for ACPET members and rules for using recruitment agents.

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It’s a smart strategy – for every anecdote of sharp practice presented to the Senate inquiry Mr Camm will be able to reply that this is why ACPET has a new code and tribunal to protect students. But to make it work the ombudsman will need to be independent of government and resourced in a way that makes it independent of ACPET’s members. This will not be cheap but the industry has no choice if it is protect its integrity – and the business that flows from it. As Mr Camm told CMM last night, it’s “likely to be predominantly industry funded.”

“The scheme provides an opportunity for training providers to demonstrate that they are high quality institutions who have the students’ interests at heart. It’s a necessary investment in the students and in the integrity of the system overall, and it’s a cost effective form of resolving disputes for both students and providers,” he said.

Hot stuff

University of New South Wales researchers say solar cells can now convert 40 per cent of sunlight into electricity, up from a third. As storage batteries improve the implications of this are immense. In the US the Rocky Mountains Institute says house-roof solar panels could create grid-competitive domestic electricity in California and New York by the of the decade. And if there, why not here?


Targeting the wrong market

The government’s understated comms campaign making the case for deregulation has one message that prospective undergraduates will hear – HECS means you study now pay later. (Not even the feds call the loan scheme HELP anymore). With research for some universities showing the “$100 000 degree debt sentence” is not impacting on school leavers this is ok, although the argument that graduates make higher incomes than others will alienate young people who think they have a bigger future than working for the man, sorry person. The more immediate political problem is that this is not the audience the government needs to convince – it’s their parents who are very focused on what degrees could cost, not to mention the price of advertisements for a program that isn’t and may never be, law. This sort of advertising encourages bipartisanship – voters on both sides of the partisan divide loathe it.

Waiting on workloads

Australian Catholic University management thought its new policy on research time allocation was industrially tight as a drum, but it underestimated the ability of the National Tertiary Education Union to find the makings of a case in just about anything. And so implementing the plan is on hold while the university negotiates with the union over the process used to decide how staff were allocated research time, or not. According to the university’s Chief Operating Officer, Stephen Weller, the dispute is not over teaching and “leadership/service” activities so “annual workload allocation discussions can continue with staff.” And it does not appear to affect many people, just staff who’s proposed research plan has “non-traditional outputs”, who’s plan was delayed and who started since June. Good-oh but it seems late in the year to be allocating 2015 tasks. And ACU insiders say this is translating to a hold on hiring sessional staff until everything is sorted. People are also aggrieved that there is still no appeals process for people who got less, or no, research time.

Pyne’s pragmatic research line

Chris Pyne stopped texting senators yesterday long enough to launch the Institute of Physics Congress in Canberra with a speech rich in compliments. But among the ego embellishing Mr Pyne also endorsed the applied research agenda of his colleague, industry minister Ian Macfarlane. Yes, Mr Pyne said, “blue-sky, curiosity-driven research is crucially important and we will continue to support it.” However, “we also need applied research, and to give practical application to research ideas. Research excellence and access to state of the art facilities are indeed the foundation of technological and process innovation. When appropriate, it is important to connect ideas from researchers with the needs of business, by creating links between science and industry. This can bring great benefits to the community as a whole.”

Ignore the “when appropriate” Mr Macfarlane is keen on tying research funding to industry outcomes, and Mr Pyne either agrees, or has too much else on to argue. And nobody else seems inclined to protest. Yes, the Group of Eight made the case for pure research last month (CMM November 20) but otherwise nobody in the science establishment is protesting the government’s applied research push. As UNSW science dean Merlin Crossley said in CMM yesterday, “we are not going to see the research budget tripled. While people do not like ‘picking winners’ it’s good to recognise winning areas and back them.”