Plus the crisis in economics education: what the profession must do now

And last night’s Victorian Science Prizes and Fellowships

Kim understates it

Labor shadow minister Kim Carr yesterday. “Get three vice chancellors in the room and you’ll get four opinions.” Only four?

One big push

The Group of Eight are mounting a big push for deregulation, the day before Christopher Pyne’s package goes before the House of Representatives. University of Melbourne VC Glyn Davis, largely absent from the public debate since the budget, was on Fran Kelly yesterday morning describing the idea of research cuts if student fees are not increased as “quite chilling”. He and fellow VCs “were off to Canberra to speak to whoever will listen to us,” he said. His mood was probably not helped when Ms Kelly threw to a grab of the Prime Minister, who had just told an audience research is very important, which is why he wanted the deregulation package passed. The connection of the two cannot have comforted Professor Davis.

University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington also talked to ABC radio yesterday morning, telling Matthew Abraham in Adelaide the deregulation debate for universities was “the most important moment for universities in 30 years.” He was adamant that “every vice chancellor” wants the proposed increased interest rate on student debt changed, suggesting the Chapman–Higgins model of a 20 per cent surcharge on a study debt indexed to CPI would “make all of us happy.”

But as both made plain, their happiness depends on the Senate crossbench, which is why VCs from the Group of Eight will host breakfast today for every member and senator in need of a feed and a budget briefing on higher education, to explain why the Pyne package (sans interest rate hike on study debt) should pass.

Last night University of Sydney VC Michael Spence appeared on ABC TV’s Lateline but while Dr Spence delivered his usual polished performance he either does not know or was not letting on how much Minister Pyne will give. Yes, the minister expressed a commitment to research but no he did not rule out cuts. Yes the government is prepared to talk about everything but fee deregulation but no Dr Spence does not know if Mr Pyne is prepared to reduce the proposed 20 per cent average cut to funding for Commonwealth Supported Places.  Yes Dr Spence supports deregulation and would use some of the money his university could raise to fund bursaries. It did not give the great and the powerful, VCs from the Group of Eight and Australian Technology Network, plus lobby secretariats, assembled in Canberra last night much to work with. A great deal depends on how they go with senators this morning.

Blokes are the bother

Good on Flinders University for encouraging young woman to consider engineering when they finish school. The problem is that many women who graduate as engineers don’t stay in the profession. As study after study shows, it’s the male culture in engineering not the math that’s the problem.

Unity in adversity

Forget everything you have read about divisions among VCs over the Pyne package. “The sector has united behind Universities Australia led by (president and James Cook U VC) Sandra Harding. All negotiations are being done by UA,” Glyn Davis said yesterday. Um, so all the special interest pleading must have stopped, following last week’s UA plenary in Perth. But not everybody is happy with deregulated fees – University of Canberra VC Stephen Parker, for example.  And this morning’s Parliament House event was organised by the Group of Eight secretariat. Still there is unity in adversity. “The govt reform package has brought the sector together in a way that no other initiative has,” one insider in Canberra last night said.

Ice cold in Adelaide

Having taken the bucket challenge yesterday University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington passed it on to his neighbour, University of South Australia chief David Lloyd. Professor Lloyd stepped up and will wear the big chill for motor neurone research at 10.30 on Thursday morning, in Fenn Place. If you are around turn up and donate. As politics heats up people with ice water on, if not under, their skins are what universities need. But with Uni SA said to be considering tendering for the state government dental service in competition with Uni Adelaide it may be Professor Bebbington’s teeth that are gritted.

Free for some

The Group of Eight released a paper yesterday, making the case for deregulation on the basis of the cost of the demand driven system. It was a make or break response to the argument that higher education is a public good which the state should provide. The Eight argue that all but open access under demand driven funding will increase the cost of Commonwealth Supported Places from $6.6bn now to $7.2bn in six years and $8.8bn by 2030, with total government spending of $17.2bn, a 45 per cent hike. “Between now and 2030, providing free education would require an additional $132.8 billion. This would require either a significant increase in tax revenues or further cuts to government programs and services,” the paper argues. As for making university study free for students, Canberra either stumps up an extra $109 by 2030 or halves the number of EFT students. “In all likelihood, such a policy would either see the reintroduction of limits on student numbers as a means of restraining costs, or a significant decrease in quality,” the paper states.

Is Eight enough

Normally the support of vice chancellors, however grudging, would be enough to get higher education legislation through. But, in case you missed it (how are things on Mars?) the presence of the PUP means these are not normal times. The challenge for opponents of deregulation is to frame it as a choice between rich universities, who want to spend up on research and poor students who will have to pay for it. The challenge for deregulation supporters is to explain to the cross bench why the status quo is unsustainable.

This is harder than it looks. Senators Bob Day and David Leyonhjelm are said to support deregulation while Nick Xenophon and John Madigan are opposed – which leaves the three PUP senators, who have not demonstrated much interest in hearing the case for change, at least not from the Group of Eight, or other university lobbies for that matter.

The future according to Chris

Mr Pyne is said to be confident that he can negotiate a deal with PUP leader Clive Palmer to secure Senate passage of the package. But if he is wrong then the chance of research cuts is real. The minister made it plain to VCs at the Universities Australia Perth plenary last week that the Treasurer wants savings and that higher education is not exempt. Demand driven funding is bipartisan policy and if student fees stay the same then just about the only sources of savings are the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council.


Kim’s alternative reality

Labor’s Kim Carr says research cuts are not on. “This is a government that so little understands the education system that it’s now threatening to cut the research effort of this country, to cut the potential for future prosperity for our nation, to cut our capacity to fix the big problems that we face in this country, to deal with the big issues in regard to climate change, to deal with the big issues in regard to health, to deal with the big issues in regard to being able to feed the peoples of the world.

And there is no case for hiking student fees. “The deregulation of university fees is fundamentally unfair at its core. What it’s saying is that universities should be able to charge whatever fees they like. Now, we know who will be grossly disadvantaged by that. It’s people in rural and regional areas, it’s people from poorer backgrounds, it’s mature-age students, particularly women, people who of course want to have a second chance at education. These are the people that simply can’t afford the $100,000 degrees that Mr Pyne is seeking to impose upon the Australian university system.” I’m taking that as a no, not now, not ever to deregulation.

More supply than demand

The Economics Society of Australia is 90 this year, but it will not have much to celebrate on its centenary, if it makes it that far, economists John Lodewijks (UNSW) and Tony Stokes (ACU) argue in a paper for the forthcoming issue of the ANU journal Agenda. The pair detail the long decline in student numbers in economics, plus the colonisation of the discipline by business studies, suggesting both have accelerated in universities across the country. They attribute the drop to a range of reasons. For a start there is an intensifying downward spiral, in the numbers enrolling in B Econs, both cause and consequence of the decline in high school economics and undergraduates abandoning economics for easier subjects. But they also point to problems created by the discipline – the way economists talked down its own journals for ERA 2012, while business academics talked theirs up, and the small economy syndrome, with economists ignoring Australian issues and focusing on what interests the rated, US-focused journals. “We have slanted our teaching to mimic our research focus and not to cater to the composition of the student body we now face,” Lodewijks and Stokes write. So what’s to be done? Economists should stop denying there is a problem and unite to solve it for a start, Lodewijks and Stokes suggest. And the Economics Society should survey every university in the country and New Zealand to establish for certain the size and scope of the problem. This is serious stuff, “voters with the economic literacy to assess policy debates is, “a cornerstone of a democratic society,” the authors argue. Too right.

Vic Science Prizes

The Victorian Science Prizes and Fellowships were announced last night. The two big awards went to neuroscientist Professor Ashley Bush (The Florey) and Professor Frank Caruso (University of Melbourne) for research on nanomedicine. Both receive $50 0000 each. There are 12 fellowships which fund international research trips for early career scientists. The winners are: Dr Jacqueline Flynn (Burnet Institute), Dr Peter Macreadie (Deakin University), Ms Heather Nuske (La Trobe University), Dr Udani Ratnayake (Florey Institute), Dr Megan Rees (Monash University), Miss Freya Thomas (University of Melbourne), Dr Timothy Crouch (Monash University), Dr Zongsang Gan, (Swinburne University of Technology), Mr Tobias Horrocks (architecture and cardboard design practice Fold Theory), Dr Gregory Knowles (Monash University), Dr David McCarthy (Monash University) and Mr Steven Wang (CSIRO and Monash University).

Storm in a typo cup

Management at UWS were upset indeed on Monday by a contractor error in an Open Day promotion that damaged the university’s reputation (CMM yesterday). A racist/sexist slur, you think. Think again. “You’re invitated (sic) to Open Day at UWS,” is the offending statement. Chill people. It would not have been a big deal if the university had not made it one, writing to staff about a supposedly damaging error, which was not explained and turns out to be just a minor mistake.