“We had the Olympics first, so there!”

La Trobe University will host four Melbourne intellectuals debating (or more likely endorsing) the city’s superiority over Sydney as Australia’s intellectual hub tonight. You can hear them at the Ian Potter Center of the National Gallery at 6pm. This is a uniquely Melbourne discussion, basically because nobody else cares

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Competition for research funding and students ensure rankings are inevitable. And until universities cooperate to create comprehensible ones of their own the private sector will meet the demand. The European U-Multirank  project will provide comprehensive comparisons of like institutions on a range of variable, if it is ever widely adopted on a wide scale – which is a big if. And it will never provide the competitive simplicity of a list that goes from ostensible best to alleged worse. So the commercial rankings will roll on. For anybody interested in ranking the Times Higher produces some of the best, which us why this morning’s THE world reputation list will generate attention. Are the comparisons meaningful? Probably not. Will they will be widely used ? For sure and for a variety of purposes. That the leading Australian institutions (Melbourne, ANU, Sydney, UofQ and UNSW) are all down is blamed on government funding cuts in The Australian this morning. What those cuts that the Senate is yet to pass? Perception is everything.

Rumours of resignation greatly exaggerated

People who should know better struggled to tell the difference between Fred Hilmer and Glyn Davis yesterday. The former announced via video on Tuesday that he will finish up as vice chancellor of the University of New South Wales at the end of the year. This led to rumours, who knows why, that the latter was leaving the University of Melbourne, where his contract as VC has years to run. Apart from leading different institutions in different states one of these blokes is bald and the other isn’t. The bald one is going.

Really special pleading

CMM’s “Oh please!” correspondent writes that Free TV Australia has set a new standard for special pleading with its demand for end to broadcast licence fees. Sure they accept regulation but they also need to compete. “As an industry, we acknowledge and accept that from the perspective of many citizens, commercial FTA broadcasting is ‘special’: it is the home of high quality free content, especially news and sport; it is also the home of high quality Australian content; and finally, it holds a special place in the affections of many Australians, participating alongside the public broadcasting sector in the national conversation.” This is spectacular special pleading indeed and it should signal to Universities Australia and the National Tertiary Education Union how under-done their campaigns last year for more public funding were. Next time the two organisations call for more government money (which should be about now in the lead-up the budget) they should go in bold and brazen, “universities: more important than TV”. I wonder if FTA members would run the ads.

IR announcement of the day

Comes from the National Tertiary Education Union at Macquarie University, which has announced academics will strike for the day next Tuesday.  The union says management is offering only a “below CPI pay rise,” refuses “to commit to reduction of casualisation” and is not negotiating seriously, “we have been bargaining with management for the past eight months. If we don’t take action we could be bargaining for another eight months!” Not that this is just about self-interest. “Staff understand the impact of strikes on students. We do not make these decisions lightly and are not paid when we strike. But we’re standing for something we believe in – quality education. We want to protect your education.” Which is why “classes will be cancelled” on Tuesday. I wonder if all of them will be. In any case there will be plenty of people on campus – only NTEU academic members are going out.

Biff in Bendigo

Victoria’s Minister for Higher Education Peter Hall bought into the argument over who is to blame for job cuts to come at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus yesterday. It wasn’t his fault because the state government had sorted out training. And it wasn’t the federal Liberals because they had inherited Labor’s cuts. Why the retiring in November minister bought into a fight not his escapes me, but I am sure La Trobe VC John Dewar, who is the bloke who will do the sacking, welcomed the diversion.

Skill refining in mining

The feds finally got around to releasing yesterday the Productivity Commission report on mineral and energy exploration. It includes a warning that that there are not enough professional placements so that some (unnamed) universities graduate students with no industry experience. Surely this was avoidable given five years energy industry academics were predicting the need for more graduates and certainly had the capacity to teach them. In fact the problem was a shortage of students. In 2009 I reported that the University of New South Wales could not give away an $80 000 scholarship in petroleum engineering. So how come, in little more than it takes to do an honours degree, student demand for placements exceeds industry supply?

Big fizzer

There is a correlation between inane headlines and announcements that do not need to be made, like yesterday’s gem from James Cook University promoting today’s first robot demolition derby there. It was headed “The big bang theory has competition”. I think this is a reference to the TV comedy rather than the creation of the universe, but without any explanation in the text, who is to know.

No end to users

Over in the shaky isles the Minister for Tertiary Education (and a bunch of other stuff) Steven Joyce is proposing a 5 per cent increase (to 20 per cent) in funds flowing from the Public Benefit Research Fund to researchers who win contestable grants. He also wants universities to place “a higher value on research that meets user needs.” Hard to imagine anybody much objecting to such ideas here but over in New Zealand some scholars are less comfortable with the commercial. The statement was barely out before Tertiary Education Union President Lesley Francey condemned it as a “strategy to direct more money from a shrinking funding pool to only that education that matters to business.” Vice President Sandra Grey followed, calling it a “grave mistake”. “There is some research that business may never want to take place but is still crucial to the wellbeing of our communities. ” Professor Jack Heinemann from advocacy group Academic Freedom Aotearoa agreed, arguing this hike diminished the role of academics as “critics and conscience.” As it stood the changed PBRF “could prolong the life of a funding mechanism that encourages conformity and obedience, rather than innovation and novelty.” New Zealand is indeed a foreign country where they do things differently and loudly.