Don’t ask him

University of Sydney staff are wearing “ask me” buttons to help new students with directions and advice. I suspect VC Michael Spence will not have one on this morning lest people ask him a question – how much will Sydney increase fees under deregulation.

 Free kick for Chris

Chris Pyne got the standard Coalition question in the House of Representatives yesterday asking him to detail the many benefits from higher education deregulation. It was a bravura performance given the poll from the National Tertiary Education Union showing the policy is poison and could cost Chris his seat. But strangely Labor did not pick up on the poll. Certainly Labor is opposing the policy in the Senate (below). For a start, it is where shadow, but far from silent, minister Kim Carr sits and also where all but one of the Greens are. Labor cannot concede the education vote to its ally. In a fighting speech last week his colleague Senator Lundy also made it clear that Labor would oppose the Pyne package. But in the Reps Labor lets it go. Shadow higher education minister Amanda Rishworth has not said a word I have heard about universities in the Reps since her appointment. As far as I call tell she has not said anything about deregulation anywhere since last Wednesday, when she quoted a speech by University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington, who, supports, most of the Pyne package. It’s as if Labor does not see university deregulation as a big issue with the voters, whatever the NTEU’s poll predicts.

And one in the guts

Kim Carr had a win in the Senate last night,  defeating a government move to cut $435m in higher education funding via legislative instrument. According to Senator Carr the cut was put forward under  the Higher Education (Maximum Amounts for Other Grants Determination) 2013 made under section 41-45 1a and 1b under the Higher Education Support Act 2003, for those who really enjoy Senate procedure. The Senate can knock back instruments, not being budget measures. Senator Carr was pleased indeed last night, the government less so – what with Labor presenting itself as an ally of universities despite proposing its own cuts in April 2013. The government can reconfigure the cuts and bring them back but what was interesting last night was that cross-bench senators voted against them.

Interesting alliance

Spotted yesterday, NTEU President Jeannie Rea meeting with independent MP Cathy McGowan. Was it an exchange of pleasantries or is politics afoot?

Pathway to profit

The University of Western Sydney is briefing staff in faculties on a proposed product, sorry course, the Master of Research. “This will be a dedicated pathway to PhD study that will prepare students for PhD study and research-orientated careers.” I’m glad they made that clear. What’s more  “it will deliver in-depth research training and foster specialist disciplinary knowledge as well as an advanced understanding of research methodologies.” So much for the old idea of the honours year. But then again this course will take two years not one and might even make UWS some money, what with an “initial focus on the international market.” Subject to approvals the degree will be on offer from mid 2015.

On notice

THE National Health and Medical Research Council is reminding recipients of funding it is dead set serious about making it easier for women to build research careers. Last month the NHMRC reported a survey on women’s  careers put to medical research institutions had come up with numerous inadequate answers, when organisations responded at all. “This is quite simply, unacceptable. While we understand that some institutions may have misunderstood the significance of the request and may not have responded with all available information, we also received some unfortunate responses – one institution for example said that they were ‘too small’ to have a gender equity policy,” NHMRC Research Grants Director Saraid Billiards says. Dr Billiard adds that the Council intends to do something about it; “we plan to consult with the sector before making adjustments to our Administering Institution policy.” Sounds less like a threat than a promise.

Young’s tough truth

Last Tuesday Warren Bebbington warned that if Minister Pyne’s package is defeated universities could cop funding cuts without winning the opportunity to raise their own fees. Now Australian National University chief Ian Young has also played the realism card. Writing in The Age he suggested that there was no alternative to deregulating the cost of degrees. “The real question for those who oppose the reform package, both in the community and the Senate, is what they would do instead? When I have raised this question the answer I have got is that government should fund higher education properly. I agree, it should, but after 20 years of being ignored by the voters, I find it hard to believe anything will change in the immediate future.” He’s got a point, both major parties have form on funding cuts – the legislation that has come before parliament cutting funding was proposed in April 2013 by Labor minister Craig Emerson. While last night’s Senate vote will encourage opponents of deregulation its advocates can still say stopping cuts to what was already inadequate funding only delays decline.

Extra A for effort

“Abbott’s exorbitant degrees a disaster for veteranary profession,” the Australian Veterinary Association announces. CMM is in no position to poke fun at typos, but in this case I will make an exception.

Work at any price

Talk about unintended consequences. The Pyne package could cripple university teaching by ending universities supply of cheap labour. The excellent casual staff blog CASA suggests that a real interest rate on HECS debt might finally make it impossible for sessional staff to survive on poverty pay. Then again the proposed study fee for postgraduate researchers might provide a new supply of desperate casual staff.

Workers, to the BBQs!

The NTEU claimed victory in the great enterprise bargaining blue of 2013-14 weeks back but there are still pockets of resistance where recalcitrant university managements argue on (morning everybody at the University of Adelaide). However, the ferocity is out of the fight at UTS where the local union is holding a sausage sizzle today to promote a July 15 stop work and a July 28 strike. The union is also signalling its strategy – it wants incoming vice chancellor Attila Bungs to intervene and do a deal. I wonder if being flogged with a charred sanger is worse than a limp lettuce.


Nature reports that between 1982 and 2011 800 000 PhDs in science and engineering were awarded. The pace is picking up, there were 19 000 in ’82 and 36 000 in ’11. But only 100 000 academic jobs were generated over the two decades. What’s to be done? Well, the learned Bradley Smith (James Cook U) has an innovative idea, “it really is ok to work in industry or government,” he says.

Just in case

If avarice was a disease the Association of Medical Research Institutes would have a fund for finding a cure. Yesterday AMRI directors had an oped in the AFR comparing the government’s proposed Medical Research Future Fund to the Snowy Mountains Scheme as a nation builder. Curiously there was not a word about the proposed Medicare co-payment to pay for it. But if the MRFF does not get up it will be back to philanthropy and calls on Canberra for more cash. In fact, fund raising will probably continue even if  AMRI directors get their surgical gloves on the $20bn fund. Umbrella medical and research lobby Research Australia is holding a conference on fund raising on August 19 in Melbourne where AMRI president Brendan Crabbe will speak on a panel addressing “MRFF friend or foe for philanthropy.”

Modern family

Monash University reports trialling a Finnish program for anxious parents called, “Let’s talk about children.” Cynics suggest people with young kids talk of little else.

Star power

“Are universities going the way of record labels,” The Atlantic asks. Yes the estimable magazine says, not so much Campus Morning Mail replies. For a start universities are bigger brands than all but media star scholars and undergraduates  learn best in person. The campus isn’t moving to cyberspace for a while. But it might not be as big as graduate education goes on-line. The estimable Atlantic also suggests the news is bad for academics. “Universities will be masters of curation, working as talent agencies. They’ll draw royalties and license fees from the content professors create and curate.” Like – well like record labels now. Sounds like good news to me for academics who love to teach and hate the dogma of the departmental meeting. The scholar who attracts students will be in demand. In the end talent wins out.