Headline of the week

Yes, I know it’s only Monday, but it will be hard to top Curtin University for the newsiest news this week; “Better oxygen extraction attracts commercial interest.”

No news is not good news

Reports a University of Tasmania law class will have to re-sit a test due to suspected student collusion in itself is no big deal, with management acting appropriately. Not that you would know this from the university. While Hobart media was across the story on the weekend the UTas website stayed silent. This is not smart. The best way to manage a problem is to acknowledge it and set out the solution.

What Tory trickery is this?

Just about everybody bemoans the absence of education as a campaign issue, so surely there should be applause when one of the major parties does something about it. Problem is that the biggest announcement of the campaign came from the Liberals, not the most popular party on campuses across the country. While Friday’s announcement of the New Columbo Plan only confirmed an idea already out there it is still a biggish deal. The prospect of many members of the next generation of Asian leaders studying in Australia is excellent – for their Australian peers to study in Asia is equally important. But while supporters liked the plan a lot there were not many of them on Friday.
The astutely energetic Vicki Thomson from the Australian Technology Network was quick to endorse the idea. “Not since the Colombo Plan of the 50s has there been such focus on this area of our students benefiting from time in Asia. It is both critical and beneficial to Australia, and to Australia’s future leaders who are our current University students,” she said. (She made the point again in an oped in this morning’s Fin.
Belinda Robinson from Universities Australia agreed, “this is smart economic policy, smart foreign policy and smart higher education policy.” Then again, given UA chair Sandra Harding worked on the design perhaps this was as predictable as it is undoubtedly genuine.
The Regional Universities Network was equally impressed, as long as there was something in it for the members; “Australian students would benefit from studying and working in the Asia-Pacific and bringing back their experience to work as professionals in the regions,” RUN chair David Battersby said.
However the National Tertiary Education Union was less grudging than grouchy, tweeting, “Tony Abbott engagement with Asian Century fundamental to Oz future but will cost of highered under Coalition mean uni only for elites.”
Jade Tyrell from the National Union of Students showed a commendable concern for the state of the budget asking; “Coalition released Colombo Plan today, but I have questions. Where is the money coming from? Will the Coalition keep current OS-HELP loans?” Wait a minute, isn’t “where’s the money coming from” what the service cutting conservatives are supposed to say?

Back to bargaining at UB

Last week University of Ballarat boss David Battersby unilaterally increased staff pay by 3 per cent, perhaps hoping the unions would accept the offer and sign a new enterprise bargain. Professor Battersby says he wants everything sorted so everybody can focus on the takeover, sorry merger with what was Monash Gippsland. But there is nothing doing, as the UB NTEU told Campus Morning Mail over the weekend.
“The reality is all other universities have made their first pay offer at 3 per cent and will settle for around 4-5 per cent. The University of Ballarat is already one of the lowest paid universities in the country and settling for a lower pay rise than the rest of the industry will effect the ability of UB in attracting staff and retaining staff.  David Battersby saying there isn’t anymore money would be wise to remember that the cost of rebadging the university is on public record of costing between 5 and 20 million and the state government has made it very clear that the University of Ballarat is quiet well off financially.” I’m guessing that is a no to an agreement.

University electorates

Despite a mighty effort from the NTEU, higher education is not showing up as an election issue. But CMM suspects there are three seats where the university vote could, indeed should matter. Independent Andrew Wilkie could hold on in Dennison (home to the University of Tasmania), where he has NTEU support (which must upset his Greens opponent, given the way her colleagues are being backed by the union). Greens MP for Melbourne Adam Bandt has run hard on research and would be a sure-ish thing if the Liberals had not preferenced Labor ahead of him. But the electorate I’m interested is Fraser in the ACT. If there is a universities seat this is it – home to ANU, the University of Canberra, plus an Australian Catholic University campus. I’m guessing that with only two seats in the ACT a fair swag of academics live there.  It certainly has the fifth highest proportion of resident students of any electorate in the country, 13 per cent. Fraser is held by ex ANU economist Andrew Leigh and his Liberal challenger Elizabeth Lee is a law lecturer. If there is an education-focused electorate this is surely it. With a 14 per cent margin Dr Leigh is not going to lose – the question is how Greens candidate Adam Verwey will do.

Open and shut cases

National Tertiary Education Union members at the University of Sydney were on “strike” on Open Day, an interesting idea, given this occurred on Saturday.  However activists were on campus to explain to prospective students, “how deteriorating staff working conditions will affect the quality of education and the conditions of learning.” In fairness, activists told CMM on Sunday that they also “welcomed parents and students to campus”. Management claims 27,000 visitors, which was quite an audience for the various messages.  In contrast, ANU’s Open Day (also Saturday) was all about a united sell to students. When I asked NTEU ACT Secretary Stephen Darwin if there were plans for protests the reply was a succinct, “absolutely none”.

On the subject of shut

At Swinburne management has responded to union leader Josh Cullinan’s claim that the university’s Hawthorn campus will be shut by industrial action on Wednesday. According to HR chief Andrew Smith only 48 staff participated in the union’s half-day industrial action on August 20, and “we expect that there will be minimal disruption to the normal operation of the university.”

Best western

Starting with his excellent Western Horizon: Sydney’s heartland and the future of Australian politics (2003) (written with Peter Browne and Julian Thomas) David Burchell has explained how the west is won, election after election. CMM has not heard enough of him this campaign but the University of Western Sydney politics lecturer pops up with today’s election prediction (thanks to Danuta Kozaki of ABC News). Dr Burchell is interested in the less swing and more hinge seat of Banks, connecting the west and south of Sydney, now held by Labor’s Daryl Melham on a 1.5 per cent margin. Will Melham hang on? Burchell does not say, but the evidence he sets out certainly suggests a Lib win. We will be back to see what happens after September 7.  After a long absence, Burchell also turned up on one of the endless opinion pages that is The Weekend Australian. His critique on Kevin was to his usual standard, original and informed by scholarship tempered by curiosity about the world beyond the department tearoom. More please.

And scholars come from no particular planet

While I am handing out the compliments applause is in order for the fine Cordelia, University of Melbourne psychologist Cordelia Fine that is. The Canadian expat is short listed for the (university of) Warwick Writing Prize for her Delusions of Gender, which tackles what was the orthodoxy up until about last Thursday, that gender based genetics determines all sorts of abilities and behaviour. Despite her politely declining a commission from CMM in another life (it still stings) I remain a big fan.

Deans dodge two bullets

For all the tough talk of the need to lift the academic ability of trainee teachers and quality of the courses they study earlier in the year, the deans of education have escaped unscathed, at least in terms of the federal funding that helps keep universities afloat. Liberal education spokesman Christopher Pyne put out the party’s school policy and it does nothing to subvert the status quo on both key issues. As foreshadowed, a Coalition Government will appoint a ministerial advisory group to examine the academic content and training component of teaching degrees and suggest improvements to the oversight agency, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. So that’s the Abbott Government’s first term taken care of.
Deans with big undergraduate enrolments also survived demands for higher entry scores that would have cut their numbers, and income. Mr Pyne ignored the push for higher ATARs from NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, saying such a “blunt approach” is not the answer. Instead Mr Pyne promises that, “we will develop ‘best practice’ guidelines to improve admission standards into teaching courses that will assist universities to select only the best candidates in the future – based on both their academic achievement and other important factors such as their motivation for a career in teaching,” which can mean whatever a dean wants it to.
Strategic thinkers are already on to this approach. The other week Charles Sturt education dean Toni Downes took a proposal for school principals to assess prospective teaching students with low ATARs to Mr Piccoli. The word is that he listened, which is a start.

Expiring ATAR

In any case the ATAR is increasingly irrelevant given demand driven funding and endless alternative entry schemes. La Trobe is promoting its “Uni Bridges” outreach program, which connects school students from low SES communities to academics and university study. Students who complete a cross-disciplinary course can qualify to enrol in maths and science at La Trobe.

Patch protection

Gosh, why would the University of New South Wales med school pick now to announce its commitment to the country? It’s just a guess you understand but I suspect the National Party signalling support for the proposed Murray Darling Medical School has something to do with it. The MDMS is a plan from La Trobe and Charles Sturt universities, which want to train doctors on their campuses at Orange, Bendigo and Wagga. Charles Sturt is also establishing a bunch of health courses in Port Macquarie.  None of which appears to amuse UNSW, which argues that medical education in the bush is well catered for, because it is doing the catering. To prove the point the university had an opening for new facilities at Albury and, what a surprise, at Port Macquarie. It also reminded everybody interested that it has refurbished its facility in Wagga. According to Lesley Forster, associate dean of rural health,NSW Medicine is determined to take a leadership position and to work with both state and federal government and achieve investments like this to make a tangible difference to rural communities.” Everybody got that? Then again, I suspect Dr Forster could not care less whether we did – because the message was intended for MDMS champion, Charles Sturt VC Andy Vann who undoubtedly heard it and just as assuredly ignored it.

G’day Mark, seen Brett? 

Mark Speakman is the new NSW parliamentary secretary for tertiary education and skills. He, as everybody in Sydney knows (well I did once I looked him up) is the member for Cronulla, which is in The Shire – (no, not that one this shire is very real).  This is not exactly an onerous appointment, but it is a bully pulpit indeed for an ambitious MP who is interested in education and has ideas to promote, with nil risk of ever having to implement them. Which reminds me, anybody heard anything of Brett Mason, shadow minister for higher education? He has kept his head down throughout the campaign – writing a grand total of two tweets this month.