Plus limits to Chris Pyne’s optimism

Macfarlane’s measure

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane is certainly getting his applied research strategy and what it means for funding, on the agenda. On Friday he met with the Universities Australia’s DVC Research group to let them know what’s what. Of course a great deal of their direct funding flows via the Australian Research Council, which is in Education Minister Chris Pyne’s portfolio, but he’s probably a bit too busy to be bothered by the intrusion.

Mr Macfarlane’s office did not respond to an interview request but people present at the Friday briefing say he is interested in a funding metric based on industry engagement and outcomes. This will thrill the Australian Technology Network, which has long argued for such a case for a measure, but the Group of Eight is ambivalent about assessing impact. “By definition the outcomes of research are unknowable in advance and high levels of risk are also characteristic of development and of the later stages of the innovation process,” the Eight announced last month.

And then there is the matter of knowledge for its own stake, a shibboleth in labs across the country. According to the Go8, “curiosity is the secret to research breakthroughs, basic research can lead to unintended discoveries and astonishing outcomes that benefit society.”

An impact model certainly fits Mr Macfarlane’s focus on research areas, in which he says Australia has a natural advantage, (ag, energy and medical research) but funding/reputation metrics are immensely complex and inevitably controversial and it will take time. I doubt anybody will stop preparing for ERA 15.

Not that the Australian Research Council (which reports to Mr Pyne) is anything other than supportive of the industry minister’s agenda, as most recently set out in his research priorities discussion paper last week (CMM, October 30). “I am extremely conscious of the need to ensure a strong research industry nexus; such collaboration will help solve the big problems facing our industries today and ensure that research is focussed on an end-user perspective that delivers important outcomes for Australians,” ARC chair Aidan Byrne said on Friday. But research policy players say Professor Byrne is polite to a fault and that what Mr Macfarlane wants already occurs.

Grant watchers point to graphs showing immensely thick webs connecting industry, universities and research institutes created by existing applied research funding.

Researcher faces court

Following a state Crime and Misconduct Commission investigation a 29-year-old woman, formerly employed by the University of Queensland, will appear in court the week on six fraud related offences. According to the CMC they relate to research fraud and the misuse of grant money. This matter may not surprise UoQ research watchers.


Absent Ian

Ask two academic economists what they should teach a B Econ class and they will set to reminiscing about days when the species was not nearly extinct. But then they will tell you that they should have taught them economic history, including Australia’s. So hooray and better late than never to Simon Ville and Glenn Withers (ex UA) for editing the Cambridge Economic History of Australia, (a snip at $190), a comprehensive collection which includes many scholars who are also famous names to readers of oped pages. But not Ian McLean, which seems strange – his 2012 Why Australia Prospered (Princeton UP) is a hit, at least with readers of economic history outside universities.

MBA in optimism

Chris Pyne launched the Australian Institute of Management on-line MBA in Adelaide on Friday (CMM October 30) with his standard upbeat speech, making the obvious point that it is the sort of course that should flourish in a deregulated system and adding “the government has identified technology-enhanced learning as a priority for the Office for Learning and Teaching.” It will be interesting to see what flows from that, not that the OLT, which likes to keep a less low than subterranean profile, will reveal much.

The minister also expanded on the role of the Quality Indicators on Learning and Teaching website which will “ detail the performance of each private and public higher education institution as it comes on-line in “coming months”. Apparently QUILT will compare Australia against institutions in the US, New Zealand and the UK – quite an achievement if it works.

Mr Pyne also stuck to the script on Senate negotiations, telling journalists “I believe that we’ll get most of our reforms and that it’s better to have 80% of something then 100% of nothing. I don’t know how long the Palmer United Party might take to make a decision about this, but I’m prepared to work with them very constructively.” But he ducked a question about fighting a double dissolution election on deregulation, “we’re a long way from that point.” Understandably so, there are limits to even Mr Pyne’s optimism.

Pyne time

What Bill Shorten‘s talking head TV spot lacks in imagination it makes up for in reach. The “degree not a debt sentence” campaign is screening in Pyne time, it was on at seven PM last night. Granted no 18 year old watches broadcast television anymore – but their parents do, and they vote.

Case made quietly

University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis has briefed staff on how the university managed in the great depression of the 1930s and how it will deal with all the current confusion in Canberra, which makes settling on a budget impossible. “The basic dilemma so evident 70 years ago remains. The university strives for educational excellence amid the fickle fortunes of government support. It has faced cuts to public funding in 2012, 2013 and now 2014. Whatever the outcome of proposals before the Senate, the plaintive pleas for some surety of funding remain as compelling as ever.” But lest staff despair, the great helmsman is on deck. “We will also continue to press national political leaders for a more stable policy environment, to better support students and staff who want to focus on their chosen path of education, research and engagement.” He is certainly doing it discretely; Professor Davis was once a very public advocate for funding reform but since the Pyne plan not so much.

Less and less for women

There are no surprises in the National Health and Medical Research Council’s funding report for 2013, but two stats stand out. For a start funding rates continued to decline, from 22.9 per cent of applications in 2006 to 16.9 per cent last year. And the drop was worse for women, while successful applications from men declined from 22.9 per cent to 18.4 per cent the corresponding figure for women was 19.5 per cent down to 14.3 per cent.


Advance warning

Canberra made pretty plain in last month’s discussion paper what education exporters are going to get from the review of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act (Campus Morning Mail, October 2). After consulting with major players the Education Department suggested less rigorous report requirements but an emphasis on high-risk areas were on the agenda. Good, but not good enough, the Innovative Research Universities responds. The IRU’s core point is that ESOS cannot exist outside the new higher education and VET regulatory frameworks, “there are not two parallel worlds, one domestic, one Australian but one world within which international students are an important set.” The IRU submission also raises many technical issues, intended to keep the various agencies involved in administering international education from getting in each other’s way. In contrast the National Tertiary Education Union is unhappy with the whole approach to ESOS reform;

“the discussion paper proposes to dismantle many of the regulatory measures established specifically by the previous independent reviews to protect the human rights, welfare and financial autonomy of international students because of the perception that the costs to business of providers are ‘burdensome’ or that these regulations set too high a bar for new providers to enter the lucrative education market. However, the NTEU strongly asserts that by having appropriate safeguards and processes in place are essential to ensure we have a strong, diverse and quality international education sector.”

I’m guessing that’s the bit the union will use next time there is a scandal in the export scandal.