The short answer is nobody. The long one is the same

The pleading obvious

University of Tasmania Chancellor Michael Field warns that de-regulation will create a two-tier university system with research universities using the fees they charge students to poach U Tas academics. Sounds like an opportunity for incoming Palmer United Party senator for Tasmania Jacquie Lambie to ask what Canberra can do to stop this happening and then go and have a chat with Minister Pyne. Sound implausible? Only if you don’t remember how Brian Harradine made a career out of sticking up for the state. Mr Pyne needs all the votes he can rustle up to get his package through the upper house.

 No heads for figures

Word is the scheduled Universities Australia seminar on fee structures is off. Understandably so, because until universities have details on what the feds intend for undergraduate funding no one has a clue how to budget, let alone what to tell students. This is serious stuff, no one within a cooee of Canberra expects the government to give on undergraduate fee increases. Delaying them by a year, as some suggest, is not going to happen, basically because it would cost the better part of a billion dollars the government says it has not got. Optimists suggest Education Minister Christopher Pyne might give on the market based interest rate for HELP debt to some extent and perhaps on some aspect of the Emerson efficiency dividend when it comes back to the Senate. But on student fees the consensus is that the lad is not for turning, that Mr Pyne will not delay on charging students who enrol now and next year new fees from 2016, despite universities not having a clue what they need to be. The mail from people in close contact with the min wing in Parliament House is that the government thinks universities could keep charging these students what they started paying until the new numbers are sorted – but this will not appeal to vice chancellors who will lose a bundle when funding for Commonwealth Supported Places drops.

So what’s a vice-chancellor to do? For a start lobby hard to know what they will be charging 2016 starters by the beginning of 2015, (at the latest). It’s a bare six months until universities start selling to ’16’s commencing class.

And start looking for savings. Universities that have already restructured are starting to look again – especially some not confident they can charge up. While no one knows what non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs as they are now known), will be paid for Commonwealth Supported Places, universities fear their lower cost structures will make the new competitors very, well, competitive. No wonder the National Tertiary Education Union is preparing to enforce agreements on restructures – when the government finally decides on funding for CSP across universities and NUHEPs cutting costs will be the big issue.

A cunning Pyne plan

AT the end of last week the education minister responded to talk on ABC Radio in Ballarat that a University of Melbourne live-in agriculture degree could costs $112,000. “If Melbourne University priced themselves out of the market, then they won’t have any students. And, of course, they won’t do that and, therefore, they won’t price themselves out of the market. Now, for example, maybe Federation University or Adelaide University, which runs a very good agriculture degree or other universities in Melbourne, if they see Melbourne University raising fees exponentially they will start courses that are as good and they will attract students.”

This gave Ballarat-based Federation University Vice Chancellor David Battersby no choice, as reported by Alex Hamer in the local paper but to say; “we aim to keep university fees as affordable as possible.”  Which is exactly what the minister wants to hear from many, many VCs.

Perhaps Mr Pyne will extract a similar undertaking out of every university outside the Group of Eight – given his apparently endless energy I would not put it past him to talk to the media everywhere there is a university. But it would be easier to list complete pricing information on the feds’ new student information website, due to launch later this year. Yes it would be hard to build and yes universities would hate it – but there is no point in price signals if they aren’t universally available and understood. The more information the better, except perhaps for the University of Melbourne, which may not be entirely pleased at the way it is universally assumed to be the price leader.

Cruel and unusual punishment

Australian Research Council head Aidan Byrne says the ARC received 12,000 “pieces of feedback on FoR allocations and requests for new journals and conferences to be included” for Excellence in Research for Australia, 2015. Ye Gods, pity the poor devils who had to read all of them.

Postcode blind

University of Sydney VC Michael Spence certainly isn’t pleased that his university is seen as elitist. “Some universities and other commentators have claimed that older universities with excellent research capacity are not just elite, but elitist. In reality, nothing is further from the truth. It is true that some of our students have privileged backgrounds, but it is also true that most of our domestic offers go to applicants from middle-income suburbs. We are a place for the finest minds wherever they live,” he told staff on Friday.

Delphic prediction

Dr Spence also told staff he had privately lobbied the government to “look at the terms of the proposed loan scheme with the aim of making it more affordable” and to “drop its plans to deregulate fees” for higher degree research students. While he says nothing will happen before the legislation goes to the Senate, “I have reason to believe that the government is taking these concerns seriously,” which means whatever Dr Spence wants it to mean, or whatever whoever talked to him who is in/near the minister’s office wants it to.

No faulting him for optimism

The maths lobby worries that too many people teaching maths in schools are not maths teachers, but it’s worse in IT. Just half IT teachers with Year 11 and 12 classes have an information technology qualification, according to the Australian Council of Deans of Information and Communications Technology. This, “is likely to be a significant factor in the declining enrolments in ICT in higher education over the past dozen. It is also a significant cause of the concomitant lack of ICT skills in the Australian workplace,” according to ACDICT chair Leon Sterling. So what’s to do? Stakeholders should work together to solve the problem, Professor Sterling says.

No, not those grey shades

The University of New South Wales will host a lecture on July 11 entitled, “50 Shades of Grey” but before anybody gets excited they should check the subtitle, “communicating rocks.” For those still interested, Professor Iain Stewart will explain how to make geology exciting for a mass audience in the John Niland Scientia Building at 6pm

ADASA bares its fangs

The Australian Dental Association (South Australia) is outraged that the state government intends to tender out education and training for dentistry students. But what has this got to do with the state government, you ask (oh go on, ask), what with the feds funding universities? The answer is more than you might think. For a start the state government says it is in partnership with the University of Adelaide “to educate and train many of the state’s dental professionals”. And, as ADASA‘s statement does not make entirely clear, the state government’s dental service is housed with the University of Adelaide’s dental school. The problem is that the school is moving to the flash new Royal Adelaide hospital and research precinct but the state government says it cannot afford to send its dental service with it. This means dental researchers, teachers and students will be at the other end of town, away from patients who will stay where they are. Presumably if the University of South Australia sets up a dental school and wins the tender or it goes to an out of state the winner will have to stay on the existing premises, which date from the ’20s and are out of date indeed. There are suggestions that in their current state they are lucky to have clinical accreditation. Which all makes ASADA’s Dr Jack Gaffey very cross indeed; “the SA Government has now decided to give an equal opportunity to other universities which have never been involved in this highly specialised field or said they wanted to be. It’s not a fish and chip shop.” Having cleared that up Dr Gaffey demanded the state government explain how much money staying put would save compared to losing the “accumulated wealth of knowledge and intellectual property” at what he said is the “predominant” dental school in the country. Which should make Uni Adelaide smile, more than the state government’s call for tenders. After years of negotiations about the move to the new location it looks like the university was completely surprised by the government’s announcement.

Publish more, research less

Harvard IT academic Stuart Shieber presents a new law of publishing designed to encourage open access – “dissemination is an intrinsic part of the research process. Those that fund the research should be responsible for funding its dissemination.” This is necessary, he argues to encourage publishers to adopt open access. “Until a large proportion of the funded research comes with appropriately structured funds usable to pay author-side fees, publishers will find themselves in an environment that disincentivises the move to the preferred business model,” he says, adding that research funding agencies, not universities, should pay for publication of work they fund. That enthusiastic applause you can hear is from commercial publishers who will welcome this idea, which will keep the gravy train running where they charge authors/subscribers/readers for journal articles they do not pay for. But for everybody else it is an admission that the commercial publishers are too powerful to take on, that one way or another they will set the price of publishing. There is another reason not to like the idea – unless governments increase budgets the more money a funding agency pays publishers the less cash there is for research.

Classic CASES

The US Council for Advancement and Support of Education annual comms awards are out, with nine Australian institutions getting gongs; Deakin (annual magazine), RMIT (in-house print), Swinburne (public service announcement and commercial, University of Melbourne (donor relations), University of Queensland (short videos), University of Sydney (short videos), University of Western Australia (special event) and the Westminster School (Adelaide, for visual identity).