Market at work

Chris Pyne’s opponents were using Deakin and Victoria university promises to freeze fees at pre-Budget levels for all 2014 enrollers to criticise the minister’s  increase in student costs yesterday. But is this not an example of the market at work? “All of our students deserve to have a clear understanding of the costs of their degree and studies. In order to study well, they should not be anxious or constantly checking what their fees might be in 2016,” VC Jane den Hollander said. Sounds like brand positioning to me.

Swinburne says no

Linda Kristjanson comprehensively trashed the Pyne package in a message to Swinburne University staff yesterday. The vice chancellor pointed to five problems:

full fees: “deregulation will inevitably lead to much higher fees for our students. It benefits Group of Eight universities whose ‘brand position’ will allow them to charge much higher fees, irrespective of the quality of teaching students receive. Over time, full fee deregulation will lead to a higher education system characterised by the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ ”

public investment: “it is unfortunate that the aspiration to make Australia’s higher education system ‘the best in the world’ increasingly depends on asking our future students to bear higher levels of personal debt.”

private providers: “we recognise the role of private higher education providers in a diverse higher education system. Any move to provide access to Commonwealth Supported Places for private providers must ensure that the level of subsidy does not provide new entrants with windfall gains.”

HELP repayments: “we support the lowering of the repayment threshold to $50,000. However, the proposal to index HELP debts at the long-term bond rate, up to an amount of 6%, instead of CPI, will lead to a rapid increase in individual debts. … This will disadvantage women more than men, who take longer to pay their HELP debt back. It will also disproportionately affect older individuals, people of lower socio-economic backgrounds and Indigenous students.”

Quality control: “the proposal to rapidly expand Australia’s higher education system through the entry of non-university higher education providers means that there will be greater demands on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to provide appropriate regulation of quality. We risk repeating the failures of deregulation of the Victorian vocational education system all over again unless our higher education regulatory arrangements are mature, stable and effective. It is concerning that the budget for TEQSA is being cut by $31 million

Sound like a comprehensive no to me. This is bad news for the minister . The more VCs who trash his plan the easier it is for Senate cross-benchers to knock it all back, or more likely, to extract a price for agreeing to particularly bits. Can the Pyne package still pass? Yes, but who knows what it will look like.

Young sticks to his guns

ANU VC Ian Young was out on campus yesterday taking to students at a protest readathon. The dozen or so students there were probably a bigger audience than heard him on Lateline the other week but you can’t fault Professor Young for gamely getting the word out. It’s more than some of his colleagues in the Group of Eight who are not saying much in support of the Pyne plan.

Silent majority

While who should pay how much to educate undergraduates dominates debate the silent majority is, as always, ignored. In this case it is the 1.9m students in the public VET sector (translating 657000 full year training equivalents). Yes, 1.9m, around twice the number of undergrads. According to new figures compiled by the estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research the 2013 national figure was down 3.4 per cent, with declines across the country offsetting a thumping 16 per cent increase in South Australia. Whatever the specific reason (growth in private providers?) it will not generate much attention because training is under-rated when it isn’t ignored. That the system is fragmented amongst the states and immensely complex does not help, but overall status trumps numbers.

Losing argument

Last week the feds produced a YouTube clip selling Minister Pyne’s package, making the familiar argument for increased student fees. Now the National Tertiary Education Union has annotated it with the counter case. Want to know why the government is losing the argument in social media? This is  why. Reform is always a hard sell.

 Town v gown

The Australian Catholic University is in that crowded circle of hell reserved for people with development proposals that residents don’t like. Marea Nicholson, associate VC in Sydney is running the university’s development application for the Strathfield campus, which is caught up in court cases. The issue (what a surprise) is parking and there will be a sight visit on June 2 or 3. These are the first days of exams and Professor Nicholson says,”we are taking steps to ensure that students or staff are not adversely effected by the hearing or objectors.” I am sure it is not as ominous as it sounds but it certainly makes a change to have students being protected from protestors.

Getting on with it

Barney Glover is starting to assemble his team at UWS. Yesterday the vice chancellor announced NSW bureaucrat Linda Taylor is the new PVC International. Ms Taylor worked on the state government’s 2012 international education plan StudyNSW, which has a website but not a lot else. Maybe she decided she got sick of waiting and decided to get on with it.

King considers research

Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities asked to add his thoughts on the budget impact on research to his budget assessment (CMM yesterday). Happy to oblige.

“Research policy is as usual playing second fiddle to the main debate. The budget had some good elements in making the future fellows a scheme funded for the future and rolling over support for the NCRIS facilities. However the ARC has some challenges ahead to work through the redirection of $103 million to specific research fields, absorb the ongoing reduction in its funding and keep its main programs responsive to the wealth of good research proposals it receives. More challenging is the feel through the budget that incentives for industry driven research are not a good use of government funds. Australia’s future depends in part on the capacity to generate new industries to replace those that are shrinking. There is a difference between supporting an ailing industry to continue and incentives to generate the innovations that could lead to a new growth industry.Finally the Medical Research Fund is attractive in its own right, but its source in the savings from the health portfolio tie improved resources to many much contested decisions, in particular the co-payment for medical services, which appears to provide around 40 per cent of the Fund’s resources. Further it is to be hoped that the Fund will take a constructive approach to what is suitable “medical” research to include how we devise medical advances that are translated into practice.