Plibersek says no to Birmingham bill and Shorten ties an innovation economy to growth in TAFE and no cuts to higher education


plus what universities will have to do to keep the 7.5 per cent of contestable funding

Relax, it’s only a test says the ARC about the impact pilot

Bigger mountain: ever-higher HELP debt

and Heads Up the week’s big winners


You don’t say!

“The Government is undertaking compliance action to recover VET FEE-HELP payments from VET providers where loans were inappropriately issued to students by providers. There is a potential financial risk to the Commonwealth in the event that compliance action results in student loan debts being remitted but the Commonwealth is unable to recover the payments from providers,” Budget Paper Number Nine, p10

Why it’s called a future fund

The Medical Research Future Fund has started supporting research this year with $60m over four years rising to $386m in 2019-20. It looks like cynics (who CMM?) who said the Commonwealth would find other things to do with the capital were wrong – the government is still sticking to meeting the $20bn capital target for the fund by 2021. Except that investments for the fund will slow between now and then, meaning the government will have to deposit $3bn in 2020-21 to make the target. Far enough in the future for ministers noe not to worry about.

Chill, people

Research Offices are flat-out working on case studies for the Australian Research Council’s engagement and impact pilots. Some, it seems are also anxious over what is at stake – which isn’t money. As the ARC assured everybody yesterday; “The AE&I pilot is testing the methodologies to be implemented in 2018. Pilot outcomes will not be used to determine funding allocations.”

Competing for cash

There is talk around the traps that the government has a further cut in mind, from the 7.5 per cent of CGS funding that will be contestable.  What would stop the government stripping funds from a university deemed to be performing poorly and use it as a HE pork barrel of its own, an expert asks? Good question, to which the answer is in the explanatory memoranda for the Birmingham bill, introduced into the House of Representatives yesterday.Any unused funds will be redistributed among the remaining recipients, meaning funding to the sector will not be reduced.”

But what will the contestable performance measures be?  In the first year (and brace for this finance directors) they will include “participation in data collection and reporting.”  In subsequent years (and brace for this DVCs Education and Student Experience) “measures of student attrition, completion and satisfaction will be added.”


And so it begins: pushback to the Birmingham package picks up

 Plibersek calls for a united front: Labor will oppose the bulk of the government’s higher education legislation. CMM understands shadow cabinet backed education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek’s recommendation to oppose the cuts in university funding, higher HELP fees and a lower repayment threshold for students. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten committed to the position in his budget reply speech last night.

However, in a letter to vice chancellors yesterday Ms Plibersek took credit for the government’s move to extend sub-degree places in universities and for the survvival of the HEPPP equity scheme.  And in the absence of detail on how it will work she is silent on the government’s proposals for placing 7.5 per cent of each university’s Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding in a contestable pool. Ms Plibersek is also holding fire for now on the proposed scholarship scheme for professional masters degrees instead of allocating load to institutions.

In her letter to VCs Ms Plibersek called for a united front against the Birmingham bill; saying while Labor would fight against cuts to universities, TAFEs and voced and training; “we can only do this effectively in concert with the sector. It is important that a strong public case is made by all with an interest in a viable tertiary education system.

“I look forward to standing alongside you as we make this case,” she said.

Shorten speaks up: Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wrapped Labor’s opposition to the cuts in nation building rhetoric last night. In his budget reply Mr Shorten said, a Labor Government “will deliver the quality schools, universities, TAFE and apprentice programs people need to prepare them for the jobs of the future. Australia’s economy is changing fast and the skills Australians need to get well-paid and secure jobs are changing too. Australia needs to invest in education, skills and training more than ever,” he said.

“If Australia doesn’t think big, we will end up small. Building a rail line to move freight from Brisbane to Melbourne is a valuable idea…but educating a generation is how we prevail in our changing world. And that’s up to government and to individuals. A government creating opportunities in schools, universities, training and apprenticeships – and individuals making the most of these opportunities. Great education should start when you’re 3 and 4 years old – and be available to you throughout your entire life.And when every country in our region has made education their number one priority – Australia cannot afford to slow down, to compromise, to settle for second-place or second-best.Yet at the very moment when the hallmark of the new Australia should be creativity, skills and education – the Liberals are cutting money from the lot. … The Prime Minister used to talk a lot about ‘innovation’ – but we can’t be an innovation nation unless we are an education nation. This budget is worse than a handbrake on our national potential – it actually drags us back in the global pack.”

The lobbies will love it, and quote it back at Mr Shorten whenever they feel they need to. However while Mr Shorten specified new funding for training, mainly forTAFE,  he left commitments to higher education to opposing the government’s changes.

Irate Eight: The Group of Eight is looking for allies in its case against cuts. Executive Director Vicki Thomson is urging the Senate legislation committee that will report on the Birmingham bill by June 14 to, “look closely at what has occurred as we, along with the banks, are made to suffer financially, and unlike the banks, universities have no way to claw back the financial damage.”

“ We need the Senate committee to analyse what has happened in context; to understand the ramifications of this within Australia for our domestic students and our research effort, and the negative message it sends to our overseas markets of international students.”

Not all bad: UTS VC Attila Brungs was on ABC radio yesterday, where he was invited to complain about funding cuts – which he duly did. But he went on to say there were “quite positive” things in the Budget and that Education Minister Simon Birmingham “really understands” higher education. Professor Bungs went on to quickly condense what he likes about the new professional masters scholarships, legislating the HEPPP equity programme, plus support for work integration in undergraduate programmes and sub degree places.

Who’s winning?: The absence of one big warning is helping the government. The NTEU’s new student-focus message “pay more get less:” does not have the cut-through of “$100k degrees.” By publishing a list of VC packages and university surpluses the government has muddied the message on higher education finances.  CMM hears some senators of a populist persuasion are appalled at what VCs on their patches are paid. Then again, they might have been swayed by Mr Shorten’s education and training deliver jobs speech last night.


Tick from TAFE

TAFE Directors Australia has given the budget a qualified pass. ““Overall, the budget has sought to balance a challenging fiscal environment with a need to rebuild the VET system and lift the number of people undertaking training and apprenticeships,” new chief executive Craig Robertson says.

The association welcomed the apprenticeship-expanding Skilling Australians Fund, offering to work with governments, “to ensure TAFEs assist in delivering on the priorities the government has identified” and recognising, “much will depend on the states playing their part in ensuring that genuine projects of significance are put forward with matching funding under the new arrangements.”

This signals a new strategy set by Mr Robertson, to get TAFE back in the policy game by doing more than complaining about funding and the villainies of private providers.

Serious money

The government’s plan to extract more money and sooner, from HELP debtors is off to a backwards beginning with the “fair value” (including an allowance for debt unlikely to be paid) of the loan book unexpectedly increasing. The budget papers reveal there is now $44.7bn in HELP borrowings, up $2.2bn on the mid-year economic forecasts. And this is before increased course charges add to the debt mountain, which is projected to grow to $67bn by 2019-20, $7.5bn up on the MYEFO estimate, and $75.9bn at the end of the forward estimates.  According to the budget papers, interest on indexation of HELP receivables and other student loans will triple from $560m this financial year to $1.737bn in 2020-21.

Heads Up

Who did well at work this week

 The University of Melbourne has named Johanna Wyn from the Graduate School of Education a Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor.

 The winner of the British Council in Australia’s Fame Lab is UTS microbiologist Nural Cokcetin who used her allotted three minutes to explain the antimicrobial and prebiotic properties of honey. She won both the judges and audience prizes and is now in the world final, at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK in June.

Monash U has appointed one its own dean of arts, criminology professor, Sharon Pickering. A 14-year veteran of the university, Professor Pickering is now head of the school of social sciences. Her research focuses on gender and human rights of refugees.

Edward Holmes is  elected a foreign member the Royal Society (not the Royal Society for this or that ) your actual Royal Society, the one founded in 1660 to study science. Professor Holmes is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney. ANU plant scientist  Susanne von Caemmerer and Gerard Milburn, founding director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems are also elected.

The Queensland Government annually funds two researchers to visit the Smithsonian Museums. This year Ashley Field from the Queensland Herbarium gets to go to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in WashingtonQUT’s Donna Hancox will spend time at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, on New York’s upper east side – lucky woman,  it’s a truly terrific museum.

Maxine Whittaker is the Royal Australasian College of Physicians International Medallist for 2017. Professor Whittaker is dean of public health, medical and veterinary sciences at James Cook University.

Theo Farrell is the incoming dean of law, humanities and the arts at the University of WollongongProfessor Farrell is a securities studies scholar, with a particular-interest in recent conflicts in Afghanistan. He will join UoW in October, coming from City, University of London, where he is dean of arts and social sciences.