Wish list for Westminster

On the first morning after his appointment as UK minister for science and universities Greg Clark awoke to a long list of what the sector wants. Check #DearGreg at Twitter for some of the many, many demands, quite specific demands, mainly about money. They make the National Tertiary Education Union look like a bunch of silent stakhanovites.

Another day at the ANU

The Prime Minister of Japan popped in last week and Malcolm Turnbull delivered a speech on China there on Friday. On Monday Small Business Minister Bruce Billson did the honours at the Australian National University, opening the new science precinct and yesterday Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane opened the final stage of the rebuilt Mt Stromlo Observatory, destroyed in the 2003 fires. He also announced the university’s Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre has two new contracts. One is to build an Integral Field Spectrometer (your guess is as good as mine) for the Giant Magellan Telescope, being built in Chile. The other is to construct a $6m space junk traffic system for the Koreans. Just another day at the ANU office.

Rishworth steps up

After my suggesting Labor’s higher education spokeswomen in the Reps is not especially active in the portfolio Amanda Rishworth proved me wrong last night, running a Facebook Q and A, with ambitious and energetic colleague Tim Watts (Labor-Gellibrand). The pair did well, raising all the obvious weaknesses in the Pyne package, a real interest rate on HECs debts, the danger of lower income people not risking high cost degrees and fees under the Research Training Scheme. However while there was one question that went to the heart of the matter, “how much of the Coalition’s cuts to higher education will be reversed under a Federal Labor Government,” the answer didn’t. “Labor is campaigning to stop the Liberal Party’s unfair plans for higher education in the parliament. We believe there is a strong community desire for an equitable education system and we can convince the cross bench in the Senate to block these unfair changes.” Good-oh, but why not use the opportunity to commit to the existing system, sorry the system before Labor’s proposed cuts last year. Surely the way for Labor to convince the Palmer United Party senators to vote against the cuts is to announce what the party proposes not just opposes.

Is anybody listening?

ANU’s Ian Young is in brutal realism mode, making the case that in this worst of all possible worlds there is no alternative to deregulation. “Voters (taxpayers) get excited about health, schools, immigration but not universities. Universities Australia, in a move I strongly supported, ran a $5 million public awareness campaign in 2013. It did not stop the cuts and higher education did not become an election issue,” he wrote in The Age. Gosh, that will have gone down well in the UA bunker. I wonder what Professor Young makes of this year’s successor campaign,  “Keep it clever: let’s not get left behind Australia” ? Intended to encourage research funding, the style is reminiscent of Metro Trains brilliant “Dumb ways to dieMelbourne rail safety spots – just without the wit. Still, it has one fan – Chris Pyne. Back in April the minister endorsed the sentiment saying the government was reducing regulation to encourage research opportunities. Sadly he did not mention more money, which was what the advertising was supposed to deliver .

No offense taken

Mr Pyne has appointed Professor Brian Caldwell deputy chair of the Australian Curriculum Reporting and Assessment Authority. Is that, you ask, the Brian Caldwell who has called for Canberra to leave the states to run schools? That’s him. Surely not the Brian Caldwell who proposes transferring control over ACARA to the states, you add. One and the same. Cannot be, you say, that Brian Caldwell does not think we should have a federal minister for school education. And yet it is. Who says Mr Pyne is hostile to people who want him gone.

Growth grows slower

Not everybody agrees with ANU Young’s argument that deregulation is on the agenda because “the sector has grown far more quickly” than predicted in the Bradley Review, which created demand driven funding. A veteran number cruncher points to a Parliamentary Library report showing that the last Labor Government copped the big increase and that spending growth will less slow than stop in the coming years. Commonwealth outlays accelerated from around $5.5bn in 2008-2009 to a touch over $8bn in 2011-12. The 2013-14 MYEFO projected spending expenditure would grow more slowly to $10 bn plus a bit billion in 2016. But with the (admittedly as yet unrealised) budget savings spending will all but level off, staying close to steady between next year and 2018. If all the budget decisions get through, outlays will decrease by $2bn on the 2013-14 MYEFO projections.

Unpacking Pyne’s package

Yesterday’s consensus among higher education types at home in the corridors of power was that the government will work around the Senate’s Tuesday vote disallowing higher education spending cuts. But nobody knows enough to argue about what cross bench senators will do when the big votes come. Industry insiders say they have had polite hearings from Palmer United people and told to come back when there is legislation to discuss – which is a start. But while PUP planning is a mystery observers guess that the later the legislation the more nuanced the PUPs response. Which is why they agree the government will probably split the package, with funding cuts, fee deregulation/scholarships and access to the non-government providers presented separately. The challenge for the government is to structure the bills so that savings and deregulated fees pass or they both fail – which nobody would want, except the NTEU and many, many nervous staff and students.

First rate rank

U-Multirank’s first iteration is out and very interesting it is indeed. The EU project compares similar institutions on a range of attributes, as opposed to the commercial league tables that go from one to whatever, often on the basis of selective performance statistics and people’s perceptions. The first Multirank is said to cover 850 institutions from 74 countries as well as discipline specific comparisons for electrical and mechanical engineering, business studies and physics. On first glance it looks a little buggy, the comparison between Australian and central European universities may not be immensely useful for prospective students and institutions that feel wronged will howl like sinners damned – but overall this has the makings of an immensely useful product. It certainly is a lot of fun to play with.