Plus very bad student debts and Ian Jacobs goes global

Future perfect

ANU VC in waiting Brian Schmidt and UNSW DVC R Les Field will star as Marty and The Doc at the Academy of Science’s Back to the Future Canberra event, 6pm Friday @ Questacon. CMM hears they left the hoverboards for the event in the DeLorean, but they will collect them, if they can remember where they parked it in Civic and in what decade.

ANU Sept 15

Electoral college

UTS is inviting members of the university community and its supporters to propose who should replace Vicki Sara when she steps down as chancellor in February. Suggestions should reach university secretary Bill Paterson by November 5. But why stop there, why not make the office elected by Council, Academic Senate and the SRC? There was a bloke who suggested this sort of model to elect Australia’s head of state a while back, Malcolm somebody.

Global ambitions

There are no surprises in the University of New South Wales’ ten-year plan, released by Vice Chancellor Ian Jacobs yesterday, hardly surprising given Professor Jacobs has consulted for months and put first a white and then a green paper to staff. Even so, this is an ambitious document, including making UNSW a global top 50 research university.

This is one of very few hard numbers in the document, maybe there will be more in the implementation plan, but it is still an expansive and ambitious document. And it demonstrates how the ambitions of universities have grown. In the ’90s Monash was considered bold for badging itself “Australia’s international university” now UNSW is “Australia’s global university.”

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Who’s on first?

Kim Carr is right behind the National Tertiary Education Union campaign against university fees, the WA branch of the union announced yesterday. CMM suspects Senator Carr might suggest the comrades are behind him.

Too many casuals to relax

The National Tertiary Education Union has numbers on the increasing casualisation of the academic workforce, courtesy of expert analyst Ian Dobson. Across major academic operating units the per centage of casual and limited term staff ranges from 36 per cent in IT to 52.9 per cent in health disciplines. The use of casual labour is up across just about all AOUs, except IT, where it dropped by 7 per cent over the decade to 2012. No wonder the NTEU is keen to convert as many casuals as possible to permanent positions at universities across the country – their future membership depends on it.

Change in opposite directions

There is talk in lighthouse land that 40 jobs at Macquarie University are in play as a restructure centralising marketing and communications services is contemplated. Just to keep everybody guessing, the university is also said to be considering decentralising learning and teaching to faculties.

More and harder maths

With Year 12 maths exams on around the country Geoff Prince warns ever-more students are taking the easy options. According to his Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, while the number of students taking advanced maths is stable at 10 per cent, the share studying at intermediate level is down to under 20 per cent. This is undoubtedly why Education Minister Simon Birmingham yesterday announced $6m for new curricula and teaching material “to make maths more meaningful.” Good-o, but Professor Prince has a practical idea to encourage more students with the ability to do higher level schools maths – setting it as a prerequisite for university science and engineering. This, “would send an unequivocal message to school communities,” Professor Prince says.

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On board the bandwagon they built

All of a sudden everybody is keen on collaboration across the university-industry divide, as people sense that there may be money attached to the prime minister’s exhortation that we should go forth and innovate. This might irritate those who have always done it, like the Cooperative Research Centres, but not so that you would notice. Instead the CRC Association is making the most of a bandwagon it helped build –announcing its conference next March will run an industry-researcher “match-up”.

Very bad debts

Labor’s Kim Carr reports the feds have released data on student loans via VET FEE HELP, without telling anybody about it. But this does not mean the Department of Education’s media team is trying to sneak the data out, this would require a higher level of competence than the departmentals demonstrate. Although, if they were that well organised keeping quiet about the numbers would make sense – because they indicate an extraordinary blow-out of student debt.

In 2011 all VET students owed $205m, which grew to $1,757m last year with a 150 per cent hike between 2013-14. And the vast bulk of the debt is for courses supplied by private providers, which grew by $1bn or 159 per cent to $1,649m.

Overall there is now $3.1bn in VET student debt on the Commonwealth’s books. With this sort of money available it’s not surprising that providers have piled into the industry. There were 197 registered training organisations in 2013 and 254 at the end of last year – and just 47 were TAFEs.

As for all the anecdotal allegations of people without the ability to complete courses being gulled into borrowing to enrol, some 90 000 borrowers are not in employment.

The positive way of presenting this data is Australia is rapidly expanding its trained workforce. The negative will emerge as people start to repay, or not, their debts. And there is likely be a bunch of them. Grattan Institute expert Andrew Norton estimates 40 per cent of VET FEE HELP debts owed by people with diplomas and advanced diplomas will be repaid – and that does not include people who borrow for courses they do not complete (granted the earlier they drop out the less the debt.)

This is yet more bad news for advocates of education deregulation and a gift for supporters of the public sector. As Labor’s Sharon Bird and Senator Carr put it yesterday; “for the past 18 months we have seen hundreds of media reports about the sharks and shonks that are targeting vulnerable Australians, providing little or no training for over-priced courses and saddling those that can least afford it with thousands of dollars of debt. (The government) need to stop merely tinkering around the edges and properly address this blowout in VET FEE-HELP debt, which could end up as a huge cost to taxpayers.”

Yesterday the Australian Standards Quality Agency released an audit report on audits of 21 registered training organisations (including a TAFE)  which reported problems in marketing and providing information to people before and after enrolling. Good-o, but the problem is the loan scheme honeypot itself more than providers sticking their snouts in.

Freeze at Flinders

At Flinders student demand is below forecast and while capital costs are said to be on budget overall expenditure is increasing faster than government indexation payments (generous wage rises will do that). In consequence the university has frozen permanent staff recruitment. There is also an exemptions process  to “minimise impacts on critical operations. Vice Chancellor Colin Stirling will brief senior staff on Friday with open meetings next week, where he will doubtless be told of many operations which can not possibly cope without more staff.

ANU Sep 15 3

Baldock to ARC

Clive Baldock is on the move. Back in January 2014 he resigned as executive dean of science at Macquarie University (CMM January 22 2014). By November that year he was deputy dean of science, engineering and technology at the University of Tasmania. And now the Australian Research Council reports that Professor Baldock is its new executive director for physical sciences, engineering, mathematics and information sciences. He replaces Brian Yates who is going to U Tas to be dean of science.

Get the job done

New research for the estimable National Centre for Vocational Education and Research demonstrates the benefits of completing trade courses, not just modules for specific skills. Tham Lu finds that course completers are more likely to have work that matches their training and that they hold better jobs than people who focus on picking up a specific skill. Labor market advantages are especially strong in licensed trades. However this may not matter to all module completers who are more likely to already have a Certificate III or better qualification and study for personal development. Overall the paper points to the importance of students being aware of the various outcomes of different levels of study. “Students who intend to study the trades should be encouraged to investigate the various areas of the trades and weigh up the possibilities and potential outcomes. ”

Still behind

International students with new STEM degrees from US universities will be allowed to stay on for two years, up from one now, to gain workforce experience. Since 2011 international graduates with any Australian degree have been allowed to stay here for up to four years.