Julia on the job

The University of Adelaide confirmed this morning Julia Gillard’s honorary appointment.  “Through her contribution to seminars and our internship program, she will share her experiences and insights with both current and future students,” Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington said. But I hope she does more than “contribute.” Just think of the (fee paying, naturally) masters program in applied politics she could run for aspiring MPs and union officials. There is no  mention whether she will be called Professor Gillard. I’m guessing not. If anybody understands how transitory flash titles are it is her. I wonder what they will make of it over at the University of South Australia’s Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre. 

Who’s the boss?

That no one seems to know who the new universities minister will be says something about the sectors relations with the conservatives. As one lobbyist said yesterday, vice chancellors are of an age to remember the glory days of Whitlam-Hawke-Keating and they are more comfortable with Labor than the conservatives.  But while sector leaders don’t know who they are going to get, they know who they want – and that is Brett Mason. The shadow universities minister was invisible in the election although I suspect this was what the Liberal’s small target strategy required rather than what the senator himself wanted.  Senator Mason is a former academic and understands universities, making him an obvious choice for the portfolio. Except that he is not expected to have a seat in cabinet, which is where the various university interest groups want their minister to be.
As to research at the industry end, it all depends on the fate of Sophie Mirabella, who was the shadow innovation minister.  While obviously not the most popular person with the electors of Indi university representatives who dealt with say she was professional, personable and across the portfolio. But if she loses her seat (which looked likely yesterday, although the absentee votes should help) or is given another portfolio, optimists argue the best result would be to add innovation to Malcolm Turnbull’s communications portfolio. Interesting idea, Mr Turnbull is a prodigious policy thinker and well suited to higher education, what with his having an ego almost as large as the most modest vice chancellor.

ANU’s got talent

In Canberra they need to ticket a three-minute thesis competition. (Tonight week, 6.30-7.30pm at the Manning Clark Centre, ANU). Understandably so given ten of the eleven (one title I did not understand) Australian National University PhD researchers who are presenting have fascinating topics. From Akshay Shanker’s, “Technological change and economic growth with finite resources” to Jennifer Robertson on “Sniffing around the universal gateway to seizures” all the research sound like it is worth hearing about for many more than 180 seconds. Maybe government critic of “irrelevant research” Jamie Briggs should attend, he might learn something.

Militants march

On August 20 the National Tertiary Education Union held industrial action at campuses across the country, with mixed results. At the University of Sydney it seems nearly 600 staff went on strike, which on my count is a bit under 10 per cent of the payroll. This is hardly overwhelming support, especially for famously militant Sydney. Still 600 is a fair number and certainly enough to staff the barricades. And it shames the University of Melbourne, where a quick count is said to show just 100 people went out for the afternoon. But up at James Cook, where the pay negotiations are protracted and bitter, the best guess I have heard is that 50 staff declared they were on strike.  This does not mean that the generality of workers at these universities aren’t upset over the slow pace of pay negotiations it’s just that even the militant members of university communities are not all that, well militant.

Management moves too

Managements may start to test that militancy. Yesterday I reported the blue at Charles Sturt University, where Vice Chancellor Andy Vann says management and unions have a deal on a new agreement, which he has sent to staff for a vote, (Tuesday and Wednesday next). This is over the strenuous objections of the NTEU – which says its team did not sign off on anything, (although it seems the Community and Public Service Union did). It’s an idea which appeals to managements where bargaining is bitter and to date fruitless-which narrows it down to just about everywhere in Victoria, for a start.
And maybe James Cook University, where the two sides are now arguing what a 3 per cent pay rise actually is. According to the local ABC, management says the 3 per cent it offered months ago is on the table and that it has dropped productivity measures. The union responds that JCU wants a two year deal which covers 2013-14 but runs to March ’15, which reduces the per annum value of the rise.

Top of the populist pops

The QS university rankings were accompanied by the usual big noting by institutions that climbed up the overall ladder or on any of the constituent criteria. There are no surprises this year, with the Group of Eight ranking highest in the country, seven of them make it into the overall top 100 (the University of Adelaide misses out, coming in at 104). While this is nice it is less a measure of overall university achievement than people’s perceptions of it, given rankings are informed by academic and employer opinions. (Andrejs Rauhvarger’s  analyses the QS methodology to 2011 in his comprehensive, Global university rankings and their impact.)
Still, rankings are inevitable and important – universities and the people who pay for them need to know how institutions are doing especially compared to their peers. Which is what QS is not much good at. Comparing the University of Adelaide at 104 to the City University of Hong Kong (dead heat) or the University of Pittsburgh (just behind) is not much practical use.
But comparisons between institutions with similar missions are useful indeed – which is where the European multirank project comes in. This new rating includes, teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation and regional engagement. It does not create composite indicators, which are not considered “robust”. Perhaps most important, the project includes discipline rankings as well as assessing institutions overall.  The obvious limitation is that there is no numerical rank; the great benefit is the project makes possible a detailed comparison of competitors. UMultirank starts next year, examining 500 institutions. It will not knock off QS and its competitors, people love league tables, but if it grows it will provide an alternative.

As distinct from?

Some people are affecting deep slow voices, called “vocal fry,” perhaps to sound more authoritative, says Andrew Butcher from Flinders University.   Is it popular with anybody in particular? Yes, writes Kristin Shorten for the Courier Mail, “the habit has become common among young female women.”

Operating on hearts and minds

The “do so!, do not!” debate between opponents and advocates of the Murray Darling Medical School continues. Charles Sturt University wants to create a medical school on campuses across rural NSW almost as much as the University of New South Wales, which has medicine education outposts in the bush, wants to stop this happening. The two sides snipe away at each other’s case every chance they get, in a battle for public and political support. At present CSU is winning, with the National Party and sundry individual election candidates endorsing the MDMS during the campaign. Last week UNSW returned fire, pointing to new infrastructure to show why MDMS is not needed. So as sure as a casualty ward queue CSU responded yesterday. Wagga campus chief Miriam Dayhew told the local paper that the UNSW investment was all very well but it would not “boost the number of doctors staying in the bush.” This is the essence of the MDMS case – that medicos who train in the country are much more likely to stay there. With the Nats back in office the harder CSU goes after public opinion the better its chance of securing its school. Whatever UNSW argues expect Charles Sturt to stick to the line that only a country born and bred medical school will produce doctors who stay in the bush. It’s guaranteed to appeal to Nationals cabinet ministers.