Not the Twinkies defence

The University of Queensland headlined a media statement yesterday “sugar responsible for shooting.” Naturally I immediately opened the announcement expecting to learn how junk food causes crime (you can take the hack out of the newsroom …). Instead the piece was about research finding sugar, not hormones, generates plant growth. Score one to UoQ.

Peace at UWS

The heads of an enterprise agreement deal is imminent at the University of Western Sydney, following the intervention of National Tertiary Education Union National Secretary Grahame McCulloch. An announcement is expected today.  Mr McCulloch served, as so often before, as a circuit breaker, ending negotiations that were less stalled or stymied than shot. This is a good move for the union, which did not want a repeat of last year at Charles Sturt University, when the union lost the vote on a management proposed enterprise agreement. While campus observers suggest the union would have won a contested vote at UWS it was a big risk. A deal is also a win for new vice chancellor Barney Glover who intervened in negotiations last week and needed to succeed where his bargaining team hadn’t.

A plus or a plot

Yesterday optimists were assuming Andrew Norton’s report on HELP debt recovery was a way for the feds to kick the better part of a billion into universities. But pessimists saw a plot. The National Tertiary Education Union suggested it laid the foundation for the feds to increase course costs. “Rather than moderating the level of doubtful HELP debt by reducing the cost of tertiary education and the level of debt owed by the average student, this report is preparing the ground for future increases in fees, and even making it easier for the Government to extend the use of loans to other services such as for student income support,” NTEU National President Jeannie Rea warned. I don’t see the link between debt collection and increasing the cost of loans but let us see what Mr Norton recommends in his review with David Kemp of demand driven funding, and for that matter, what is in the budget. But one thing I am guessing will not be in either is the NTEU’s solution to bad student debt. “The Government should be adopting policies that reduce the cost of a university education and the level of individual student debts, not policies that encourage students to go even deeper into debt.”

Opinion or policy

According to UTS academic James Goodman, “the status quo, where the Israeli state disenfranchises the majority of people under its control, clearly cannot persist.” Dr Goodman is commenting on a new collection of essays edited by UTS research associate Antony Loewenstein. Good-oh, Dr Goodman is perfectly entitled to write what he likes. Problem is that his piece appears on the UTS Newsroom webpage, which could lead readers to assume that he is stating the university’s official position.

What the system wants in

Regional Universities Network chair Peter Lee picked up perhaps the most important of the Norton reports recommendations saying switching the HELP repayments threshold from average weekly earnings to the CPI, “will generate significant savings.” Quite right, Mr Norton estimates that such a switch in the next financial year would generate an extra $230m by 2016-17. And this would be a politically painless bonus, without all the anguish reducing the HELP payment threshold would generate.

What Norton leaves out

Includes lower repayments (CMM yesterday). But he also knocks on the head a briefly fashionable idea – securitising student debt. For a start Mr Norton points out that government would have to sell the debt at a discount (why would anybody buy it without a margin?). And if Canberra wants to inject off budget funding into education why not issue bonds? But the big reason is that it would be more political trouble than it was worth. “History tells us that it is hard enough to reform higher education finances when the beneficiaries are other students or other government priorities. Reforms perceived to benefit private investors are much less likely to prove acceptable to the public,” he writes.

Red stops green at Wollongong

The University of Wollongong launched its open access policy yesterday. UoW has gone for green, so that its “authors can self-archive, via an institutional or subject repository, accepted manuscripts at the time of submission of the publication.” What is more, “the university maintains a position to not pay for the publishing of online research where possible. Good for Wollongong, although “where possible” is a red light. The problem for UoW academics is that the vast majority of high prestige journals they want to publish in are produced by commercial publishers who, one way or another, charge for research publications, be it through subscriptions or article “processing fees’. And so the university accepts, albeit unwillingly the pay to publish “gold open access” model which charges authors’ institutions not readers. “Gold Open Access may be supported and funded at the faculty level where strategically or otherwise appropriate. Faculty approval and funding for publication in Gold Open Access journals will reside with the relevant associate dean (research).” Is it a worthwhile gesture? Too right. Will it change the publishing patterns of UoW’s top researchers? I doubt it.

And the winners will be …

The Academy of Science opened nominations for annual awards yesterday, and what a big bunch it is. There are 12 for early and mid career excellence in fields from earth to planetary sciences and a further seven career awards. They are all open to scientists resident in Australia. However academy fellows nominate the two alpha awards. The Macfarlane Burnett Medal for biological sciences is already open with the Matthew Flinders Medal for physical sciences to follow.

 More editorial than ads

RiAus has published a science degree guide (well it makes a change from promoting the Science of Dr Who stage show) for prospective undergraduates, which attracted obvious advertisers – eight universities plus ANSTO, Santos and a house ad. Good –oh but I wonder if RiAus was happy with a one to eight advertisement to editorial ratio.

Loved ones

“Not sure what to study? Our ageing population makes Optometry a clear choice,” RiAus tweets, in a promotion for the above guide (Just how many 18 years olds follow it?). By that logic somebody should start a degree in funeral studies (embalming is probably a trade to be taught at TAFE).