Sue Thomas from UNE new CEO at Australian Research Council

Why Australian industry imports IT experts and what unis are going to do about it

Not so sweet ’16 in financial results from WA universities

Less slow than no going enterprise bargaining at Uni Tasmania

Original ideas

Ever-charming Chief Scientist Alan Finkel complimented a German audience on Monday for their nation’s scientific literacy, pointing to ministers and business executives with doctorates.  Curiously, he did not add that not only are there lots of them but many of the learned leaders actually wrote all of their theses.

 Thomas takes over at ARC

Microbiologist Sue Thomas is the new chair of the Australian Research Council. Professor Thomas will join the Council in July. She will move from the University of New England, where she was appointed provost and DVC in April 2015. Prior to that she was DVC R at Charles Sturt U (CMM April 24 2015). Professor Thomas was appointed to the ARC advisory council in 2013, by then higher education minister Chris Evans.

Professor Thomas is an experienced university leader with a strong academic background in microbial genetics, environmental microbiology and agricultural biotechnology and she will bring significant teaching, research and commercialisation expertise to the ARC,” Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham said yesterday.

She takes over at a crucial time for the ARC, with the government’s impact and engagement metrics being piloted this year, prior to role-out with 2018’s Excellence for Research in Australia. Previous ARC head Aidan Byrne did very well in ensuring the ARC kept oversight of research assessment but Professor Thomas will face a big challenge in protecting the council’s authority if the government decides the new metrics are a success and decides to extend them at the expense of the scholarly publication measure ERA is based on.

Not so sweet ‘16

Booming times are not in the golden west, where the four public universities have reported their 2016 financial performance to parliament.

The University of Western Australia went backward, with total revenue down $12m to $934m. UWA reported a net result of $25.8, the lowest in recent years plus a tiny – under $2m – underlying deficit. But not to worry, new VC Dawn Freshwater says her restructure has it covered. “I am confident that the changes made through the Renewal Project will ensure the university’s long-term financial stability.”

Curtin U is in better shape and with revenue from a new Dubai campus and development of property in Perth coming on stream over the next few years it seems set to overtake UWA as income leader. Revenues were up a marginal $6m, to $919m last year. However, the net result for continuing ops was down from $61m in 2015 to $38m last year.

Edith Cowan U had a big year with total income up from $389m to $425m but the net result was down $4m to $24m. And it wasn’t a sweet ’16 for Murdoch U – while revenue grew from $319m to $346m over 15-16 so did expenses with a second annual negative operating margin in a row, 1.6 per cent last year. In 2013 Murdoch U recorded an operating margin of 10 per cent.

IT grads not in demand

IT entrepreneurs complained loud and long last week that changes to employment visas would do deny them the skilled staff they need – which seems strange because Australia pumps out a bunch of information technology graduates who struggle, at least at first to find work.

According to the Grattan Institute last year, a third of 2015 IT grads were still looking for full-time work four months after graduation. Perhaps this is due to the quality of courses they study. That’s certainly what students responding to the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching think. In the 2015 QILT some 76 per cent of IT students were happy with skills development in their course, the lowest figure for all disciplines . 75 per cent were satisfied overall, the second lowest rating, just one per cent above dentistry. Last year IT was in last place for skills, at 75 per cent and lowest overall at 74 per cent. The 2016 QILT graduate survey found that 17.7 per cent of IT graduates working full-time were not using their degrees because, they said, there were no suitable jobs in their area of expertise.

Granted the 3000-respondent employ found 87 per cent of workplace supervisors were happy with IT graduates but they rated their tech skills higher than their “employability.” And just 56 per cent of supervisors thought the IT grads needed their degrees to do their jobs, 10 per cent below the all-disciplines average.

Last year president of the Australian Council of Deans of IT ,UNSW’s Maurice Pagnucco,  told CMM (August 25) they were on to employability issues. “Actions to improve graduates’ work readiness are based around improving their industry related skills during their university education. To do this universities and industry need to engage in meaningful dialogue so that both can adapt rapidly in a sector where continual change is the norm, and both universities and industry need to collaborate more to provide work-integrated learning requirements and opportunities to students.” Specific steps included: universities and industry reviewing emerging issues, establishing “a common understanding” of key graduate attributes and developing best practice guidelines for university industry advisory boards. We should start to see if this has an impact in next year’s QILT results.

Different markets

The estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research is promoting a  webinar on how Registered Training Organisations can manually update transcripts for unique student identifiers. It occurs as the higher education sector launches MyeQuals, an ANZ system which provides students with secure and portable online access to their academic records. It’s on at the Groningen Declaration Meeting, which sponsored the innovation, in Melbourne this week (CMM March 23). Different products, different purposes but the contrast between the system-focused VET product and the student-centric higher education innovation is stark.

 Telling it like it was

“Kicked off Friday night with food poisoning – why does that feel symbolic of our last year! ” Australian Council for Private Education and Training chief Rod Camm, Monday.

Not much talking at UTas

University of Tasmania management does not like to rush things. The university tells CM, “we are in productive and good faith negotiations with our staff and the relevant unions,” but the talks started in August and show no sign of concluding, with pay, generally an issue that generates disagreement, not yet discussed. After the university (again) cancelled scheduled briefings intended to establish a financial context for bargaining the campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union suggested to Vice Chancellor Peter Rathjen that perhaps his negotiators did not have their hearts in the process and that the university “is deliberately slowing down … and is not placing a high enough significance on the terms and conditions of its staff.”

The slowdown is strange, some on campus say, given the university was initially keen to do a deal that would cover teaching-only roles for the new associate degrees that Professor Rathjen is very keen on.  And there is no sign of management demanding a slimmed down agreement with codified detail on employment protection stripped out, as universities in Western Australia are doing. Just about the only major issue at this stage is management’s preference for associate-degree teaching-only staff to be rolled into the existing academic agreement when the union wants a separate deal – as exist for professional and teaching/research staff now.

But after a rush of meetings last year management went quiet over the summer and stays that way. Observers suggest executives might be nervous of doing an early deal, the UTas bargaining cycle runs ahead of most universities. They may want to see what Deakin U, which is expected to settle soon, agrees to. Or perhaps the university is waiting for the budget in case expected cuts provide cover for a reduced pay offer. Unless of course, it is as UTas says and it considers negotiations as they are “productive.”


How to make the top ten

Deakin U demonstrates the way to win student approval is to ask them what they need. The university is sixth in the country in the new Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching overall student rating. Commencing students are now being  asked how things are so far and the university goes out of its way to show it will respond to whatever the new survey shows.

 Training gaps

It’s good Rod Camm is feeling better (above) because he will need to be fit and well to deal with the challenges private training providers face under the new student loan scheme now in place. Mr Camm argued long and hard that the shonks who rorted the old VET FEE HELP system had to go but he warns the feds denying 40 per cent of previous providers access to the new arrangement will have consequences which the government may not have anticipated. The loans scheme is now crucial to national skills building and there gaps in coverage.  Three nursing course providers in South Australia did not make the new list for institutions where students can borrow study costs and the only private aviation training provider in WA missed out. “Where these students go now is difficult to comprehend,” Mr Camm warns.

 He did it his way

Back in 2014 QUT vice chancellor Peter Coaldrake decided to retire at the end of this year – and word is he will. An astute reader of politics and policy Professor Coaldrake designed a QUT for the times and he will leave the university strong in research and reputation and set to grow to suit its own circumstances, which he thought all universities should be allowed to do. As he and colleague Lawrence Stedman wrote last year “Rather than categorising institutions into neat boxes or rewarding or penalising institutions with simplistic measures, we need to allow the emergence of different ways of adapting the university ideal to meet society’s changing needs within the resources society provides, whether these be public or private, campus-based or on-line, research intensive or otherwise.” (CMM August 1 2016)