Plus VET debt to double higher education rate

Thinking on his feet

Acting Murdoch VC Andrew Taggart signs messages with the tag “keep walking.” It made me wonder if he is a fan of the Johnnie Walker whisky brand, which has used a strolling Regency gent as a logo for 100 years. Apparently not, Professor Taggart holds walking meetings to get people away from their screens.


Glover steps up

UWS VC Barney Glover will take over from Sandra Harding as president of Universities Australia in May, right after the budget. Professor Glover told staff on Saturday that UA’s “vision and goals …placing students at the centre of higher education and giving all Australians the opportunity for education and success … complements UWS’s student-centred approach”. Good-oh but this does not mean UA will be easy to lead if the Pyne Package MKII fails in the Senate. UA has done extraordinarily well to hold its members together (excepting Stephen Parker) but Professor Glover will have a tough job in ensuring the alliance sticks in support of deregulation if the imminent prospect of more money disappears.

Surplus soon

While everybody focused on the outcome of Murdoch University’s conduct inquiry into Provost Ann Capling (nothing reported and she stays in her job) last week the university announced a deficit. This was a train-wreck that was obviously on the way, with the university investing heavily in its research programme. One of former VC Richard Higgott’s last announcements was closing undergraduate courses at the Rockingham campuses (CMM August 11).

Unless, that is, management did not notice the train was in trouble. Back in November 2013 the university signed off on a generous enterprise agreement delivering staff pay rises of 4 per cent backdated to June of that year, 2.5 per cent for 2014, 2.5 per cent for 2015 and 3 per cent in June 2016, presumably because the university assumed the Higher Education Grants Index (based on CPI plus a wage index for professionals and scientists) would continue and not be replaced with CPI alone, which the government is committed to.

Who knows. As acting (in perpetuity?) Vice Chancellor Andrew “the stroller” Taggart tells staff, everything is according to plan and after two years of deficits there will be a surplus in 2017. OF course there will be, just ask Wayne Swan and Joe Hockey how easy it is getting budgets back into the black.

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From bad

The Australian Council for Private Education and Training was severely spooked last week, demanding government and regulators take measures “to protect the interest of students and the reputations of quality providers.” Good luck with that – in Victoria the new government is conducting an inquiry into the for-profit sector with terms of reference that are the equivalent of attaching a “kick-me” sign to ACPET’s bottom. In NSW the ever-astute education minister Adrian Piccoli has declared his affection for TAFE. And the best that new training minister Simon Birmingham can do is to announce that the federal government will not stand for students being robbed and the taxpayer rorted by shonky providers. And this is all before the Senate inquiry into for-profits gets going. As a taste of things to come read Martin Poole’s much redacted submission regarding his experience with one private provider. What’s worse, Mr Poole says he took his concerns to regulators who did not act on them. Expect to hear many more examples of similar behaviour in coming weeks. ACPET can argue that the shonks and spivs are unrepresentative all it likes but the examples of villainy have set the context for a much bigger debate – whether the private sector can be trusted in training, and by extension, higher education.

To worse

TAFE Directors Australia’s submission to the Senate committee inquiry into private VET does not denounce for-profit providers out of hand, noting, “the quality and performance of some private RTOs” and acknowledging “competition hones our performance and sharpens our minds to the changing needs of students, employers and, indeed, the broader economy.” But it points to problems in regulating 5000 training providers and it warns, “the entire VET sector is being harmed through continued stories of questionable practice particularly in the marketing to and enrolment of VET students. This has happened in a way that would never be tolerated in, say, the university sector. The fallout from some private college behaviour has ricocheted around the training sector and caused much apprehension among students, parents and employers.”

TDA also argues that for-profits do not necessarily act in student interests; “private businesses by their nature seek to grow revenue, minimise costs and maximise profits. This is rational behavior in the private sector. The challenge for the regulated VET market is to avoid the unintended yet serious action of rewarding training providers to recruit on volume and in so doing, set many students up to fail.”

Expect to hear this quoted loud and long by Greens and Labor senators on the committee.

Nobody’s budging

There are two Senate inquiries into the Pyne Package MkII, one set up by the government and one by Labor, Greens and some crossbenchers. There are no submissions for the latter that are yet public and but a few for the former are. And these indicate how intractable the dispute over deregulation has become.

The Australian Catholic University reiterates its overall support for the Pyne package. While it wants a lower funding rate for non-university higher education providers and rejects the 20 per cent across the board cut in per student funding otherwise it remains strong in support of demand driven funding and deregulated student fees. And ACU is not having a bar of the talk of re-regulation, which is reappearing. Thus it rejects the return of compacts. “In past compacts, the targets set did not take into consideration the university’s context (for instance, low SES student participation rates in a period of sector expansion). Furthermore, there has been a lack of follow-up with respect to achievement or non-achievement of targets. Overall, ACU considers that the requirement for a mission-based compact has been a very time consuming exercise, with little value to the sector.”

The University of South Australia also backs the Pyne Package, subject to the government moderating the cut in Commonwealth funding per student place and excluding private providers from demand driven funding for sub degree course.

Not so Stephen Parker (VC University of Canberra) and Ben Phillips (NATSEM). They point to their submission to the committee on the first Pyne bill as stating their general position and focus in their new one on the danger of student default rates to be born by the taxpayer. “The revised proposals are better than the original ones for students, but they remain worse than the status quo for students. However, the revised proposals are worse for the taxpayer, not only than the original proposals but also than the status quo. Doing nothing would be better than plunging into the unknowable,” they write. With the Senate looking set to vote Pyne MkII down nothing looks like what we will all get.

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Debt piles up

The Grattan Institute’s Andrew Norton has also made a submission to the Senate’s private VET inquiry, which focuses on a system-wide, indeed national problem, bad student debt. Mr Norton warns that 40 per cent of VET borrowers will default on government loans, twice the bad-debt rate in higher education. This is a significant number, given there were 100 000 new loans in 2013, which is expected to increase to 250,000 in the next few years. The main causes are high numbers of women working part-time whose incomes stay below the minimum repayment threshold and the 30 per cent plus drop out rate, which Mr Norton suggests increases bad debts, as people who do not complete courses stay on low incomes. This is not a specifically private sector problem, but with 60 per cent of VET debtors in private sector courses expect to hear it raised by the Senate inquiry.

Price to beat

From the UK, digital content purchase consultants Jisc Collections reports what major UK universities are paying for-profit journal publishers in author publishing fees for articles in open access journals. It’s a big bucket of money, getting bigger as the publishers adjust their business models from subscription sales to creator pays. Between 2013 and 2014 the number of APCs tripled to 6000 with publishers’ income from them increasing by the same per centage to 9m stg. The most expensive journals to publish in are from the Nature Group, with articles costing 3000stg. No one has done the equivalent analysis here but what is more interesting than the quantum is what the publishers charge per article, which in the UK is an average 1,580 stg. For every discipline association or indeed academic entrepreneur who does not like private companies profiting from public research expenditure and wonders whether they could publish their own journal that is the benchmark to beat.

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