The election that mattered

University of Adelaide student magazine On Dit tweeted Friday night; “we’re gearing up to cover the count.” No the electoral commission was not outsourcing pre-polls, there was a student union election Friday.

Beginning as they mean to go on

Universities Australia was quick to welcome the new government on Sunday, with a statement that reminded Mr Abbott of all the nice things he has said about higher education. “Looking ahead UA will be seeking early meetings with Mr Abbott.”  I bet it will.
Vicki Thomson from the Australian Technology Network was also on the front foot, with a specific request – “a formal acknowledgement by the government of the national importance of impact arising from university research.” This is not a trap – as if Ms T would ever do such a thing. But (as outlined below) the way the new minister responds will be very interesting indeed.

 ‘Twas a famous victory, sort of

But for whom? The National Tertiary Education Union will justify spending $1m of member money with the victory of the two candidates it backed in the Reps, Adam Bandt (Greens, Melbourne) and Andrew Wilkie (independent, Denison). But it looks like the cash spent on helping Greens senators could be wasted, with their losing the balance of power from mid 2014. The best the higher education sector can hope for now is that Tony Abbott is as good as his promise to leave universities alone. But given the Jamie Briggs stunt last week they should not bet on this. Especially given Christopher Pyne signalled back in April that competitive grants are all very well but perhaps some universities might be better off not competing at all. “We must give universities more freedom to focus on what they are good at, and to provide their communities with the services they need, If that means that some universities want to focus significantly more in teaching, than they should confidently do so,” he told a Monash audience. Goods news for the Group of Eight  and ATN, less so for the suburbans, especially those without a medical school?  Might be wise to check Mr Briggs schedule for speeches. Leaving universities alone might mean whatever the government wants it to mean.

Briggs blow up

Did Mr Briggs blow up the government’s relationship with universities before the new higher education minister is sworn in? He certainly did not help with his justification of taking $103m away from the Australian Research Council  to fund preferred medical research projects. It is less the money that put backs up as the way he justified taking it – suggesting that funding has been wasted on low priority projects, with the implication and that the government will stick its bib in whenever it likes to correct academic judgements of what matters.
Just how many backs are up is demonstrated by Vicki Thomson’s intervention in the argument late Friday with a sensible statement from the ATN.  “Not only does the ATN support research into social and economic projects that underpin the deployment of medical research breakthroughs for maximum impact, it more broadly fosters Australia’s research capacity that delivers results for the community.”
The astute ATN director does not have a dog in this fight – as applied research specialists her member institutions will likely meet the Briggs relevant research test. But Ms Thomson recognises a principle when she sees one and while she does not state it, knows all universities are at risk when the feds fund at whim.
And, gosh who would have thought it, she also has a solution to stop future smash and grabs. The ATN is keen on research impact measures, which were the go in the 23rd Labor dynasty last year but then fell out of favour under Kim Carr in the 24th. And Ms Thomson sees a chance to get them back;
“What is really at issue here is the need for overarching government incentives for an assessment of the impact delivered by university research. In the absence of such measures any government is flying blind in terms of directing Australia’s world class university system to maximise positive outcomes for the Australian community.”
Will the new minister listen? He or she will have to do something, significant and soon, lest the curse of Briggs cruel relations before they start. Time for a statement endoring the independence of the Australian Research Council.

Less relevant research more politically preferred

And just as a matter of interest what medical research is the ARC’s missing millions going to fund? We know James Cook University is getting $42m for work on tropical health and there is $120m for dementia research. But the health costing also includes $46m for “full implementation and expansion of bowel cancer screening,” which does not sound like research at all to me.

Determined Dewar 

Last month the La Trobe University union told its members that management’s proposed enterprise agreement, was “the worst attack on working conditions” in the university’s history. They may not have seen anything yet. On Friday Vice Chancellor John Dewar told a staff meeting that La Trobe faces a budget shortfall up to $54.5m by 2015. The cause is “a perfect storm” consisting of cuts from Canberra, worse than expected international and domestic enrolments, infrastructure maintenance that can wait no longer and operating cost increases. To deal with it Professor Dewar has brought in consultants and he expects to be implementing savings before the end of the year.
Oh, the university is also negotiating a new staff agreement including a pay rise following the one-off 1.5 per cent administrative increase in July.  “We are yet to make a final offer but we have factored for a pay rise. I want to reach a final settlement with staff but a higher pay rise means less money for everything else,” he told CMM.
Everybody clear on that? And balancing cost cutting and wage increases are not the only issues likely to divide Dewar from staff. There is also the ongoing debate over research and what to do with academics who are not doing much, if any. “There is a high number of staff who have not published in the last six year – we will look and see what they are doing with their time,” he says.
So Professor Dewar is determined to improve academic productivity while making big savings and increasing pay. All of which are easier said than done and he will need all the help he can get. So will he receive staff support? “There was a staff forum Friday which was well attended. I asked for ideas and I am confident suggestions will be brought forward,” he says. But from whom? I asked the NTEU for a response to the VC’s plan and a spokesman said they were still considering it. I bet they are.

 Best foot forward

Endocrinology Update (you should never miss an issue) headlines a story on Queensland University of Technology diabetes foot care research, “foot amputations take a hike.” Quite.

I’ll take that as no 

The National Tertiary Education Union is not impressed with Monash University’s 2 per cent per annum by three years offer.  But it is amused. “We will have a good laugh and come back to tell them not to be silly,” a senior official at head office says. And then the union will get serious, “this will inevitably lead to industrial action,” he added. And as for Vice Chancellor Ed Byrne’s warning that unaffordable pay rises will lead to job losses, the union says the university “is taking the piss. Monash is in very good shape and the VC has to be joking to say it isn’t.”

Ignored Eurekas

Science PR, sorry communication is a serious study – there are degrees in how to do it, practitioners have their own association and there seem endless expert agencies spruiking the achievements and needs of the science community. So why did the 2013 Eureka Prizes attract so little attention? Sure universities covered their own winners and there was coverage on-line. But broadcast media was light-on – which is strange given the coverage of awards nights for far less important industries. And there were few yarns in the serious papers (all credit to Sue Neales for her piece on the work of the Future Farm CRC on native plants as sheep feed in The Australian).
Whatever the reason, the Eurekas lack the impact they should. While this may not matter to people who enjoyed the dinner, billed as “the largest national celebration of Australian science” it should concern those responsible for raising the cash that keeps the lab lights on. It is all very well to bang on about the national significance of science, if the community does not know what it is paying for.
As to who got what the results are as expected. Of 32 individuals who picked up prizes, either individually or as team members some 13 are from Group of Eight institutions, seven are based at other universities. The CSIRO plus the research institute sector won 7 and just about all of the balance went to publicly funded not for profits.    Inevitably the ABC won the journalism prize given it is about the only media organisation with the taypayer funded resources to fund science coverage. And the private sector? It was represented by a Curtin University spin-off  – and that was it.
The Eurekas look a dinner for the members of a very smart, very exclusive club talking to teach other.

Is everybody having a good time?

Deakin University will host and fund the Australian National Development Index, a combination of measures designed as an alternative measure of “societal progress” to GDP. The 12 categories include, standard stuff, “education” and “financial condition,” for example but also “spirituality” which sounds like it could be tricky to quantify. Deakin looks like a natural home for the project, given its long-standing involvement in studies of the state of the nation’s psyche. The University’s Australian Centre on Quality of Life looks at our collective psychological condition and conducts the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. So will the not entirely dissimilar projects get on? They can always survey each other to find out.

No, we’re not being served

At the end of a week when nobody paid much attention to a big drop in training numbers the AFR reported Friday that retail specialists are being imported by the shop load because big stores can’t find enough locals. How this happened is a question to ask the training lobby next time it announces how customer focused it is.