Plus an argument of economists and Charles Sturt U sharpens up

But let me not boast

Speaking to an audience in India yesterday Christopher Pyne delivered a well-researched speech on past, present and future cooperation in education and training. But he just had to mention that almost half Australian universities are in the 2015 Academic Ranking of World Universities. India has but one, the Indian Institute of Science.

Hard data

New research from the Australian Council for Educational Research identifies the impact of disadvantage on university participation. Daniel Edwards and Julie McMillan have mined the data to find patterns that will help universities identify and assist individuals who come from more than one of the three major categories of disadvantage, low SES, indigenous and regional students, and are thus more at risk of dropping out. For example being a low-income, mature-age, part-timer from the country is tough. “The compounding impact of being in multiple groups means students are more at risk,” Dr Edwards says.

Edwards and McMillan found the overall undergraduate completion rate nine years after commencing was 73 per cent, compared to around 69 per cent for non-metropolitan and low SES students, and 46 per cent for indigenous undergraduates.

This is an immensely important project especially given the arguments of critics of the demand driven system who claim that too many students are enrolling in university without the capacity to complete. The results of this study demonstrate how complex the issues are but how they can be addressed by universities targeting first year support to students at greatest risk. “Institutions can use the data to help their first year experience,” Dr Edwards adds.

It also occurs to CMM that there is some comfort in the headline figures. While a 46 per cent completion rate for indigenous students is a national shame the other two disadvantaged groups are not that far behind the national average. This does not excuse overall attrition but it at least should stop anybody who wants to argue low-income country kids should not have a shot at studying.

criterion update

An argument of economists

The Economics Society of Australia has assembled a 49 member panel of academic and professional economists who it will poll on an issue of the hour every month. This is an excellent initiative; much of the economics coverage in the media is either chatter about the state of stocks or the direction of interest rates. But this exercise will place elite economic opinion at the centre of the policy stage. The ESA is asking members what the first monthly question should be, with suggestions ranging from the need, or otherwise to increase the GST, the impact of negative gearing on the housing market, and the utility of Uber.

There is serious economic firepower on the panel and if there was any ideological emphasis in their selection CMM cannot see it, demonstrated by former treasury secretary Martin Parkinson’s membership – there isn’t an economist in the country more skilled in staying neutral. Not that everybody will be understated. Henry Ergas from the University of Wollongong and The Australian is a member, so is John Quiggin from the University of Queensland, both blokes not backward in coming forward when it comes to expressing opinions. And yes higher education favourite’s son, Bruce Chapman is there. Among the notable mandarins are Gary Banks and Allan Fels.

But who isn’t there are many woman – there are just six.

Heard it all before

A CMM correspondent who transcends time by force of will points to a press report on the education debate “When (the) shadow education minister Jenny Macklin was asked whether Labor would be prepared to force a double-dissolution election, she stated simply that Labor didn’t want to see students and working people pay more for higher education. … If students and staff organise to fight and defeat the government’s attacks, then the fight for free education could be renewed. It is possible and something we must aim for.” Sound familiar? It will be for readers with a long memory. It’s from the Green Left Weekly in May 2003.

Change agent of the day

Is Charles Sturt Uni VC Andy Vann. He has a major restructure of professional staff in faculties underway, involving up to 250 people but costing only 14 jobs, (no consolation if you are one of the 14). Professor Vann says the exercise is about improving efficiencies and not a response to Chris Pyne’s deregulation running off the rails. The goal is consistent services across the faculties. We have to be as sharp as we can be,” he said last night.

Professor Vann added that while the restructure is unsettling for staff he was happy with the consultation process. Which campus unionists are not, saying the restructure was planned “at a distance” and is designed to support the consolidation of faculties from four to three. “There has been a move to centralise some processes and the approach appears to represent Taylorist management principles that many academics are questioning in a era where flexibility and innovation in teaching and research is sought.” The National Tertiary Education Union is talking to staff across CSU campuses and plans to put a collective response to staff.

Everybody gets their say

Colin Stirling is winning admirers for allowing the Flinders community to argue out whether Bjorn Lomborg can move in on campus. There was an op ed in Adelaide’s Advertiser newspaper yesterday by Nicole Flint praising the vice chancellor for not just bowing to popular campus opinion and ruling out the divisive Dane moving in altogether, “ he adopted a position that is undoubtedly unpopular, but absolutely right. He made a decision based on principle.” This is a good result for Professor Stirling but CMM suspects that in addition to principle, politics is involved. By allowing the campus community to talk the issue out he is making it impossible for people unhappy with whatever happens to claim they were not consulted.

Diplomatic enthusiasm

Today’s Mandy come from Australian High Commissioner to India, Patrick Suckling, commenting on Education Minister Chris Pyne’s visit to India. According to Mr Suckling, Minister Pyne and his Indian equivalents, “set a clear agenda to bolster our already significant education links. Strong leadership for a strong future.” But them as Mandy Rice Davies famously remarked, “he would say that wouldn’t he.”


Working with what they’ve got

Campaign of the week is “It Starts with Arts” from Griffith University, which updates the ancient idea that a humanities degree teaches universally applicable skills. “More and more, ideas are the leading currency. And in the not too distant future, it will be the thinkers who are the power brokers. So how do you make sure you sit on the right side of this equation? With a degree that teaches you to think both critically and creatively; to innovate, communicate and harness the power of your ideas.”

Of course academics were telling this to students tossing up doing arts or alchemy in the 15th century. But Griffith is pitching to the pragmatists out there, explicitly linking arts to employment. “Create your own distinctive skill set, combine studies in the fields that interest you – the fields that matter – and secure your future job prospects.” So much for knowledge for its own sake.

Carefully calibrated cheers

The long, long awaited (it went to the feds in March) report on NCRIS e-research capability is out, sort of, with a summary by officials of Tom Cochrane’s paper being released. As it stands, it reads like a Candide consultation, yes things could be better but on the whole we are in something approaching a best of all possible worlds. Thus one of the two “top level conclusions” found, “the NCRIS approach has succeeded in providing significant eResearch infrastructure benefits for research in a way that has accelerated and enhanced collaborative activity among both infrastructure providers and researchers,” with “the quantum and proportional allocations to the elements of the eResearch Capability … broadly appropriate.”

Indeed some areas, including industry links are even better than they look. “There is some history in Australia of links between industry and research being in place but less visible, indeed there is some reasonable conjecture that this opacity is in part due to a disinclination to report the linkages. Some robust debates in the not too distant past about the merits of seeking to measure “research impact” (and quality) “are a related issue,” Professor Cochrane’s summarises state.

As to heroes, the report points to praise in consultations for the Australian National Data Service and the Australian Access Federation, “both cases where the Australian approach has been world leading.” The National Computational Infrastructure and the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre are also sources of “significant satisfaction.”


Soft (and cheap) power

Mr Pyne will have paid his passage to India if Australians access the coming training boom there. As the minister mentioned in his speech, India needs 70 000 vocational trainers now plus 20 000 a year into an unspecified future. As competition for Indians travelling overseas for university study hots up the home market for training is surely an enormous market for Australian VET.

But goldmines take time and delivering courses to students in India will be a lot harder than bringing Indian students here. “Australia’s vocational education and training providers need to find a way of better translating the quality of Australian qualifications delivery … (into) the mode of frugal innovation.” No, that does not sound like much to CMM either but I dare say ASQA has somebody working to make adapting to it as complicated as possible.

Mr Pyne also mentioned a plan for Australia to fund leadership development for Indian community college administrators and teachers. This is a very sensible way to build good relations and at project cost of $230 000 it surely qualifies as frugally innovative.