Plus what the government could offer to secure deregulation 

Not with a whimper but a bang

Students were explaining  the dangers of deregulation to senators at the Senate committee hearing in Melbourne on Friday when there was a loud bang – but it was only a balloon (why do education protests always feature balloons?) bursting. “In Parliament House that would have caused quite a stir,” committee chair Bridget McKenzie said. An omen no doubt, but for which side of the debate?

Norton on the money

Data in Andrew Norton’s new report from the Grattan Institute on the state of higher education will upset many universities. But Australian Technology Network members will put it up in lights. For a start their graduates (along with those of the Group of Eight) enjoy a 6 per cent salary premium across working lives. The ATN members also charge lower fees in now deregulated markets (postgraduates and internationals) than the Eight. As for great Eight status, Mr Norton concludes; “prestige has no reliable effect on full-time starting salaries or the chances of getting a full-time job.” And the Eight’s emphasis on research does nothing for graduates, Mr Norton suggests “research based prestige is not particularly important in the Australian labour market, at least for bachelor degrees.” Who knows what will happen in a deregulated market but market intelligence like this should end Go8 assumptions they would be able to charge what they like. Overall Mr Norton’s comprehensive report puts the present deregulation debate in context – if cross bench senators read anything for background on universities as they consider the future of higher education this should be it it.

 Ranked highest among Australian universities starting with m

The Macquarie Graduate School of Management is very pleased with The Economist’s ranking of full-time MBA courses. “This ranking sees the school retain the position of the #1 business school in NSW, rank at number #3 in Australia and #5 in the Asia-Pacific region.” All true – but overall MGSM is 49th in the world, behind the University of Queensland (16) and the Melbourne Business School (40). In the Asia-Pacific it is also one place behind the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad.

The Economists across the board take on MBAs is pretty much the same as every other ranking of just about everything- dominated by the US. Some eight of the top ten MBA programs are in the United States, with the University of Chicago first, followed by Dartmouth and the University of Virginia. The other two are the HEC management school in Paris and the IESE at the University of Navarra. The UK was second overall with 15 schools, followed by France with six and Australia and Canada with three each. 


Dark matters

“A new measurement of dark matter in the Milky Way has revealed there is half as much of the mysterious substance as previously thought,” the University of Western Australia reveals. Now, if we only knew what it was.

Cutting red tape wont cut it

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane assures us that with less red tape VET will deliver the trained workforce industry needs. But new research for the National Centre for Vocational Education and Training Research on the needs of five growth industries – food and agriculture, biotech and pharmaceuticals, advanced manufacturing, mining technology and oil and gas – demonstrates it is going to take more than that. “At present the gap between the knowledge generated in the education system and the skills demanded by employers and individuals is widening,” the report states.

“The predominant picture that emerges is the need to develop a more nimble workforce. This is primarily about willingness on the part of individuals to learn new skills and adapt to change. And it requires an industry culture committed to ongoing professional development,” the report states. And as for the trainers and teachers, they are ageing with “gaps in their skills.” Sounds like this is going to take a lot more to fix than less red tape.

Smaller big names

Thanks to the open access expert who pointed me to a Google Scholar report showing the diminishing dominance of elite journals. The researchers looked at the ten most cited journals and the 1000 most cited articles in the 261 disciplines in Scholar Metrics between 1995 and 2013. They found citations to non-elite journals went from 27 per cent in 1995 to 47 per cent in 2013. In six of nine broad research areas over 50 per cent of 2013 citations were to articles in non-elite journals. This is good news for the open access movement – one of the strongest arguments defenders of the established order invoke is that only articles published in the old, and expensive, journals generate academic attention. Now, not so much.

La Trobe restructure rolls on

The National Tertiary Education Union has for years fought La Trobe Vice Chancellor John Dewar’s plans to save $65m by restructuring the university, but it looks like its delaying actions are at an end. A month or so ago Fair Work Australia ordered the university to consult with staff on savings and workloads for two more weeks. Which university management duly did and now the required period is complete the restructure plan is rolling out again. “Given no viable alternatives to find efficiencies of $65 million have been identified in the latest round of consultation, we have decided we will continue with the previously identified changes in order to give clarity and certainly to our staff, students and the communities we serve,” a university spokesman says.

Senate deregulation hearings: count down to a big bang

The Senate committee hearings on university deregulation concluded on Friday with more of what had occurred all week. University representatives made the case for change, to varying extents and with varying levels of enthusiasm and Labor’s Kim Carr hammered away at the main point he needs Senate cross benchers to hear – deregulation is not necessary if the government funds universities as Labor did. So what happens next? I have no clue – but I suspect committee chair Bridget McKenzie does (read on).

Erudite exits

While witnesses presented their cases with energy and acuity there was little new for anybody to say on Friday. Michael Barber (VC Flinders), David Battersby (VC Fed U) and Andrew Dempster (corporate affairs chief Swinburne) all agreed that they do not like the cuts but reductions in public funding are inevitable  and deregulation is thus unavoidable. If the Senate blocked the proposed cut to funding for Commonwealth Supported Places the government would slash somewhere else, they suggested. “The minister can cherry-pick to make up the 20 per cent. It forces the sector to agree to deregulation ,” Professor Battersby said. Given funding cuts deregulation is a sensible evolution, Professor Barber added.

But it need not be rushed and could be amended. Mr Dempster suggested a staged implementation and by capping HELP  borrowings. The proposal as it stands is “like giving young people access to a credit card without a credit limit,” he said.

But not all witnesses are equal

Student evidence was an agree-a-thon about how bad deregulation would be. Except that from Liberal Students group, Matthew Lesch, who appeared separately. The other groups declined to comment on the Liberal students’ submission, “I wouldn’t waste my time,” one said. Mr Lesch argued the system needed more money and some of it should come from those who benefit the most (students that is, not vice chancellors). At which Senator Carr lost interest, “he’s a witness for the government so why don’t you ask him the questions,” he said to Senator McKenzie. Senator Rhiannon also declined to ask him anything.

Up or down – who knows?

Paul Wappett from Open Universities Australia had a long exchange with Senator Sue Lines (Labor-WA), which came down to his belief that a deregulated market in higher education would work like, well a market, with some course prices coming down, and her demand that he provide evidence that this will happen. His reply that he could not predict the future did not impress the senator, who asked the same question a number of times – and got the same answer. It went to the heart of the politics – all opponents of reform have to do is sell the case that the status quo is safer than the known unknowns.

Qualified support

Andrew Parfitt (acting VC, Uni Newcastle) and Simon Maddocks, (CDU) both spoke carefully to the extent that their support for deregulation sounded more like the need for assistance against its impact. In answering Senator Carr’s questions both called for more money and delays in allowing non-university providers to compete. “It’s a massive change, allowing the sector to stabilise is sensible,” Professor Parfitt said. “Private providers want access to low hanging fruit – competition could force us to fall-back from areas that most need support,” Professor Maddocks added.

Duelling data

La Trobe VC John Dewar appeared on Wednesday, as chair of the ministerial working party on deregulation finance and legislation. He returned on Friday, wearing his Innovative Research Universities chair’s hat, accompanied by the IRU’s executive director Conor King – who Senator Carr focused on, quoting his submissions opposing fee deregulation to earlier inquiries. Mr King held firm, stating changing circumstances caused policy needs to change. (He says all the essays the senator quoted are easily found on the IRU website.) Professor Dewar then spoke up stating that funding declines made deregulation unavoidable. Senator Carr was not having it arguing, as he had all week, that funding had increased across the life of Labor governments. They would have been exchanging statistics still if Senator McKenzie had not intervened from the chair.

The questions that followed, from Senator Rhiannon and Senator Anne Ruston (Liberal-SA) gave the witnesses a chance to talk to their submission and explain the IRU’s opposition to the proposed pooled scholarship scheme and students fees for the Research Training Scheme plus arguing  universities are prepared for competition, based on their experience in the international market.

Big finish

Late on Friday Education Department officials fronted the committee for a forensic examination by senators Carr and Rhiannon, who both had long series of very detailed questions on the assumptions and inputs underpinning the government’s plans for deregulation. It was the last evidence and it made for an impressive and expert exchange – when it comes to administering education Senator Carr in particular really knows his stuff. But I’m guessing he had a larger purpose than embarrassing officials – collecting evidence for his own committee report on why deregulation is based on ideology not policy and is simply not necessary if government funds higher education as Labor did.

What now?

For Australia to have, or not, a higher education market in 2016 might depend less on Christopher Pyne or Kim Carr – than Bridget McKenzie. The Victorian National Party senator chaired the hearings and will shape the government members’ report, which will be the its best chance of convincing the cross bench that the Coalition has listened to university chiefs and other stakeholders. So what could the report recommend the government do? For a start, it could address student concerns by calling for an interest rate on study loans based on CPI plus an upfront fee, to reduce borrowing costs for graduates on lower incomes. And it could create a fund for regional universities. But to keep all the others on side it could rule out the idea, which is doing the rounds, of city universities funding scholarships for country campuses. The report could also call for some sort of cap on the amount students could borrow to stop universities charging fees that go off the graph.