Plus REA can’t replace ERA says ARC (everybody clear on that?) 

Draining training

Training numbers are still dropping, demonstrated by new numbers from the estimable National Council for Vocational Education Research. The NCVER reports there were 316 000 trainees and apprentices studying last December, down 18 per cent on 2013. And things are not improving, with year on year commencements down 21 per cent. All three major east coast markets had lower commencements, around 25 per cent each, but South Australia led the slide with a 28 per cent drop in starts.

Opponents of deregulation argue this is all due to the states reducing funding for students with no hope of completing enrolling in worthless courses. But the biggest category for cancellation and withdrawal in the December quarter at a national level was “technicians and trade workers,” (15 600). This is entirely different to the “community and personal services” (4300 cancellations) category, which covers the much-maligned personal trainer courses, regularly used as an example of all TAFE’s troubles in Victoria, where deregulation was worse handled.

Past problems did not interest Labor training spokeswoman Sharon Bird yesterday. She sailed into Minister Simon Birmingham, pointing to programmes cut and agencies abolished. ““The minister says he is working on something and all the while new apprentices aren’t starting which will only mean more skills shortages across nearly all sectors in the future. Come on minister have a go!”

Fair enough. But as Ms Bird will remember from her service as skills minister in the Gillard Government, running training in Australia is like refereeing a football match in pitch darkness with nine teams playing different codes on the field and rules written by Franz Kafka.

ANU new 2

No plusses for Pyne

If Christopher Pyne endorsed motherhood academics would queue up to criticise him. Something like this has happened with his proposal to make maths compulsory in senior secondary education. For the last couple of days maths and teacher education academics have weighed into the idea, saying the minister’s idea is plain pointless until the maths curriculum is more interesting. “By changing our approach to teaching maths and science in years seven to 10, we will have less students entering year 11 bored, disillusioned or phobic about maths and science,” Charles Sturt U Dean of Education Toni Downes said yesterday. Well, what do you know, the way maths and science are taught is boring, now I wonder whose fault that is? No, the answer isn’t Chris Pyne.

Who will have the cash prescription pad

CMM did not think it would happen, but the feds have announced the Medical Research Future Fund will start in August if parliament passes the legislation. The government did not say how long it will take to acquire the target $20bn but the structures are certainly set to start.

The MRFF principal will be managed by the Future Fund Board of Guardians, which makes sense. But what wont, at least for some in the policy establishment, is the announcement of an “expert advisory board to provide advice on the medical research strategy and priorities to inform how annual distributions from the Medical Research Future Fund are to be spent.” Um, isn’t that what the National Health and Medical Research Council does?

Former NHMRC chief Warwick Anderson certainly thought so. In his farewell address to the National Press Club Professor Anderson mentioned the prime minister had said the NHMRC would have charge of the “vast majority” of MRFF money. But he warned, “vested interests are already circling like sharks.” (CMM April 16).

So what does the NHMRC think now? “Not telling,” was the response when CMM asked yesterday. (Actually a spokesman said “as a government announcement, it would be inappropriate for NHMRC to offer comment at this stage,” which means much the same thing.)

As to which particular experts will be on the advisory board, CMM asked the Health Minister’s office and if they ever reply CMM will report it.

Keep cake and eat it as well

“Just as we support the notion of a Medical Research Future Fund, so would we support industry engagement – through the Cooperative Research Centres and other mechanisms. It is of course important that this kind of engagement is not supported at the expense of our capacity for curiosity-driven research that is inevitably the wellspring of many translatable research discoveries” – Andrew Holmes’s presidential address to the Australian Academy of Science, yesterday. The parliamentary secretary for red bikes and ponies promised to look into it.

REA can’t replace ERA says ARC (everybody clear on that?)

The government’s decision to develop a research engagement metric (CMM yesterday) would upset a lesser research agency than the Australian Research Council. Yes, the ARC is about to launch the third iteration of Excellence for Research in Australia, which is based on publication records. However the ARC is too astute to appear upset its monopoly on research metrics will be challenged by Research Engagement for Australia. Last night ARC acting CEO Leanne Harvey said the council “recognises the importance of trying to give an indicator that is useful and points out good practices of university engagement with business and industry.”  Presumably this is why the ARC “has been working cooperatively with organisations like the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, along with the departments of Education and Training, and Industry on this subject.”

Calmly classy response, but then again the ARC can be gracious, given its judgement, “a Research Engagement for Australia exercise could not replace the current Excellence in Research for Australia program which measures the quality of the research produced, but REA is a welcome addition to the many discussions around how to measure engagement.” So there.

Auditor General ok

Victorian Auditor General John Doyle has found not-much to worry about in the books of the state’s universities for 2014. With a collective surplus of $537m, “the sector is in a healthy financial position and is a low financial sustainability risk in the short term.” While Mr Doyle signals concerns, even with august institutions Melbourne and Monash, they have to do with financial strategy and accounting practise rather than any imminent insolvency. Even the National Tertiary Education Union, which is always good for a jeremiad, struggled to prophecy disaster, picking up on the Auditor General’s warning of laxness in administering travel expenditure amounting to $137m.  “Universities cannot always demonstrate that value for money was achieved from this use of public funds,” the Auditor General suggested. Not good, but hardly likely to start a run on the banks. However Mr Doyle did point to the potential for problems in maintaining and replacing assets in the future.