Just one more sleep

Supplementary Estimates for Education and Training are on with senators starting to quiz HE and VET officials at 7pm tomorrow. Four hours of fun are scheduled

“Golden child and forgotten progeny”: Productivity Commission on university research and teaching

The Productivity Commission questions the culture of Australian higher education in a scathing analysis of universities emphases on research in a new discussion paper.

“Notwithstanding the critical role of their teaching function, universities tend to give pre-eminence and prestige to their research functions. Most academics are hired for their research capabilities and have less intrinsic interest in teaching,” the PC claims.

Students paying for research that is of little benefit to them more closely resembles rent extraction by universities,” the Commission adds.

And the Commission slams university teaching cultures and outcomes, independent of yet to emerge results from demand driven enrolments, pointing to employment outcomes and attrition.

The PC also anticipates responses that surveys show undergraduates are happy, arguing; “Australian student surveys suggest while most students are satisfied with overall teaching quality, a more forensic examination of student attitudes makes this overall finding somewhat inexplicable.”

The Productivity Commission also proposes performance measures for universities, including the use of consumer law by students who can make a case they received a substandard education. And it calls for reward and punishment metrics, not unlike the ideas raised by Education Minister Simon Birmingham;

“one model of ‘skin in the game’ is to impose a penalty on (or provide a bonus for) a university that achieves poor (good) outcomes for its students as a group. This could be targeted at the extent to which a university added value to the labour market outcomes of students or achieved broader, non-labour market social objectives. Sophisticated statistical analysis across universities could, in principle, identify the extent to which universities’ actions affect outcomes, which could be the basis for rewards for good (or penalties on poor) performers.”

And just to ensure that its proposal is uniformly unpopular,  the PC suggests that funding lost by one university for poor performance not go to ones with superior outcomes, as the government suggests. Instead, it be used to compensate students who received poor services.

Other observations that will infuriate the orthodox include:

*  “there is not a persuasive case for requiring high-quality institutions to conduct research alongside teaching in order to use the title of ‘university’.”

* “with cross-subsidisation, universities have strong incentives to churn out domestic and international students undertaking high-margin courses to maximise the revenue available for research. This is exacerbated by the cost structure of university teaching, as many courses have high fixed costs, whose impact on average costs can be minimised by increasing student numbers.”

There is more, much more, but perhaps the suggestion that will sting for elite universities who market on the way they prepare students for global leadership is the suggestion that they merely work with what they are given;

“Given the lack of any direct link between teaching ability and research output, the research-based prestige of a university is largely irrelevant to whether the student was taught well. Instead, much of the enhanced social-standing and improved employment outcomes more probably reflect the academic preparation of the students attending.”

Smarter than the average bear

“For University of Tasmania graduate Jack Beardsley and his canine sidekick Cocoa, part of his job is to approach bears and see how they react,” UTas yesterday. Depends when they last ate.

Productivity Commission report reaction: from cautiously supportive to outright appalled

“It’s a good thing nobody outside Finance and Treasury likes the Productivity Commission, otherwise people might pay attention to some of these ideas, a learned reader of many policy papers observes.

But some people are paying attention, in ways which could harm the grand coalition of universities which includes members with different interests.

Last night the Group of Eight suggested the “substance of the report” showed the PC in agreement with the Eight’s “consistent advocacy push.” According to Group of Eight Executive Director Vicki Thomson her members have high teaching standards and higher than average retention rates. “We enrol quality students and deliver quality graduates.” Having addressed a major part of the PC’s paper she turned to a big Go8 issue, the allocation of research funding; saying the Commission is right to suggest a “reassessment of research funding arrangements for universities.” Given the hint of a chance the Group of Eight could argue for more performance-based research funding, which would suit it but harm just about every other group in the system.

In contrast, Universities Australia defended all of its members, saying the PC “does not give a full picture of the reality of how universities work and the enormous role they play in lifting productivity (and) omits key facts on strong graduate employment and high levels of employer satisfaction with graduates.”

“The report sets up a false divide between universities’ focus on research and teaching. A defining feature of universities is that they are the only institutions that deliver research-informed teaching. This ensures that students are exposed to the latest thinking and developments in their chosen field of study,” UA CEO Belinda Robinson said.

From Indiana Jones to Montana Schmidt

ANU school of music head Ken Lampl has composed the 2018 Australian of the Year theme music while the ANU School of Art and Design has also created “iconic glass trophies” for the National Australia Day Council to give to state and territory award winners.

Professor Lampl has scores for 70 films on his CV – perhaps why this new music has a screen-epic sound to it. Now all he needs is a script for a movie about an academic adventurer, say a Nobel Prize winning VC from Missoula MT and a glass artefact, Montana Schmidt and the Icon of ANU would work.

Plibersek says it again, Labor believes in TAFE

Tanya Pibersek has switched on the flashing neon sign that states “Labor will fund TAFE,” again. The Opposition education spokesperson regularly reminds us that while funding universities is important, TAFE, which she sometimes uses us a synonym for VET, needs more money.

She said it again yesterday;

“More and more young Australians will need a TAFE education or vocational education, and more and more older Australians will be retraining throughout their careers as their jobs change. So of course we need to continue to invest in university education and make it more available to more Australians, but we can’t let TAFE become the second cousin or the poor cousin of universities either. We need to make sure we have an excellent vocational education system too.”

If Labor in government pulls an emo* and takes growth money from universities to repair TAFE no one will be able to complain they weren’t warned.

Ms Plibersek will likely talk more about training from this morning, adding it to her portfolio in a shadow ministry shuffle yesterday. Senator Doug Cameron joins her, with TAFE included in his responsibilities for skills and apprenticeships.

(*To pull an Emo is to cut funding in one education system to support another, as Labor’s Craig Emerson did to universities to support Gonski Mk I in 2013).

NTEU on track for no trains

Macquarie U will lose its rail service in 12 months or so, while there is a major refurb, and the campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union calls on the state government to explain how it is going to help the 40 000 strong university community cope. As for Macquarie U management, it has formed a steering committee and project working groups, (CMM October 10).

MOOC of the morning

QUT is offering a MOOC on social media and how to read it, via FutureLearn. The course will teach how to “analyse data, identify trends and patterns and explore how social media have been used in times of crisis and during political campaigns.” Presenters are Jean Burgess, Axel Bruns and Tim Highfield.

No more of the same

For undergraduates the moral panic is about attrition, for postgrads it is credential inflation, with students supposedly gulled into doing masters to compete for jobs that only really require an UG degree. But a learned reader suggests moral panics generally focus on what did not happen in the past not will in the future – which is less coursework masters than single competency MOOCs and micromasters that can be bundled to create a professional skills base, with accreditable proof on a blockchain.

Hearing research

Macquarie University and Cochlear will co-fund a five-year chair in Hearing and Healthy Ageing. Funding is not finalised however the university says it is interested in extending the arrangement for a second five-year term.

Women in Science award winners

The 2017 L’Oreal Women in Science ANZ Fellowships are announced. The winners receive $25 000 for a 12-month project. They are:

Matire Harwood who studies the health of Indigenous communities at the University of Auckland.

Jaclyn Pearson from the Hudson Institute of Medical Research for research on inflammatory bowel disease.

Jacq Romero from the University of Queensland who uses light to create quantum encoding systems (sorry, CMM has no clue).

Stephanie Simonds at Monash U works on the link between cardiovascular disease and obesity.

Deborah Williamson, from the Peter Doherty Institute is funded for work on antibiotic resistance

UniMelb promotion

John Howe is the new director of the Melbourne School of Government. Professor Howe is now associate dean of the University of Melbourne law school.

Different rating, similar ranking

Back in 2011 Malcolm Gladwell gave the UN News college rankings a scorcher of a serve – making the now standard criticism “there’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution—how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students.”

This did USN as much as no damage at all and since then it has expanded its rankings from the US to the world, with this year’s just out. The ranking inputs are much the same as many others (research rep, citations, publications and so on) and, strange to relate, so are the results.

It is certainly the case for the ranking of ANZ universities which names the usual universities in the global 100. UniMelb (26th in the world), UniSydney (=34th), UniQueensland (45th), Monash U (68th), ANU (=69th), UNSW (=69th), UWA (88th) UniAuckland (=138th) and UniOtago (=217).

All up 40 institutions are ranked with Southern Cross U just making the cut at =494th in the world.