All quiet until the election plus unfit ASQA

Third time unlikely

The party-line remains Minister Pyne’s will introduce his deregulation legislation this session, but as CMM’s legislation watcher points out, there is no sign of it on the government’s list of bills. Perhaps Mr Pyne wants it to be another surprise.

On hold

Higher education policy experts are reconciled to the funding status quo before the next election. While no one CMM talked to yesterday thinks the existing model of all-but open access and undergrad fees subsidising research is sustainable there is a general sense that the action will be after the next election, that the government will leave savings from student funding which will not happen on the books but not try for other compensating cuts before the poll. Beyond block infrastructure grants and equity programmes there is not much that can be cut without Senate approval and nobody thinks there is any chance of this. “As long as the savings are in the budget papers the minister can point to them and fend off pressure from the central agencies for alternatives. This is the case even if the bill fails again, as long as Mr Pyne continues to indicate support for deregulation,” one close observer of the deregulation debate argues. Others indicate that while the minister remains committed to a free market in undergraduate fees as for the rest of the government it’s a case of “we are all Keynesians now.”

“There will be a series of decisions between now and the next election which central agencies will hate but will be judged by the politicians as necessary/ politically expedient. The economy is going backwards, so the pressure to slash public spending is evaporating,” says one who has seen policies in the past supposedly written in stone turn to sand in mere months.

But all this applies only until the election. “If the government wins it will pile on the pressure for a revamped package. The Coalition will not campaign on higher education deregulation but Labor and The Greens will, so if the conservatives win they will claim a mandate.” But surely things will stay the same unless the unlikely occurs and the government wins the Senate. Don’t bet on it, says a veteran who suggests that hard heads in both major parties know universities need more money than any government will give. The election will be a circuit breaker and one way or another undergraduates will pay more, whichever party is in power, they say.


Who knew?

The desperate media release of the day award goes to the University of Sydney for “Male seahorses and human pregnancies remarkably alike.”

Yet more training trouble

In Melbourne yesterday the Senate Education and Employment References Committee heard evidence “to determine why it has been necessary for the Victorian Government to take such strong action to restore confidence and integrity to the vocational education and training sector. There was the expected shock-a-thon, with examples of for-profits behaving badly, notably evidence of pharmacy certificates that are supposed to take a couple of years being run by for-profits in six weeks. This sounded similar to last month’s news that childcare certs were being taught in less time than it takes a toddler to learn to shout “no!”

But Liberal member of the committee Arthur Sinodinos was not accepting that it is the government’s fault, pointing to Training Minister Simon Birmingham’s crackdown on dodgy private providers and arguing the failure to build an effective compliance regime occurred on Labor’s watch. Fair enough, but where the problems started matters much less than that they keep turning up.

Change agent of the day

Margaret Gardner is not one of those VCs who carry their own spotlight and since moving from RMIT to Monash has stayed off centre stage. But as it becomes obvious that universities cannot rely on Canberra to generate more money for them it seems she has decided to shine. Professor Gardner has recently delivered two carefully calibrated speeches, one on the importance of education to Melbourne and another on how the age of mass enrolments and digital delivery can deliver a golden age for universities.

“The future of higher education is intertwined with the future of our city. Without innovation we will not have the new specialised industries, the new organisations, large and small on which our livelihoods depend. With the research and innovation in our universities come unimagined possibilities that are ours to grasp but they need our support – our patient support – and our commitment,” she said in the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s oration.

And she made a case for higher education as the engine of economic growth and social change in a speech last month at Mannix College.

“Access to a university degree is now more open than it has ever been. Access to the knowledge that supports understanding has democratised as the Internet opens rich and diverse materials from across the world to a student at the far ends of the antipodes. … And in order to access employment in the professions or major organisations, to tackle complex and wicked problems of society or environment, or to fuel the ideas and expertise that will build something new, a university education is more important than ever before,” Professor Gardner said.

In an era where public funding for universities is a hard sell, smart VCs like Professor Gardner have stopped warning of decline without more public money and started explaining what their institutions can do for the communities they serve. An idea worth putting up in lights.

Total recall

Why universities spend up on recruitment television commercials puzzles CMM, but not University of South Australia marketing scientist (for it is a science he convincingly says) Byron Sharp. “They want to reach teenagers, and their parents, and anyone who might do post-graduate. This is quite a broad audience. TV is a cheap per exposure, fast and vast medium still. And yes, teenagers still watch TV. Plus you know what you are buying when you buy TV advertising space,” he tells CMM.

Professor Sharp explains why  here. “About one in four online ad impressions is an actual opportunity to see (OTS) for a real human viewer. However, we can’t assume each ad impression is always actually seen, and therefore able to affect memory, we have to discount for the perceptual filters and inattention of these human beings.” This, he admits is a problem of largely unknown magnitude in all media, a challenge his Uni SA Ehrenberg-Bass Institute is investigating. However he estimates the real OTS cost for digital advertising is four times the price per impression, (once you screen out bot-views and humans who never scrolled down a screen far enough to see an advertisement).

And of course everybody watching late night TV, when universities can afford to advertise, is awake, sober and in the market for a degree.

Unfit ASQA

After yesterday’s Senate committee hearing claims of for-profits getting away with low quality training, people were asking what is the Australian Skills Quality Authority doing about the problem. ASQA CEO Chris Robinson was glad they asked, announcing yesterday that 87 per cent of registered training organisations complied with national standards, up five per cent on the previous standards. What is more, ASQA is planning “another round of information sessions/briefings”. That must be what the agency is doing with the extra compliance funding Training Minister Simon Birmingham secured to help it deal with sharp and straight-out bad practise in the industry. Although CMM suspects the minister might have hoped for more than this process-focused approach.

While Senator Birmingham tightens the rules for training funding there is still a scandal a month. This is an improvement on the beginning of the year when there was a problem a week – but from what Labor senators heard yesterday if things are better it has nothing to do with ASQA. “Both the Pharmacy Guild of Australia and the Australian Education Union (AEU) stated that the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) is not strong enough to deal with the sector and is “demonstrably” not fit for purpose, the senators reported.

criterion update