Plus Taggart steps out at Murdoch and Universitas 21 rates Australia 

Vintage smug

Thanks to the readers who sent me the  Downfall parody, straight from the UWA bunker, as the news of Curtin’s new med school sinks in. It’s a great guide to how competition upsets people long used to monopolies. With a a new medical school, a deal with AFL ladder-leaders the Dockers (CMM April 21) and somebody poking fun at the Perth establishment, it looks like people at Curtin are, as one reader put it, ‘opening bottles of smug.” At UWA not so much.


Striding circuit breaker

Andrew Taggart is in the mood for a walk. The acting VC of Murdoch University believes in management by walking around and as he moves around the campus he sees good reason to focus on the future for a university much occupied with the past. Last year former vice chancellor Richard Higgott resigned when the Western Australian Corruption and Crime Commission announced he was being investigated and there was widespread talk of deep divisions between his supporters and an old guard at Murdoch. “There was a challenging environment but there were never two factions ready to charge at each other,” Taggart says. But he acknowledges that he had to earn the trust of staff when he was appointed as acting VC over several more senior people, including Provost Ann Capling, who resigned on Monday. He hopes the response to his operational plan, now months in the making, will signal success. “I believe the deans have a sense of ownership of the exercise, he says.

The plan will be widely released “soon” but there is no disguising the directions he wants Murdoch to take. “We need to grow our international students numbers here and while we are strong in Singapore we have to build research and community development there,” he says. One thing that isn’t in the operational plan is a restructure, “there was one three years ago and there is no need.”

Professor Taggart also wants the state government to move on changing the university’s Act so development of the site for the proposed Murdoch Activity Centre is possible. “12 000 workers, 35 000 residents – it’s a great opportunity,” he says. But above all he wants to use his term as VC  to improve the university experience, for students and staff both. The work of (people and culture director) Bob Farrelly is a priority he says. “People need to feel good about life at Murdoch and a bit more love and care never goes astray.”

But that may take more time than an acting appointment allows. Professor Taggart says he does not know where deliberations on a new VC are. “Its in the hands of the chancellor (Atlas Mining chief  David Flanagan) and I leave Senate meetings when it is discussed.” But, surprisingly, given common campus opinion that he is happy just to act in the post, Professor Taggart adds, “I would consider the VC job, I am enjoying it.”

In the meantime he will keep moving, “I’m out there walking, trying to connect with as many people as possible.” Less strolling than striding.

League table of nations

Australia’s higher education system rates tenth in the world in the Universitas 21 global ranking, released this morning. “The essential logic behind the development of national rankings is that it is the higher education system as a whole, not just research intensive universities, that matters for the economic and cultural development of a nation,” the fourth annual report argues.

However when adjusted for resources by per capita GDP Australia drops to 13th, two spots ahead of the United States. But the conclusion that will be quoted and quoted is U21‘s reason for Australia‘s 18th position on resources, which; “is pulled down by the very low ranking (44th) for government expenditure on higher education.”

The report is the work of Ross Williams, Anne Leahy and Paul Jensen, all from the University of Melbourne and Gaétan de Rassenfosse of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

They assessed university systems on four measures, resources and regulatory environment, connectivity with external domestic and international stakeholders, and research output and impact plus participation and employment rates.

On overall performance the top ten, in descending order are, the United States, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands, the UK, Singapore and Australia, down from 9th in 2014. Among regional competitors, Singapore is 9th this year, with Hong Kong 15th, New Zealand 16th, China 34th and India 50th.

However the specific measures reveal very different ratings.

On resources the top ten are, Denmark, Canada, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, US, Saudi Arabia, Norway, and the Netherlands. Australia is 18th, right behind Ireland and ahead of Korea.

For operating environment the US leads, followed by Hong Kong, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, the UK, Singapore and Romania.

On connectivity the top ten are Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, the UK, Singapore, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium and New Zealand. Canada, the US and Australia are the next three.

The output ranking reflects resources and research culture with the US and the UK in the top two positions followed by Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Finland, the Netherlands and Israel.

The overall ranking based on per capita GDP demonstrates a similar pattern with interesting outlier, Serbia in first place. It is followed by the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Canada, Switzerland, New Zealand and South Africa.

Fascinating and very important data and before anybody suggests it includes nothing new CMM wonders how many of us would have picked Serbia, adjusted for resources, as the world leader.

ANU new 2

HASS in the tent but out of luck

It looks like Ian Macfarlane and Christopher Pyne are competing to see who is the bigger friend of business-friendly research and rather ignoring the social sciences and humanities in the process. The industry and science minister is backing the Miles CRC review, which calls for stronger industry connections, and the Commonwealth Science Council has signed off on nine national research priority areas. Yesterday Education Minister Pyne commissioned the Australian Council of Learned Academies to review the research training system, “to ensure it meets Australia’s research needs in the 21st century.”

Giving ACOLA the job is an excellent example of Johnson’s Rule for Canvassing Critics (as in LBJ’s famous advice that it is better to have people in the tent urinating out than the reverse). By involving the academies of the social sciences and humanities as well as those of science and technological sciences and engineering Mr Pyne has ensured HASS will not be able to attack a heavy emphasis on applied STEM in the report.

Which notable terms of reference all but ensure. Like:

“provide greater opportunity for industry relevant research training, including: through support for industry relevant research projects and experience, access to industry and business relevant skills within research training programs, such as entrepreneurial skills” and “ensure the research workforce pipeline is secure in fields of national importance, including areas aligned with national science and research priorities.”

ACOLA will report in March.

The Regional Universities Network was the first of the higher education groups to endorse the review.  “It will give regional universities the opportunity to outline the relevance of their research training to business and regional communities,” RUN chair and Southern Cross U VC Peter Lee said last night.

Full bottle on applied research

Mr Pyne also announced yesterday $40m for four new Australian Research Council research hubs and five training centres. All are in one of the government’s priority areas: food, soil and water, transport, cyber security, energy, resources, manufacturing, environmental change and health. Minister Pyne was out at one, yesterday, the new training centre for innovative wine production at the University of Adelaide, where he spelt out the government’s applied research agenda and pointed out how it is on-song with international best practise, such as Oxford University’s relationship with Isis. At which point CMM paused. But no it isn’t that ISIS, as in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Rather its a consultancy named for the River Isis that flows through Oxford.

Not the secret ingredient

Research in an American Society of Microbiology journal reports giant pandas may like but don’t digest bamboo all that well. So there you go, Kung Fu Panda’s taste for secret ingredient noodle soup is based on solid science.

Support for CRC strategy

The Innovative Research Universities group is backing the government’s support for the Miles’ CRC Review, calling it, “an important step to improving industry driven research.”

“Making industry the driver of the CRCs, which requires industry-led centres with a clear focus on industry based problems, goes to the heart of the challenge – to get industry to take responsibility to identify research needs and pursue them, drawing in the breadth of university research capability,” the IRU announced last night.

However the IRU warned the government’s focus on research priority areas should not exclude emerging industries nor ignore the potential of non-profit research areas.

But overall the lobby believes “focusing CRCs at industry needs is consistent with the IRU’s call for the government to target research support to industry.”

ASEAN ahead

A reader points out that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has agreed on principles to govern external quality assurance agencies and their processes, internal quality assurance and national qualifications frameworks. This is intended to allow for credit transfer across all borders. “But what ASEAN can do with ten member nations we can’t do with the commonwealth and eight states and territories and the Higher Education Standards Framework remain a draft,” the reader laments.