But mentions of the boss next to God don’t mean the minister

Pyne’s promises

Education Minister Chris Pyne locked the government into one higher education status quo yesterday on Sky News , promising not to cap undergraduate places or hike HECS. Imposing a cap was never going to be easy to do the former, given the coalition voted for demand driven funding and hiking HECS would be horrible given the number of students who vote. So is there anything for the Kemp-Norton review to do? Heaps is my guess. Mr Pyne would not have commissioned the pair if he was just looking for a statement that all is well. But he has made it clear that he is not looking to them for a reason to throw the existing model out. “If they come back and say that quality has been maintained – there’s no need to tweak the demand driven system – we’ll accept that advice.  But if they come back and say we would recommend that there are various levers that you could pull to improve quality and keep the demand driven system well that’s the direction I’d like to head in,” he said. And what about savings? My guess is the Australian Research Council could cop another cut come the budget – Mr Pyne is adamant that education and research is safe , but there is research and there is research. STEM and medicine will be right but who knows what will happen to the humanities.  And I wonder if universities will be expected to teach more with less. Effective but not obvious cuts could likely include indexation to cover wage increases in the out years of new enterprise agreements. By proclaiming, and demonstrating, it is a friend to higher education on the big issues the government will neutralise the fall-out from any cuts later on. Expect to hear how the Coalition is a friend to higher education (see Karen Andrews below) many more times. On the basis of what the minister said yesterday it is not an easy argument to ignore.

Hooray for Kate

The University of Sydney released the results of elections for four Senate spots for five-year terms late Friday evening. Sydney Morning Herald investigative journalist Kate McClymont, whose work was fundamental to bringing on current corruption inquiries in NSW, topped the list. She is joined by former state Labor minister Verity Firth whose chances were maximised by appearing on two tickets. The National Tertiary Education Union will also be pleased with the election of two other candidates it endorsed, Catriona Menzies-Pike and ABC journalist Andrew West. Popular historian Peter FitzSimons was also elected. Ms McClymont’s long record of asking people in the public eye questions they do not want to answer will ensure she is an immensely valuable addition to the senate. Finance and Audit Committee chair Alec Brennan’s tern expires at the end of the year.  Ms McClymont would make an excellent successor.

Short if not sweet

The Australian Research Council tweeted Friday, “decrease in dollars in ARC Amendment Bill 2013 reflects terminating nature of Future Fellowships scheme.” So that’s all right then.

Everybody clear on this?

For reasons best known to officialdom, the bureaucracy has rearranged itself. The Higher Education Division is now the Higher Education and Research Group, responsible for teaching, learning and research in universities. No, I don’t know why the first two sit with the third and how the last relates to scientific organisations in Minister Macfarlane’s industry portfolio. The Tertiary Quality and Student Support Division becomes the Quality and Support Group and picks up the Office for Learning and Teaching. What was the team responsible for international education and science is now international and (research) infrastructure. Puzzled? Christopher Pyne isn’t. As he told Sky News yesterday,”I am the minister for research.  That has been brought within my portfolio.”

Beginning as the government means to go on

“The higher education sector has a great ideological friend in the Coalition – and a government determined to deliver practical support,” Liberal MP Karen Andrews told a Regional Universities Network conference in Friday. It was one of the first indications of how Minister Pyne intends to handle the sector, which is by conceding nothing to Labor. Thus Ms Andrews spoke of the way undergraduate enrolments increased under the Howard Government and the $6bn Higher Education Endowment Fund it created, without, funnily enough, mentioning Labor later gutted it. And she went on to tick every box she could to make her case – from the New Columbo Plan, through the future for online education and the lack of one for TEQSA. And as the member for McPherson, which includes an RUN campus (SCU), she was particularly positive about regional universities. But what of the issue of the hour for her audience, the Kemp-Norton demand driven funding review? “I assure you our government is not interested in change for the sake of change – our aim is only to improve the current system and ensure quality outcomes,” which means whatever Ms Andrews, wants it to mean. This early in the government’s life the RUN conference merited a minister; then again what they heard from the member for McPherson was very much the official script, as Mr Pyne made clear on Sunday .

RMIT out 

After having a ban on processing exam results for students offshore overturned by Fair Work Australia last week the RMIT branch of the NTEU called a 24-hour strike for Wednesday. (It has also appealed the overturning of the ban). The union says it rejects management’s final 3 per cent per annum pay rise as “piffling” compared to the money and improved conditions in new enterprise agreements at the University of Sydney and Deakin. “For 15 months RMIT has pretended to listen to staff concerns whilst having no intention of reaching a compromise. … The NTEU’s strike is our chance to stand together not just to win a better agreement but to demand a university leadership that listens and responds to the concerns of staff.” If management was listening to the union announcement on Friday it gave no indication.

Oversimplifying the obvious

According to a research synopsis by the Australian Science Media Centre, “an influx of European genes into the Caribbean population coincides with Columbus’ arrival”!

Time ticks away

The ARC upsets people because it (a) does not award enough grants and (b) only allocates them annually. The first criticism is unfair, chair Aidan Byrne and his colleagues work with what they get from government but the second is a perennial. This time last year Brian Schmidt suggested annual grant announcements took too much time and were not synched to the northern hemisphere hiring calendar, important for people who needed to look there for work. He suggested 5-year rolling grants, which is an idea that might appeal to the prime minister. In a February speech Mr Abbott canvased the case for longer periods of research funding. Twelve months after Professor Schmidt, Peter Woelert from the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education says an annual grant award in March means a rush to submit and leaves people with an idea ready for funding in April waiting for 11 months before they can secure support. If the ARC can’t manage the administration rolling grants require Dr Woelert wonders could the agency at least move to biannual awards. “Two deadlines per year for the submission of ARC research grant proposals would provide Australian researchers with greater opportunity to pursue innovative research trails and to foster young research talent. An additional benefit would be a more even distribution throughout the year of the administrative burden on those organisations that process research grant applications,” he writes. What’s more these benefits would not require additional public funding. I’m guessing it is the last bit that might interest the minister, if not Professor Byrne, who would have to run the extra round.

The Boss isn’t God

At Rutgers University first year students can take a seminar on theology in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. Cue conventional outrage about the end of standards, and so forth and so on. In fact, this is smart stuff indeed, one of a series of subjects designed to expose first year students to research topics in ways they might (heaven forfend) enjoy.

 Plotting with peers

In the UK the 1994 university lobby group has dissolved and there are suggestions of defections from the four remaining interest alliances, as institutions decide to make their own individual cases and leave it to Universities UK to speak for the sector as a whole.

It could happen here and the sector’s diverse response, especially off the record, to demand driven funding and the Kemp-Norton review explain why. Universities Australia, the Innovative Research and Regional Universities groups are all on the record as supporting the status quo. The Group of Eight argues “simply throwing open the doors is not enough” and the Australian Technology Network’s line is that while there is no case for minimum ATARs individual universities should negotiate funded student numbers with the feds. And yet members of some of the lobbies dislike their party lines. In part this is due to the specific needs of individual institutions. In part it is due to vice chancellors hating being told what to say by anybody. And some have defected from lobby groups in the past. Steven Schwartz took Macquarie University out of the IRU in 2008.

But while an interest group could break up it’s not going to happen while all universities fear for their futures in the zero sum game of reducing resources all VCs fear. People also worry that in speaking for everybody Universities Australia can protect nobody. When Kim Carr returned to the education portfolio during the 100 Days of Emperor Kevin he convened a meeting of VCs to kick ideas around. Trouble was, it is said, everybody invited had to agree in advance not to say anything that would offend anybody else at the UA led meeting. The result was anodyne chat and an irritated minister. There is much more chance of the members of each interest group agreeing than leaving it to UA to try to speak for a mass of different interests.

Enough with the cuteness

Last week University of Canberra ran video of students  petting puppies to cope with exam stress, followed by Curtin University featuring cute (for those who like that sort of thing) kittens. Focus people.

 Buying best sellers

One of the many, many ways journal publishers keep the cash flowing is by bundling their journals so that a university library that needs the Quarterly Letter of Really Remarkable Astrophysics can only buy it as part of a package with Whiteness Studies Monthly and the Journal of Made Up Journals. But as times gets tougher more libraries are jacking up at the cost. Last week the University of Montreal declined to renew a publisher’s contract after running Canadian Research Knowledge Network software over the bundled journals to identify how many researchers were reading which articles at what cost. Given the way research funding agencies rank journals picking the ones that are important is easy. It’s a practice that will spread.