Despite all the criticism the lad is not for turning

Market ready

Charles Sturt University’s IT academics really know how to market with MOOCs, using free online courses to showcase degrees to a global audience. They are now promoting a five-week program on hacking countermeasures, including how to treat the new Heartbleed bug. Did they mention it is based on the university’s Masters of Information Systems Security? With 5000 starters this MOOC is a masterstroke.

The lad is not for turning

I’m guessing Education Minister Christopher Pyne was among friends yesterday when he addressed the Australian Council of Private Education and Training – after all, he accepts ACPETs members as equals of public sector providers. He used what was likely that novel experience to make it plain that the lad is not for turning, that he is committed to the budget package of more places, more providers and more money paid by students in course costs and loan interest. And more competition.

“When higher education institutions compete for students, students win. Students win through an improved range of choices of courses that meet their needs, and that offer them qualifications that will get them a job. Students win through increased focus on the quality of teaching and of the all-round student learning experience. Students win through education institutions competing for them on price.”

And if the minister has heard complaints that a 2016 date for deregulation does not give enough time to prepare, he is not convinced. “The changes to funding arrangements will not take effect until 1 January 2016. And the Government will continue to work with the higher education and research sector to develop the details for implementation.” Mr Pyne pointed to the group chaired by La Trobe VC John Dewar to consider implementation and another on financing led by UWS chancellor Peter Shergold as demonstrating the consultation process. They are in addition to the working party on student information led by Ian O’Connor from Griffith University.

It was a strong, steadying speech, necessary after the shambles yesterday when the Prime Minister got the start date for increased interest payments wrong, And it was a firm rebuff to Clive Palmer, who does not like Australian students graduating with debt and a big no to academics warning that a 2106 start is way too soon. Well a firmish rebuff to Mr Palmer. AAP reports Minister Pyne later said that he thought there was “fair chance almost all of it will get through” the Senate. I wonder which bit is outside “almost all”.

Win on the swings, cash in on the roundabouts

A reader points to the way the government is paying the lowest rate it can to universities while charging students the highest it dares. Instead of the Higher Education Grants Index based on the CPI in combination with the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services Labour Price Index, from 2016 university grants will be indexed to the CPI alone. Because the labour price index generally increases ahead of the CPI this will cut university funding by $200m in the three years from 2015-16. Universities that negotiated 3 per cent plus pay deals per annum for four years on the assumption that a fat HEGI would kick on will not be pleased. But not to worry, they can just slug students for the cost of the pay rise. In contrast HELP loan interest, which was tied to the CPI, will now be linked to the Commonwealth bond rate (capped at 6 per cent).

No first mover advantage

Vice Chancellor Andy Vann from Charles Sturt University was bravely putting dollars on potential student fee rises yesterday, telling ABC radio that to replace Commonwealth cuts environmental science course costs at CSU would have to rise 114 per cent and agriculture 48 per cent, with an all over average increase of 23 per cent. And this without any increase to expand university resources! Professor Vann did not say these were what CSU would charge – but once there is a number in play it generally stays in circulation. CSU recruiters should brace for calls from alarmed prospective students and their parents. So should every other university. A lady called Ben Fordham’s program on Radio 2GB when Mr Pyne was being interviewed yesterday to say the University of Sydney had emailed her son to say medicine degrees were going to cost $180,000. Mr Pyne politely rebuffed this– but every university is going to have to deal with all sorts of claims about costs to come.

A cunning Pyne ploy

Has Education Minister Pyne laid a trap for vice chancellors who say they are worried about access for disadvantaged students under deregulation? As National Tertiary Education Union policy analyst Paul Kniest points out, they can do something about it by jacking up their fees, thus increasing the value of the 20 per cent of new student income they are obliged to allocate to scholarships. “No wonder vice chancellors from universities with highest proportion of disadvantaged students want to pool the money for the new scholarships,” he says.

Bottom of the campus

Mr Kniest also wonders whether the feds have not created a new tax lurk. “If undertaking a university degree is an investment in human capital and the higher income streams that flow from it, will students be able to negative gear the interest payments they will now be required to pay under HELP?  If people are allowed to do so for investing in property and shares wouldn’t excluding investments in higher education distort the economies investment choices? I fear that such a distortion will result in empty lecture theatres but an explosion of 18 year-old property developers and share dealers.”  Standby for bottom of the campus tax minimisation schemes (people under 50 ask an accounting academic).

Cooperative resuscitated centres

So what went on to ensure the Cooperative Research Centre program survived? The talk of their association’s conference this week was what led to Parliamentary Secretary Bob Baldwin committing the Government to an 18th funding round, presumably after the announced inquiry into the program concludes CRCs are indeed a good thing. This raises a few questions. If round 17 is cancelled will not 18 in fact be 17? Why is the government having an inquiry into the program given it has pre-committed to keeping CRCs going. And what got into the government in the first place? One explanation around is that the government picked up on criticism of the CRCs in the Commission of Audit report. Another is that the Group of Eight is down on the program because its members used to pick up two thirds of funding but not so much now. Whatever happened, there is a lesson in the way the CRC Association dealt with the threat –it made its case with government and the research community rather than going to main media with dire tales of national ruin if funding was cut. This gave the government a way to confirm the program without losing face. So CRCs will survive, with likely changes to governance and perhaps a reduction in money but the the program will go on.

And the carbon expoxy statue please

The winner of this year’s CRC Association “explain your research video in a 30 second video” competition is Luigi Vandi from the CRC for Advanced Composite Structures. Mr Vandi is working on ways to assemble aircraft using welded carbon epoxy materials. CRC veterans say this is the fourth year straight with a winner undertaking and explaining cutting-edge research in a second (at least) language.

Everybody in on the action

Austrade reports international student visa lodgements were up 11 per cent in the December quarter on the previous year, with a 27 per cent increase in offshore grants, the highest figure for five year. Good-oh, except that Austrade isn’t actually doing the reporting, it is just presenting the Department of Immigration’s March report. The Department of Education also announces international student numbers through its Australian Education International. No, I do not understand either why two agencies from different departments report data collected by a third.

Getting it right

I am in no position to be pointing to the PM misunderstanding policy (CMM yesterday) when I also got a bit of the Pyne package wrong , stating deregulation starts in 2016. Deputy Vice Chancellor Birgit Lohmann from the University of the Sunshine Coast tells me students commencing in second semester this year are covered by the new conditions in 2016. “In fact, the rules as they sit at the moment mean that if a student accepted an offer on the 13th May they are under the old rules until 2020, if they accepted on 14th May they are under the new rules,” she writes. I am a dolt.