Christopher Pyne has transformed the higher education policy landscape

Where’s Gallagher going?

The Group of Eight is advertising for a new executive director, without a word about the incumbent, Mike Gallagher. In the job since 2007 Mr Gallagher is a policy veteran of many years standing in the federal bureaucracy and at ANU.

Indexing optimism

A policy person wise in the arts of indexation followed up on CMM’s reports last week that the Higher Education Grants Index figure expected this week will likely be less than the 3 per cent pay rises negotiated just about everywhere. The figure they came up with for 2015 is 1.8 per cent.

Pyne’s paradigm shift

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has made a point of assuring everybody that he has not told us what is in the budget. But he has certainly outlined his ideas for a generational change in post school education to less rival than replace John Dawkins. The Minister wants to expand demand driven funding to include sub degree courses and he sees sense in increasing the proportion of costs students repay via the loan system. He also wants to allow private providers to access Commonwealth Supported Places, but at a lower funding level to universities, given the new competitors do not conduct research. In essence he is interested in undoing the unified national system while creating a market: demand plus price signals. We should see the first stages of the plan to morrow night. It will be an extraordinary achievement if the rest is ready before the next election.

But to get this far Mr Pyne has already achieved something quite extraordinary – in not much more than six months he has transformed the higher education policy landscape. While Universities Australia has a paper on fee deregulation in the pipeline its various constituent lobby groups variously welcome or ambivalently accept it will happen. There is a similar consensus that students should pay more via the loan scheme, as long as universities end up with more money overall. Certainly the National Tertiary Education Union and student lobbies are fighting this but Mr Pyne has outflanked them by loudly and often endorsing the loan system, talking of expanding public funding for sub degree courses and arguing that graduates do well out of their degrees and should accordingly pay a bit more. While it isn’t this simple it is a message the minister can sell. “Paradigm shift” is an over-used expression in politics but not in this case – it is what Mr Pyne has achieved in the policy debate. Now he has to implement it. The policy shifting will be replaced by political hard lifting, starting tomorrow night.

Be careful what you wish for

Thanks to the learned reader who pointed me at data from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics demonstrating what can happen when higher education prices aren’t regulated. Between 2005 and 2014 US consumer prices for all items rose 22 per cent. Housing costs actually declined and the price of a television plummeted by 100 plus per cent. In contrast, college tuition and fees rose 40 per cent.

Cuts to come

The Government has less leaked than had a herald ride around Canberra proclaiming big cuts to agencies specified in the Commission of Audit report. If there are more cuts to come this is ominous for education related bodies that did not impress the CoA.

Among those it proposed should go is the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, which the Commission says is not needed, as schools are a state responsibility. Given that federal ministers love selectively intervening on school issues when there are points to be scored I wonder whether this will appeal. However it is hard to see any minister being all that upset at the proposal to move the Australian Film, Television and Radio School into a university or vocational education college or “relocating” the Australian Institute of Criminology to a university.

The Commission of Audit also wants the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority to move into the Department of Education and to merge TEQSA with the Australian Skills Quality Authority (now in Industry).

Given the Prime Minister’s affection for medical researchers it is hard to see the government upsetting easily annoyed medical researchers by combining the National Health and Medical Research Council, Cancer Australia and the Australian National Preventative Health Agency’s research budget.

But despite the government’s sympathy for applied research it looks like there will be no more Cooperative Research Centres. The CoA recommended transferring the program’s funding to the Australian Research Council for allocation through its Linkage Grants. There wasn’t  much initial support for this, with research insiders suggesting that as the CRCs purpose is not broken a fix is not needed. However by week’s end there was a sense that it was a done deal, perhaps due to a desire to move a major research program out of Industry into Education. It is also hard to see the Regional Universities Network spending a great deal of capital fighting for the Collaborative Research Network, which fosters links between research intensive and country campuses, given the need to lobby for/against other changes Minister Pyne is planning.

The Commission of Audit also called for Austrade to end, with its functions taken over by DFAT. However education export support could move to the Department of Education. This would upset fans of Austrade’s Future Unlimited campaign but everybody else, not so much. Certainly the department’s export agency in waiting, Australian Education International, would not mind picking up the function.

If she wasn’t depressed before …

Laura Beavis (ABC News) reports on research at the University of Tasmania; “Bagpipe-playing mum investigates music therapy treatment for postnatal depression.”

Long march

Energetic activist union activist Josh Cullinan has left Swinburne where friend and foe alike credit him with the NTEU’s vigorous, and continuing campaign against management’s enterprise agreement offer. (Despite it being narrowly adopted in a staff ballot the union is challenging the vote’s validity in Fair Work Australia.) Mr Cullinan has moved up to the union’s state office where he is now senior industrial officer. So how will he top the Swinburne saga, with deals done at nearly all Victorian universities? I’m guessing he will be looking towards Ballarat, where management and union at Federation University agreed to suspend bargaining until the takeover of Monash Gippsland and new network arrangements bedded down – which has occurred.

Credit where it is due

Andrew Norton tells me I am wrong to credit Universities Australia with creating unlovely acronym NUHEP (for non university higher education provider). While UA uses it Mr Norton says his Grattan Institute colleague Ben Weidmann, who worked with him on the 2012 report, Mapping Australian higher education, coined it. Good-oh, but I doubt that this numbers among Mr Weidmann’s greatest achievements.

Still stalled

Despite assurances an enterprise bargaining deal was imminent at the University of Adelaide negotiations ended the week where they were at the start- still stalled. For months talks focused on industrial arcana, working conditions, job functions and definitions and the like, rather than money. When they were sorted out people, me included, guessed agreeing on money would be the easy bit. We guessed wrong. University negotiator Professor Pacale Quester proposed 3 per cent per annum in five tranches, 1.5 per cent paid in January, another 1.5 per cent in July with 3 per cent pa in December ‘15 and ‘16 and then in mid ’17, which the local NTEU knocked back. According to union chief Dr Rod Crewther the fact that the last EB expired in March 13 reduces the ’14 increase to 2.83 per cent. He adds that payment of increases late in years to come is not on and that CPI is increasing at 2.9 per cent. However both sides say they want a deal finalised. So which side is most convinced the otber will fold first?