Lower cost teaching-only institutions – we could call them CAEs!

Keen on Kingston

Steve Keen (ex UWS) is moving to the economics department of Kingston University, in the Thames Valley outside London. Dr Keen was one of a group of serious economists retrenched by the University of Western Sydney when the business faculty appeared to lose interest in the discipline. He is best known for his prediction a few years back that Sydney’s property market was set for less correction and more crash. Dr Keen should feel right at home moving to just about the only city in the world more obsessed with property prices than Sydney.

Inflated expectations

Are universities spending money they think in is the bag on pay deals they can’t afford? A maven of dark (the darkest) budget arts suggests the sector might be about to take a hit on indexation of federal funds.

While the Higher Education Grant Index figure for 2015 is not out (its generally announced on or just after Budget night), the increase will be based on the wage price growth for 2013, using the CPI and the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services Labour Price Index figures already published. Because wages growth last year was unusually low the increase will be less than 2 per cent. And then there are the Labor cuts announced in April 2013, which Education Minister Christopher Pyne is intent on getting through the Senate, the legislation is scheduled for the chamber on May 14. If the efficiency dividend gets up as scheduled, this will mean funding per Commonwealth Funded Place will increase by less than 1 per cent in 2015, compared with widespread enterprise bargaining pay increases of 3 per cent.

According to the budget watcher, “the sector has sleepwalked into the notion that the current indexation arrangement is much more generous than the old pre-Bradley formula. And this is all before any additional budget pain or ‘shifts’ which may or may not come Tuesday night.”

By his friends shall ye know him

A reader who misses not much points to Mr Pyne’s pals, VCs who the minister favourably quotes. So far they are Warren Bebbington (Adelaide), Ed Byrne (Monash), Glyn Davis (Melbourne) and Ian Young (ANU). It could be a coincidence that they all lead Group of Eight institutions. But I bet it isn’t. At 7.3o last night the Go8 issued a statement endorsing the minister’s Monash speech (below).  “The Group of Eight believes that deregulation of the higher education system will enable universities to reach their full potential and provide better choices for students.” There was more from Go8 chair Professor Young, but you get the drift.

We have seen the future

And it is still, well, the future. The Education Minister is incrementally explaining his plans for higher education, which will involve the biggest changes in a generation. There were additions to it in Mr Pyne’s Monash speech yesterday. But don’t expect to see everything detailed in the budget. For a start, working out funding for Commonwealth Supported Places in non-university teaching-only providers , and sub degree courses will take time. Yes it will happen but not next week. So will deregulating what universities and NUHEPS can charge. (don’t blame me, Universities Australia is the source of this unlovely acronym for non university higher education providers). “If universities and colleges were able to compete on price, it would mean they must have a greater focus on meeting the needs of students. They would need to continuously improve the teaching and learning they offer to attract students,” Mr Pyne said. Delete “if” and insert “when” but not announced on Tuesday. This is going to be devilish to work out, diabolic to sell and demonic to fund. So what will we see in the budget? The Prime Minister told us in his Sydney Institute speech last week, when he said university funding will shift. As Mr Pyne has made plain it will shift from the government to students – which will probably mean the hike in course costs covered by the loan scheme recommended by the Commission of Audit. But perhaps without reducing the repayment threshold to the minimum wage, which the CoA proposed. As the minister pointed out yesterday; “students do not make their contribution to the costs until they are earning a decent living.” Depends how he defines “decent.”

Why wait to legislate

The Department of Education is deducting Craig Emerson’s cuts (credit where due) of last April ’13 from Commonwealth grants, because it is easier than paying the money and then getting it back when (if?) the Senate passes the legislation. So much for the sovereignty of parliament – but apparently this is legal. If the legislation fails the feds will credit university accounts in May 2015. It seems the Finance Department had a bit to do with the plan so it can show the savings in the forward estimates. Probably the smoke and mirrors section.

Stand-up guy

John Dewar fronted La Trobe students on Tuesday to explain what the university restructure meant for them, with mixed results. University officials thought it went ok, some students not so much, “students have – no assurance the options and quality they were offered in their degree will be there in years to come,” the student association says, urging people to attend a meeting on what to do on Monday. As for Professor Dewar, as there was no time to answer all questions he wants another student forum. Can’t fault him for standing up and answering whatever he’s asked.

Pyne makes it plain

Mr Pyne always says in speeches that he is not talking about the budget. You could have fooled me yesterday when he talked at Monash about the way Labor left no funding for Future Fellowships after 2015; “I know we have Future Fellow recipients here today. You and your colleagues here and across Australia have rightly raised your concerns about these funding cliffs. I can assure you that the government has been listening to your concerns.” Sounds like a budget commitment to me. He was more guarded about the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, acknowledging that there was no more money budgeted for after mid ’15. But if there is not help ahead why mention it at all? When combined with his favourable words about longer research grants on Monday it seems that Mr Pyne has a research package in the budget. But if these are the winners, who are the losers? Less money for CSIRO and some industry programs seem certain. As for the CRCs, who knows? The Commission of Audit proposed abolishing the program and giving the cash to the ARC – but if this happened you can bet some money would leak to Treasury in transit.

The HEPPY HEPPY shake 

One thing Minister Pyne has not mentioned is the Higher Education Partnership and Participations Program, worth $180m this year with close to $600m committed for 2015-17. Given Mr Pyne can point to his strong support for demand driven funding and income contingent loans I wonder whether he thinks this establishes his equity credentials. If so could HEPP be a source of savings? In the immortal words of Stewie Griffin, “I’m just asking.”

 Service culture

When it comes to student recruitment Federation University Australia rarely gets it wrong (the truly terrible branding campaign that launched FUA aside). Its open day and student info campaigns are always customer-focused and emphasise that FUA is there for students, not the other way round. The little  mid year entry promotion makes the point; “Get six months ahead in 48 hours: apply direct for mid-year entry from June 10, and you’ll hear from us in 48 hours.” The promise probably does not matter all that much but it signals to prospective students that the university respects their time and wants their business.

Lots of rooms for rent

The University of Tasmania opened 180 student apartments yesterday at its Launceston campus, part of a package of 770 being funded under round four of the previous federal government’s National Rental Affordability Scheme. What the NRAS criticised as being used by some universities to fund housing rented to fee paying international students? The very same. I doubt this is what has happened here, what with Launceston not being the top choice for all international students. Still, I asked the University of Tasmania to be sure. And if anybody ever replies I will report what they say.

In the long run we’re all still dead

Sharon DeWitte from the University of South Carolina has discovered (PLOS One) that the Black Death of the 14th century wasn’t all bad, at least in London. It tended to kill the older and the sicker, thus lifting overall community health after it passed and reducing the impact of subsequent epidemics. After the 1347-51 pandemic the plague came back a decade later – which must have amused everybody no end – but it wasn’t as virulent.