Plus why senators are listening to the case for deregulation

Staff uncertainty at RMIT

The enterprise agreement for vocational education staff at RMIT has failed at the ballot box. “RMIT will now restart negotiations with both the Australian Education Union and the National Tertiary Education Union,” Executive Director Voc Ed Keith Cowlishaw has told staff. I bet everybody will be looking forward to it. Also at RMIT, last Thursday’s Campus Morning Mail report of 100 plus academic jobs to go is confirmed by The Australian this morning.

Who has the numbers depends on what’s being debated

People with a case to make for and against deregulation were working the phones yesterday. But the state of the debate is such that anybody who tells you they know what is really going on doesn’t – because the debate in the Senate could go either way. As long, that is, as senators focus on policy, not popular opinion, among academics. And this is not an impossible sell for the government. Yes Kim Carr, the National Tertiary Education Union and the coalition of cross commentators in social media and among education journalists has reframed the debate to focus on the cost of courses not sustainable university funding. And this has certainly had an impact on crossbenchers, notably PUPs Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus. But observers of comings and goings in Senate corridors say the government and its friends are methodically explaining what deregulation will deliver, and more important what its absence will cost, or ensure. And much of the later is calculated to appeal to crossbenchers with a regional connection – such as the absence of sub degree places, the continuing discrimination against VET fee help borrowers  that exists now and no scholarship scheme. Then there is the overall loss of research capacity if the government wants savings come what may. And it seems senators are listening. My guess is they will listen harder if there is regional assistance and concessions on HELP loan terms. As to who is helping the government- there are VCs and lobby group officials who are saying very little publicly and plenty privately.

Full marks for frankness

Never stand between a medical researcher and a barrel of money, as Paul Keating would have said if he could have imagined people more keen on cash than premiers. In a Sydney Morning Herald story yesterday, Peter Scott, chair of the Baker IDI acknowledges cuts to CSIRO and the Australian Research Council but made it plain that medical research matters more. “We are aware that resources are scarce and we’re not saying it’s good that other research money is being taken away, but we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Disingenuous he isn’t.

Quality Spin

There was more spin than in a warehouse of Warnies yesterday as universities explained how well they had done in the QS ratings. The University of Newcastle was quick off the mark, proclaiming itself “a top ten Australian university.” This is entirely true, Newcastle is tenth in Australia on the list, just ahead of Macquarie U. And it sounds much better than the other applicable information, 257th in the world, up from 298 last year but still 232 places behind top rating ANU at 25. In contrast UNSW was all modesty – being glad to report a four-place rise to 48. So was ANU, the Australian leader at 25th in the world; “rankings are imperfect measures, and move around year to year, but they do tell you the company you are keeping. It is great to be alongside other great universities of the world,” acting ANU acting VC Margaret Harding said. Modesty is so essential for achievers.

The University of Sydney was also pleased with 37th (one up from last year) in the “formal” QS ranking because, “other ranking systems focus on a smaller number of disciplines and do not have any student or teaching-related indicators.”

James Cook University (up one place to 350) did not even mention QS yesterday, preferring to proclaim “JCU hits ’em for six.” This referred to six (the maximum) citations for “outstanding contributions to student learning,” from the Office of Learning and Teaching. The university also reminded readers, “the citations come just weeks after JCU again scored strong results in an authoritative ranking of global universities”. I’m guessing this referred to the Academic Ranking of World Universities released last month, in which JCU continued the climb that has seen it rise 100 places (to the top of the 300-400 band) in five years.

But for superior spin it is hard to beat the bowlers of Bundoora, who headlined their QS achievement with; “La Trobe University has featured strongly in the top 200 international universities for arts and humanities – coming in at 171 in the latest QS World Rankings of Universities released today.” They went on to detail other strong teaching scores but forgot to mention the university’s overall ranking, which slipped from 390 last year to somewhere between 400 and 410 this.

Credited Kiwis

Across the ditch QS results for New Zealand universities matched, when they did not exceed, the performance of the generality of Australian institutions. NZ institutions ranked as follows: Auckland (92), Otago (159), Canterbury (242), Victoria Uni of Wellington (275), Masey (346), Waikato (401-410), Lincoln (411-420) and Auckland University of Technology (501-550).

Smart Singapore

But to put all of Australasia in its place, the National University of Singapore rated 22 in the world

Waste not want not

Meanwhile, in the world of practical people dealing with real problems, the Western Australia Waste Authority announced yesterday: “congratulations to our partners @ Murdoch University on being highly commended in last night’s waste management awards.”

Closely considering CRCs

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has finally announced the review of the cooperative research centre program announced in the budget. David Miles, who inquired into innovation for the Howard Government will head the inquiry, which is due to report at the start of next year. This will give Mr Miles time to consider the CRCs role in the government’s innovation strategy which surely will be in place by then, But it may not be enough time for the 18th round of CRC bids, due to start in the coning months. There was no CRC round this year  and the government may have just cut the program again.

The terms of reference are broader than some expected, to the extent that they could equally apply to other schemes, the Australian Research Council’s Linkage program for one. Some also sound as if the government’s mind is made up. For example, “do the governance, IP and other commercialisation-related practices of CRCs inhibit application of CRC-driven research? How can this be addressed?” Perhaps the Commission of Audit’s report convinced whoever drafted the terms of reference for Mr Miles that the CRCs should go. “Currently there is a range of programmes designed to encourage collaboration between universities and the private sector. Given that all of these programmes have the same objective, there would be efficiency benefits in consolidating them. Cooperative Research Centres should be abolished, with funding rolled into the Australian Research Council Linkages programme.” This looks like the core argument CRC supporters need to knock off.

Every uni wins a prize!

The Office of Learning and Teaching citations “for outstanding contributions to student learning,” were announced yesterday, with awards going all over, to 180 academics at 36 institutions. Griffith and James Cook both excelled with six each followed by a bunch with four. There is no apparent pattern in the awards based on age of institution, academic reputation or size of teacher education enrolment.

Ever vigilant

The deans of arts, social sciences and humanities convene in Brisbane today preparatory for a two-day conference on “valuing impact” in the disciplines. According to conference convenor the University of Queensland’s Fred D’Agostino, students and graduates and politicians understand “the valuable impact” of ASSH disciplines. “But we might need to become even more articulate about these valuable impacts to continue to prosper in the uncertain and turbulent times ahead.” Given the government’s focus on industry policy good luck getting a hearing for that.

Game playing

There was tut-tutting yesterday about La Trobe’s guaranteed course price for some students under its ASPIRE program, saying it demonstrated how universities could offer the same degrees for different prices under the Pyne plan– as if that is a fate worse than the deregulation. And the probability that price would become a proxy for quality. Really? For a start, ASPIRE is a partial scholarship to attract students the university wants – which is no bad thing in itself. And it isn’t as if universities do not game the system to their own advantage now – the entry score market demonstrates that. As for pricing, surely the existing situation, where all universities charges domestic students the same, regardless of their specific costs and quality, makes for more of a risk of under-performers exploiting students.