Bored to death

Spanish researchers report men watching 3 hours of television a day have twice the mortality rate of senors who turn the box off after an hour. So that’s it boys, only one Game of Thrones a day.

Fixing the price of pain

RMIT Vice Chancellor Margaret Gardner sent the university community a chatty email yesterday including details of her visit to the Hanoi campus and how much the university will miss University Secretary Julie Wells, who is moving west to the University of Melbourne, (Professor Gardner is moving east to become VC at Monash). And for the benefit of staff and students just back from Mars, she summarised the government’s plan to deregulate higher education and increase student course costs and loan interest, adding the funding changes would cost RMIT $50m. Queue outrage all over as people assumed the university will simply slug students by Canberra’s formula, instead of cutting or increasing the pain according to a course’s local importance. The campus National Tertiary Education Union not unreasonably added that staff had already copped some cruel cuts. But overall Professor Gardner did not exactly unleash all four horsepersons of the university apocalypse. There were however two interesting indications of what RMIT wants (assuming her successor agrees). First she expects Minister Pyne to compromise on the treatment of HELP debt. “There is a need to reconsider the level of interest charged and other elements of the proposed changes to the HELP system to ameliorate inequitable impacts of the latest proposed changes on graduates.” And if it comes to a choice between RMIT’s infrastructure program and local fees students lose, “there are major planned new expenditures for the next five years to ensure that students are learning in 21st century ways. This could not be sustained in the face of these cuts without an increase in student contributions.” This sounds like a deal to me, if Mr Pyne will ease up on the increased HELP interest rate RMIT will reluctantly start charging fees. Professor Gardner is not the first VC to signal interest rates are the issue the minister must address. I doubt she will be the last. 

Real universities research

The possibility of private competitors undercutting university course costs is exercising planners who wonder how they can compete while subsidising research from student fees (CMM yesterday). One way is to defend the brand category by enforcing the existing rule that a higher education institution is only a university if it conducts teaching and research (community service may not be required but is expected). Conor King explains why in the Innovative Research Universities comments on the proposed Higher Education Standards Framework. “There is an important issue about ensuring the best use of the university title in Australia where it means a substantial combination of teaching, research and support for community. Other providers are different and intentionally so. They should not undermine their distinctiveness by taking on the ‘university’ title but use the array of institutional titles now in place to establish themselves as credible funded higher education options. … Should any current university choose to pull back from key elements of a ‘university’ as an active part of its mission it should also give up the university title.” Is that the sound of wagons being circled?

Page turner of the day

From Get farming Australia, “Backline application explained by Sheep CRC’s LiceBoss.”

Boutique MOOC

Still think MOOCs are a passing fad of cyber fancy? Paresh Kevat from Open Universities Australia has news for you. Unsettling news indeed. Mr Kevat has  analysed student data for 49 MOOCs in nine releases, presented by OUA and its academic partners since March 2013. Granted, Coursera it ain’t in terms of size, but impressive reading it makes, with 260 000 enrolments from 131,000 people and a 23 per cent completion rate. There is a mass of information here for everybody interested in a delivery mode which will less transform than subsume the short course/professional development market, for a start. But some stats stand out – OUA’s numbers show it out-performing the big MOOC providers, with completion rates well up on industry averages. In very good news for Australia’s education brand, from the second release between 54 per cent and 81.7 per cent of students came from overseas. But not all from the big export markets, with India regularly outranked by the Anglosphere (the Spanish are keen as well). China only recently started accounting for a big share of market. So what worked? Everything and anything, just when it looks like vocational courses (from project management to midwifery) are what the market wants up pops hit courses on photography and ocean governance. While the OUA experts undoubtedly have detected deeper patterns and know what they mean, just about the only thing I can be sure of is that MOOC students aren’t real keen on physics and sports and recreation management. This a great bit of work on an impressive product

Target markets

Research by Michelle Circelli and John Stanwick for the estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research identifies Australia’s most economically vulnerable regions. It makes an excellent list of opportunities for universities and training organisations to get involved in expanding workplace skills to help diversify industries and increase employment opportunities in areas doing it tough – the very things education is supposed to deliver.

All but one of 12 regions are in southeast Australia, with NSW and Victoria dominating, ahead of one each in South Australia and Tasmania (the other is in Queensland). The major employers in all are either declining (manufacturing) volatile (retailing) or dependent on government funding (healthcare and welfare). Government has pumped assistance into all of the regions but no one knows whether it has done much good. “In particular, the take-up of vocational education and training following job loss and the impact of this training in helping individuals to transition to new jobs, either in the same industry or in different industries, is not clear,” the authors argue. Part of the problem for some of the 12 is that they are under-supplied for higher and further education convenient to all of a dispersed population. But many of the 12, notably in Sydney and Melbourne have campuses in or near battling communities. With the Pyne package promising funding for sub degree programs these regions are surely targets for universities and TAFE to put the rhetoric about empowering education into action. Cicelli and Stanwick’s 12 regions are: Gosford-Wyong (New South Wales), central western Sydney, Barwon-Western (Vic), Canterbury-Bankstown (NSW), Wide Bay-Burnett (Queensland), south east Melbourne, outer eastern Melbourne, Loddon Mallee (Victoria), Fairfield-Liverpool (NSW), northern Adelaide, Central Highlands-Wimmera (Victoria) and Mersey-Lyell (Tasmania).

Advisors in Adelaide

On the subject of economically depressed regions – University of South Australia VC David Lloyd and University of Adelaide physicist Tanya Monro have joined the SA government’s economic development board. Premier Jay Weatherill has not asked them to join cabinet – but hey, it’s only Tuesday.

Least worse deal by degrees

Paul Kniest’s warning (CMM yesterday) that Australian students could end up with US level study debts does not seem so scary given a new report from the New York Federal Reserve-at least at first glance. According to Jaison Abel and Richard Deitz, despite soaring sticker prices a degree is still a good investment. They report that high school completers made under $40 000 in 2013, compared to nearly $70 000 by people with a bachelor degree. As an investment, the return on cost of study is now around 15 per per annum, way better than the bond market. Even underemployed graduates are ahead of the game (not so much for education and humanities degrees). So that’s the US bogey in the local debate done for and it will not be long before Messrs Abel and Deitz find themselves being quoted in the Reps by Chris Pyne (he does that a bit, as Labor MP Andrew Leigh can attest). Um perhaps not. For a start, the US authors make clear that graduate earnings are down, they are staying ahead of the pack because other incomes are falling faster. And the past is no predictor of the future. “The bad news is that college students are paying more to go to school and are earning less upon graduation. At this point it is not clear whether these trends will continue,” they warn. And how is this for encouraging advice for kids wondering what to do after high school, “despite the recent struggles of college graduates, investing in a college degree may be more important than ever before because those who fail to do so are falling further and further behind.” Wont happen here? Just because it has not does not mean it cannot if rising fees and increasing numbers of graduates in the job market start shaping people’s perceptions of education as an investment.

Beyond bureaucracy

Non-profit institutions generated $54bn of gross value added in 2012-13 according to the Bureau of Statistics, yesterday. They received $107.5bn in income and employed one million people. And the education and research sector was the largest non-profit sector accounting for 30.9 per cent of GVA. This must include the non-government school sector, but even so it shows just how much of education is outside direct state control.

Price to profit

Thanks to the open access expert who pointed me at Library Journal’s report on journal pricing for 2014 and predictions for 2015. The news is as awful as it was expected. Open access is not making a dent into the pricing patterns and distribution deals of the commercial publishers. Prices rose by 5 per cent last year and are expected to grow by 6 per cent this year, with a 5-6 per cent increase to follow in the next. This “seems to be a level of inflation that is neither too hot for libraries nor too cold for publishers,” LJ predicts. I wonder how much the journal publishers’ costs,( as opposed to their profit targets,) actually increase.

Nothing relaxing about casuals

Robyn May (Griffith U) will discuss how universities are being changed by increasing use of casual staff with NTEU President Jeannie Rea 7.30pm Thursday at the union’s Melbourne office, 20 Clarendon St Southbank. You were supposed to book by last night but you never know your luck, give the comrades a call.