Observers think the ARC is ok for the long-term but medical research billions, not so much

Emotional shorthand

CSIRO and the Black Dog Institute intend to track the mood of people all over the planet (as long as they write in English) to see if and what external events drive emotions. The project will look for 600 words from a sample of 27 million tweets a day. If it works support services will know when people need help based on Twitter traffic. But doesn’t this assume what people tweet reveals their deepest emotions? I wonder if this so, and if it is, what can help services do when thousands of people get depressed about something, say, the budget. (Their example, not mine).

Research staggers on

Now the budget dust is sort of settling the survivors are checking to see if they lost any limbs. To the amazement of many, the Australian Research Council is still standing without assistance. Certainly big losses were already on the record and it is subject to the general efficiency dividend, which will cost it $75m or so. This, research watchers suggest, will mean a 10 per cent cut to programs, which will hurt more than a bit. Even so,  the ARC is said to be very pleased indeed that the government is committed to Future Fellowship. “In the long term the ARC is way ahead,” one experienced advocate argues. It is certainly better off than the CRC program, which lost an entire funding round and is subject to an inquiry. No one seems sure what the government has against the CRCs although it might be the Commission of Audit’s call to abolish the program and/or the way some centres focus on public interest activism rather than applied productivity improving research. Whatever, if the program closed and the money went to the ARC, as the CoA advised, there is a general view the Council would use the same approach, with money allocated for long periods to give researchers time to get products ready for market.

Another observer suggests  the medical research establishment should dream about what they could do with money from the proposed $20bn endowment, because they will never see much, or any, of it. The fund, this long time watcher of grand funding schemes predicts, will be abolished when the $7 GP visit co-payment is dropped in negotiations with Clive Palmer and his pals in the Senate.  The howls from the medical researchers if this happens will be loud and long but in a shouting match they cannot compete against the millions of people who use bulk billing GPs. If this occurs perhaps the government could take back the $3.5bn in the Higher Education Investment Fund which has gone to the Asset Recycling Fund and badge it as a slimmed down medical research resource to be run by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Whatever occurs, some suggest, the biggest relative winner is the science sector overall, with $150m in 2015-16 funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. “This amount of money in a tough budget demonstrates the direction the government wants to take although it does not know how to manage it,”one commentator claims, adding this is why the funding comes with an inquiry into infrastructure attached. “Infrastructure just isn’t funded forever there has to be a winding down mechanism and this is what the inquiry is about.”

Modest to a fault

According to James Cook University, it “continues to cement its reputation as one of Australia’s most distinctive and successful universities, securing $48,000 under the first tranche of the Federal Government’s $100 million New Colombo Plan.” No I did not delete a zero or two. The money will fund seven JCU medical students studying in Singapore under the New Colombo Plan. Good stuff but perhaps over-sold.

Short on skills

A study by the University of Adelaide finds employers in Playford and Salisbury, in the city’s north suffer a skills shortage. According to Associate Professor John Spoehr, a third of companies struggle to attract staff and have no employees living locally. Technicians and tradies are in particular demand. Ye Gods, at Christmas the unemployment rate in Playford was 15 per cent and 9 per cent in Salisbury. Something is out of whack – perhaps a connection between the state government training slogan “skills for all” and reality.

Essential market intel

Here’s an example worth adapting for Education Minister Pyne’s proposed university information guide. The US tuition tracker presents data on fees, loans and grants at two and four year institutions across the country. If the yanks, with a gazillion colleges, can do it, surely it is possible for the 180 Australian universities and private providers now registered with TEQSA when deregulation starts. And if the site linked fees to data on graduate employment and student satisfaction already available it would hold institutions to account for what they charged – and claimed in their marketing. Of course under-performers would hate it, which was enough in the past to stop the release of data from individual institutions. But markets do not work without information – the test of Mr Pyne’s commitment to competition will be how much information the government product makes available, especially data universities do not want out there.

Henry has his say

Henry Ergas is a man with many opinions forcefully expressed – the oped page of The Australian, where he regularly writes – expects nothing less. He was in tiptop form for frankness yesterday in a piece on deregulating student fees which in passing provided the professoriate with a character reference. “No doubt many academics take their vocation seriously, but they are swamped by those too intellectually feeble to get employment elsewhere, too satisfied ever to leave and too young to retire. Far from being at the heart of the professoriate’s mission, teaching undergraduates, especially in introductory courses, is viewed as a miserable burden to be avoided whenever possible. Nor is that surprising, for the quality of the education students obtain makes little difference to the fate of those to whom it has been entrusted.” I wonder what his colleagues made of that? Dr Ergas is professor of infrastructure economics at the University of Wollongong.

Victoria’s terrific (ish) training

Even with claims the Victorian Training Guarantee is rorted by private providers whose low quality courses leave students without marketable skills and gut TAFE in the process it seems the first phase of deregulation was not that disastrous. According to research on the first round, July 2009 to January 2011 (before fees were deregulated) younger students benefited. A study by Felix Leung and colleagues for the National Centre for Vocational Education Research found the entitlement to a publicly funded place contributed to a radical increase in the number of people in the system. In 2011 the NSW system grew by 6 per cent, in Victoria the expansion was nearly seven times that. For 15-19 year olds in Victoria there was also a statistically significant 5 per cent improvement of people in full time work six months after study and a 4 per cent improvement in the chance a student was satisfied with their course. “Both results might be due to greater access to training related to skill shortage areas and improved quality of training resulting from greater competition,” the study states. The results for 20-24 year olds were less positive perhaps because people who already have a qualification had to study at a higher level in their existing field rather than learn an entirely new skill. Even so, the authors conclude, the results, “provide timely support for the introduction of demand-driven VET reforms in other states.”