Plus more HELPful estimates on student debt


set strategies for STEM courses and come back in a decade

Better call Saul

Economist, public intellectual and valorous vandemonian Saul Eslake is the University of Tasmania’s inaugural VC’s Fellow. And quite right too! Mr Eslake is an economist who explains unpalatable evidence in terms people may not like but have to face (there is a bit of this needed in Tasmania at state budget time). He speaks policy truth to political power and he never stops makes his case in the marketplace of ideas. His appointment is a big win for U Tas.



Said it all before

Chief Scientist Alan “Frank” Finkel was at his engaging best giving evidence on Tuesday to the umpteenth inquiry on whether the Australian economy needs people who can count. This one is by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, which is looking at how Australia can have an innovative and creative workforce. “My predecessor, Ian Chubb, led the Office of the Chief Scientist through a large number of studies to gather an evidence base on our capability in STEM education and workforce preparation, and I think that has informed everything that is in our submission and a lot of the discussion that has taken place across the community,” Dr Finkel said.

He added addressing STEM shortages takes lots of time, both to change things and to discover whether changes, notably in higher education, worked. “It takes two years to design and approve a new course. Then it is going to be four years before the first graduates from that course go through and get their bachelor degree with honours. In many disciplines there is an expectation of a masters, so there is a six- to seven-year lag from when there is a recognition through interaction with industry and academia. In order to cope with that we need to make sure industry is talking to the academic leadership about the horizon scanning, to anticipate where the new needs are. That is difficult and you can get it wrong.”

But degree changes aren’t the only thing that takes time. As Professor Chubb obviously understood, when policy advocates are so sick of an idea that they can barely mention it, that is when most people are just beginning to get it.

Distance labs enchantment

The Australian Society for Medical Research wants to tell students all about career opportunities, including “how research can take you overseas.” The good news will be shared at information evenings at the University of Melbourne next month. CMM is sure students will be warned about the less than 20 per cent success rates for National Health and Medical Research Council funding. As then outgoing council chair Warwick Anderson warned a year back; “it is heart breaking to me to see postdocs made entirely dependent on gaining NHMRC funding for their ongoing employment at some of our research institutions.” (CMM April 7 2015). Perhaps when the ASMR talks about research taking people overseas they mean in a desperate search for a lab that can pay them.

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App of the day

Griffith U PhD student Michael Chataway will use a mobile app that records users real-time fear of crime based on their surroundings. His work is designed to create “a clearer picture of how structural and social characteristics of the proximate environment affect people’s feelings of safety and risk.” The Gold Coast in schoolies week will be off the graph.

Pipeline not flowing

Last week’s Australian Council of Learned Academies review of research training reported how students from disadvantaged backgrounds are under-represented in higher degree studies. The figures for NESB postgrads in particular have recently gone backwards big-time. But as a learned reader reports, the feds were supposed to have addressed this last decade. In 2008 the House of Representatives standing committee on industry, science and innovation’s recommended,“the Australian Government attach additional funds to research training scheme places that are secured by minority and under-represented students.” To which La Trobe researchers Harvey and Andrewartha report the Feds replied that as undergraduate enrolments from disadvantaged groups reached the 20 per cent target so postgrads from them would grow. Sounded plausible then but it hasn’t happened.

Poll prediction of the day

Dominic O’Sullivan from Charles Sturt U suggests the government is at risk in the imminent election because it appears “anti-union, pro-banking, and anti-public schooling.” In 2013 Mr O’Sullivan suggested that while Sophie Mirabella would struggle to hold Indi she might survive with Labor preferences. She didn’t. (CMM August 20 2013).

OLT allies argue on

With the Office of Learning and Teaching set to expire supporters are extending their campaign to fund its functions in the budget. Monash U’s Angela Carbone has launched a petition ( CMM April 18) and yesterday OLT senior fellow and JCU DVC Sally Kift has published an open letter to Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

The government’s “exceedingly modest” investment in research into higher education teaching learning has generated “massive returns on investment and demonstrable enhancements to the quality of student learning outcomes and their experience of learning,” she asserts. “In a post-OLT world, it will be a struggle for Australian universities individually and collaboratively to maintain a focus on educational innovation and entrepreneurship.” Undoubtedly Professor Kift is holding onto the data detailing “the massive returns” for the next stage of the campaign.


HELPful advice and best guesses

The Parliamentary Budget Office’s report on student debt, which found there would be a nominal $185 bn owed the taxpayer in 2025, was a (CMM April 7) big hit. So big that the office has issued a sequel, which explains assumptions in estimating debt. In 2025 the annual cost of student loans will be $11.1bn, split between old HELP (capped student number and fixed fees) 33 per cent, VET FEE HELP 35 per cent, demand driven university places 17 per cent and the government’s policy of fee deregulation $1.2bn or 13 per cent. Deregulation is assumed to involve a 20 per cent cut in government subsidies for universities, efficiency dividends in 2017 and 2018 and universities increasing fees by 2 per cent per annum from 2018 to compensate for the loss in public money (which the PBO acknowledges is optimistically low).

The new report has something for everybody. The Greens say it shows deregulation “is a false economy and all about ideology.” The National Tertiary Education Union makes the same point, just supported by evidence; “while the budget bottom line might be improved by a maximum of $1.1 billion by 2019-20, the extra costs of operating HELP as a result of significantly increased student fees and debts will all but wipe out the savings by 2025-26.”

The government responds by defending the increase created by demand driven funding, which is reasonable, while sailing into Labor, blaming it for the cost of VET FEE HELP, which isn’t. Certainly the disastrous VET loan system was introduced on Labor’s watch but it got really out of hand in 2014-15, under this government. Last night Labor’s Kim Carr was said to be standing by his original analysis of the first PBO report, that deregulating student fees will lead to $100 000 degrees and $11bn in borrowing costs to government in a decade.

It was left to wonks’ wonk Conor King, from the Innovative Research Universities lobby to have a dispassionate look at the new PBO report, as he did with the first one. His conclusion is that the second edition is still not clear enough on the PBO’s core assumptions on debt. This is particularly important for universities, which argue that HECS debt is sustainable and that the problems are with VET loans. There is also ambiguity over whether savings in Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding for universities can, or can not, be a balance to the cost of providing increased student loans to pay the higher university fees needed to make up the lower CGS funds. And the whole model is based on the interest rates the Commonwealth will be borrowing at – which can only be a best guess.

“The PBO supplementary report addresses some but not all of the questions IRU raised about the main report,” Mr King says.

Last night there was talk around parliament house of the government using the PBO numbers to justify the expected end to universal loans for VET students plus new measures, notably abandoning long proposed access to HECS HELP for non university higher education providers and a cap on funding for places in some university courses. To keep faith with the true believers in deregulation (he had a tough time with budget ministers) Senator Birmingham is said to be prepared to deregulate fees for a some high-demand, big graduate income courses.

Dolt of the day

Is CMM, which assumed yesterday that the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency knew what it was doing in a graph that showed some 80 per cent of higher education IT students are internationals in its stats report yesterday. A reader was not so trusting and checked the data, which led to TEQSA correcting itself late yesterday. The correct split for IT undergraduate enrolments is 48 per cent domestic students, 52 per cent internationals.