(As in keep it simple Chris)

You’re only as good as your last grant

Brian Schmidt tweets yesterday, “For all those AUS scientists who missed out in ARC round, if it provides consolation, I liked my proposal that didn’t get up too.” Yes, that Brian Schmidt.

Back in the biz 

Minister Pyne’s appointment of David Kemp and Andrew Norton to conduct his review of demand driven funding will unsettle some people with long memories. There is no denying the pair knows a great deal about higher education policy and no reason to doubt that they will scrupulously meet their brief. However Dr Kemp was a Howard era education minister and Mr Norton was his sometime higher education advisor. While Dr Kemp did not commission the West Review he certainly took delivery of it. A cabinet submission that addressed its proposals for deregulation of undergraduate fees and a student voucher system was leaked to the Labor opposition in October 1999. Prime Minister Howard dropped it so quickly that he proved it is possible to move faster than the speed of light.
Different era, different (sort of) subject and the past is no predictor of the present so I have no idea what Dr Kemp and Mr Norton will come up with. Mr Norton is a policy wonk (one of the wonkiest) and his work on higher education policy, most recently at the Grattan Institute, demonstrates he goes only where the evidence takes him. Nor do the terms of reference demonstrate Mr Pyne has made up his mind to end uncapped demand “The review will recommend possible areas for improvement to ensure that the system better meets its objectives, is efficient, is fiscally sustainable, and supports innovation and competition in education delivery,” suggests reform rather than replacement. And the issues Mr Pyne wants information on are all fair enough – whether teaching and learning have suffered as the system expanded, whether “less academically prepared students” get the support they need, whether the system has indeed led to higher access to students from low SES backgrounds. That the system only passed into law in 2012 and the Coalition voted for it would make it harder to scuttle it two years later.
And yet two words in the brief will rightly worry people who fear an end to the partial market (sans price signals) in undergraduate places, “fiscally sustainable”. This can mean whatever Minister Pyne, not to mention Treasurer Hockey and Finance Minister Cormann want it to mean. Dr Kemp and Mr Norton will report in February, after the first Commission of Audit advice is in, which does not sound like optimum timing to me.

 Applause, faint and furious

Even people who would lose from an end to demand driven funding carefully welcomed the review, resignedly. Professor Peter Lee from the Regional Universities Network was quick off the mark writing that if the system had to be reviewed so early it was good the terms are broad. But he made it quite clear where his members stand; on ground he expects the government to also occupy. “The demand driven system is about deregulation and letting the market work, which is something the government should support. It has fostered a more even balance between supply and demand in the Australian higher education system. It has allowed universities in regional Australian grow courses and student numbers which will contribute to the productivity and economic growth of regional Australia and the nation.”
Universities Australia’s Belinda Robinson acknowledged Kemp and Norton’s qualifications for the job and said it is “appropriate and expected” for a new government to review its predecessor’s policies. But there was no doubting where UA stands. “Universities Australia supports the demand driven system as a way to provide Australians with the opportunity to obtain a life-changing university education,” Ms Robinson said.
Warren Bebbington also supported Kemp and Norton, but there he parted with UA. The University of Adelaide VC has previously said there are “better and less costly ways” of opening university to low SES students. “With careful thought, better and much less costly ways to lift participation of low SES students than simply uncapping enrolments could have been developed,” he said last night. He hoped the review will “recommend other, less expensive ways of supporting disadvantaged access more effectively, and achieving – not just more students entering university but more graduating.”
It was left to Greens education spokesman Lee Rhiannon to state the obvious but irrelevant, that the real barriers to university participation for students from low SES backgrounds are in schools and that they need “well funded support services at university. But Opposition spokesman Kim Carr said what many people are thinking. “The government’s higher education review must not lead to higher fees that limit access for poorer students.”

Surely not

Swinburne strategist Andrew Dempster came up with the most intriguing interpretation of Mr Pyne’s plan – that he just wants to know what is going on. “The terms of reference for the inquiry are balanced and they make it clear that it’s to be a genuine inquiry. So far the government has resisted pressure coming from a number of Australia’s sandstone universities to re-impose caps. The inquiry really puts the onus on critics of the demand-driven system to provide evidence to back up claims that it’s not delivering the right outcomes,” he told CMM. Ye gods an inquiry when the outcome is not known in advance! What political devilry is this?

Crash through or crash at Canberra

The University of Canberra is using the tactic successfully adopted by Andy Vann at Charles Sturt University and breaking a stalemate on pay talks with union by putting an offer direct to staff. The university is offering 3.9 per cent for this year (2 per cent of which is already paid), 3 per cent next and 2.4 per cent in 2015 This, lead negotiator Professor Nick Klomp says, is in-line with indexed increases from the federal government, (assuming of course that this is what the university actually gets, 2015 is a long way out). Staff will vote on the offer from Wednesday to Friday next week. According to Professor Klomp yesterday the union veto is the work of the National Tertiary Education Union national office and that negotiations on other issues, “have been positive and constructive.” This is certainly the sense I have had, with enterprise bargaining at UC nowhere near as acrimonious as at neighbouring ANU. However the ACT Division of the NTEU was not happy last night, advising university staff to; “reject UC management offer which provides no security on pay and will sharply increase academic workloads.” According to division secretary Stephen Darwin the university ended enterprise bargaining without informing the unions involved. Vice Chancellor Stephen Parker will not even guarantee pay rises to match inflation, Mr Darwin said.

Here there be monsters

University of Sydney professor of psychiatry Gin Malhi delivers a lecture tonight on using neuroimaging to map the teenage female brain to identify the source of “emotional disorders”. Surely the brains of even happy teens of either gender are scary places. (U Sydney Law School 133 Castlereagh St city at 6pm for the talk)

Adelaide ennui 

Enterprise bargaining at the University of Adelaide is progressing, but at a pace that is hard to detect. According to the NTEU, management has finally presented a draft clause (apparently just the one) for an agreement, after nine months of talking. Yesterday the campus union briefed staff on the management response to a bunch of claims but complained that the university is not interacting on a line-by-line level. Perhaps both sides are trying to bore the other into submission. The good news (for everybody who does not have to attend the meetings) is that the university has agreed to 20 hours of negotiations before the end of the year. And, as far as I can tell, they have not even started arguing about money- although this might happen after university council adopts a budget next month. Then again, cash is not the only significant issue on the agenda at Adelaide. The union might want to get conditions sorted first given concerns that Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington’s plan for on-line lectures and a university-wide focus on small group undergraduate teaching will change long, long established work patterns in unexpected ways.

Hip and happening

CQU is now offering a degree in “youthful and vibrant” mechatronics.  I wonder what engineers who teach senile and somnolent engineering disciplines at the university think.

Speaking up for the status quo

The peak university body on regulating university enrolments; “higher education institutions should retain autonomy over the admissions and selection process, and that this should not be dictated by the funding process that student may need to access.” No it’s not Universities Australia getting their message out for Kemp and Norton but Universitues UK addressing similar issues. How similar? Does this sound familiar? “Higher education delivers real and substantial benefits to the UK… (but) Recent growth in the number of graduates in the UK has led to some concern over whether there are too many students in the system. This argument is short-sighted.”

Short and to the point

“Women finish uni with better marks than men but start careers on lower salaries,” COAG Reform Council, yesterday.

Less usury than incomprehensible

As for suggestions that Canberra should sell the HECs debt, the US offers an excellent example of what could exist in the absence of an easily understood and administered national income-contingent scheme all understand, (thanks to the UnisUK report).
Stafford loan: available to all. Maximum loan for undergraduates $57,000, with $23,000 at a subsidised interest rate.
Plus loan: for cost of attendance but parents take on the debt @ 7.9 per cent interest
Perkins loan: Needs based $5,500 pa up to $27,500. Carries 5 per cent interest rate
Consolidated loan: Above debts combined in a 10-15 year loan at an interest rate based on a weighted average of the originals.
All clear on that? So what should Australia do? Looks like a KISC case, as in keep it simple Christopher.