Nothing to sky-ite about

Sky’s the limit for Australian optical astronomy,” science minister Karen Andrews media statement, Friday. She was announcing the new university – led consortia which has replaced her department in managing the Anglo-Australian Telescope and the national astronomical instrumentation group CMM June 27). Same sky, same limit, different budget holder.

There’s more in the Mail

In Features this morning, David Myton’regular wrap on what’s happening in the world of highered.

A friend for Finkel on maths education

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s warning that students who abandon high-level school maths for “soft skill” subjects will struggle in many university courses CMM November 22) is backed by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute.

It makes a change from the symphony of silence from universities and discipline groups, which have ignored (again) Dr Finkel’s calls for teaching the serious maths in schools that STEM undergraduates need and for making maths a pre-req for STEM degrees.

“All our graduates should be literate, good communicators and able to work in teams. But this must be integral to their discipline training, not an end in itself. This is self-evident but the noise around ‘soft skill’ is distracting us. …If we keep encouraging students to study the lower maths and get a higher ATAR and pursue broad degrees to keep their options open, we’re going to slam the brakes on Australia’s STEM ambitions,” Geoff Prince from AMSI says.

Unis to be slugged for student loan admin costs

The bite is on: The government’s budget proposal to slug universities for the feds administering student loan schemes has got the nod from Labor. Opposition members of a Senate committee will not oppose the bills, basically because the very few millions of dollars ($3-4m) involved will not matter after the next election; “in the context of our policies to properly fund the sector.”
But the legislation still upsets: The Group of Eight’s Vicki Thomson calls them, “demonstrably pernicious policy … a tax on public institutions dressed up as recouping administrative costs” (CMM November 12). And on Friday, Universities Australia warned, ““universities are now being asked to pick up the tab for day-to-day administrative costs that are the normal responsibilities of government.”

However, once the comrade senators’ position was plain, the ever-pragmatics Innovative Research Universities announced  Friday it would accept the inevitable but that the government should properly pay universities, “for the benefit of assisting the government implement its programmes for students.” A point politely considered in the Parliamentary Library’s  analysis ;

“There appears to be little precedent to draw on to evaluate the proposition that ongoing administration of HELP is a regulatory activity for higher education providers. …To the extent that government deals directly with students to administer the program, it is not clear that higher education providers should be liable for this cost.”

Beyond principle there are practicalities. A couple of weeks back the Department of Education and Training quietly released a discussion paper on how it proposed to bill higher education providers for loan administration, down to charging for admin assistant hours and stating that it will change fees in line with costs (CMM November 15). As Universities Australia CEO Catriona Jackson puts it, ““this legislation also empowers the minister to ratchet up the tax at any time and to broaden the activities it applies to — without needing to seek permission from the parliament.”  This will not end at all well for university budgets

Give them money (that’s what science wants)

The Australian Academy of Science has announced its mainly-money federal election wish-list. “Australia has a choice: determine our future and develop the science plan to drive it or be swept along trailing the decisions of other nations,” president John Shine says. Requests include;

* increased R&D spending to 3 per cent of GDP over a decade. “With longer and more ambitious research grants and greater security for early and mid-career researchers. Australia cannot afford to let careers for researchers drift”

*  a $1.85bn research infrastructure fund

* boosted access to the Academy’s science and maths school programmes

* a science-government charter, “built on trust, respect, and mutual obligation.”

Don’t blame unis for TAFE’s troubles says IRU

Allies and advocates of the TAFE system argue universities now enrol students better suited to training, so the Innovative Research Universities group had a look at study data for Year Nine students in 2006 and 2009 from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Youth to see what’s what.

The IRU accepts the demand driven system allowed all who wanted a university education and met entry requirements to study, but suggests VET’s quality and availability issues aren’t HE providers’ fault.

“The errors of VET are no reason to complain about the successes of universities,” the IRU argues.

The study finds 80 per cent of the survey population complete training, higher education, or both, qualifications. Of those that don’t, people predominate from the lowest SES quintile, 33 per cent, compared to 14 per cent -15 per cent for those in the top two quintiles. There is also an apparent gender-occupation skew, with 54 per cent of young women and 37 per cent of men graduating from university while 28 per cent of female have VET-only qualifications, compared to 40 per cent of males. IRU suggests this may be due to men choosing apprenticeships and accredited trade study.

Overall, the IRU argues that for all but the 20 per cent who abandon education and training, the data shows young people making, “sensible decisions” according to their circumstances and influences –professional families encourage children into university, voced trained parents point their kids towards, “practically oriented education and work.”

The IRU also positions itself for a push from the TAFE sector if a Labor Government establishes its promised post-compulsory education inquiry after the next election.

“There is much to resolve to ensure VET, led by TAFEs, works well. The relationship with a functioning higher education system is important. The long-term question for higher education is how universities and non-university providers can complement each other to provide a coherent tertiary offering for students.”

Victoria U management says no Christmas gifts but a happy new year

The enterprise bargaining stalemate at Victoria University will continue into 2019, however management is signalling what it will offer.

With management and the campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union failing to reach agreement the university put an offer direct to staff in September. This went down, in no small part to the union’s adamant opposition, in a screaming heap – some 77 per cent of staff voting rejected the offer, (CMM September 25).

But now the university says it will put a new offer to staff in the new year. DVC Marcia Devlin tells staff, “we asked you for your feedback on how we can improve the proposed agreement. You responded and we listened.” In particular, she points to;

* Staff having to take compulsory leave over Christmas. “The vice chancellor will be making an announcement about the Christmas close down period early next week, she says.

* More money: “We are currently analysing projected student demand, student load, end of financial year results and other factors to ensure we can afford a greater pay increase.”

“We will come back to you in the new year with an offer that we hope you will endorse so that we can begin to enjoy the improving fortunes of VU,” she adds.

Professor Devlin makes no mention as to whether the second offer will be put to staff regardless of the union’s position. The NTEU has bans in place on a range of marking administration (results direct to students), professional development and teaching (capped at 12 hours a week) tasks.

Engagement boxes to tick

The Carnegie Foundation is piloting its community engagement classification in Australia. UTS and Charles Sturt U are co-ordinating, with Australian Catholic U, Central Queensland U, Curtin, Flinders, Southern Cross and Sunshine Coast universities participating.

The classification is “an evidence-based documentation of institutional practice to be used in a process of self-assessment and quality improvement.” The first international pilot was in Ireland, in 2016.

With the government making much of the need for universities to connect with communities, this is smart stuff.


John Hunt will become head of the University of Sydney’s School of Medical Sciences in January. Professor Hunt is now head of operations at UNSW’s medical science school.