Plus Swinburne’s Kristjanson denounces deregulation and the ATN’s applied research training plan

Robo runs

Students from some 23 Australian and New Zealand universities will compete in tomorrow’s grand final of the Autonomous Robotics Competition, from 9am at the John Niland Building, University of New South Wales. Robots have to pick up, move and put down goods while avoiding obstacles. Unaccountably there is no heat for automatons waving arms and shouting “danger Will Robinson.”

ANU Sept 15

So what will Simon say?

Simon Birmingham is minister for education, covering pre-schoolers to postdocs, kindies to universities, supported by Luke Hartsuyker in training and Senator Richard Colbeck covering international education (from the foreign affairs portfolio).  Senator Birmingham‘s is a remarkably rapid rise for a man in the ministry for less than a year and an acknowledgement of his political skill in simultaneously reforming training administration while containing the mess created by for-profits providers rorting poorly policed state systems.

Senator Birmingham’s appointment is also the circuit breaker the government needs to defuse the deregulation debate, at least until the election. The minister made this clear last week, when he said; “there’s no point just talking about reform. There’s no point trying to ram it through. You’ve got to build the consensus in the community that allows you to have the consensus in the parliament,” CMM September 16). He made the point again yesterday, “I look forward to building on Christopher Pyne‘s unstinting efforts to ensure Australia has the highest standards of education at all levels, and to working collaboratively with education stakeholders to develop policy and to build broad support for any future reforms we need to undertake.”

Senator Birmingham will be doing a great deal of listening and not much talking about changes to the way higher education is funded up until the next election. “Any future reforms” is the phrase that matters.

Where does this leave Labor?

Worried that the government might defuse deregulation, which the Opposition plans to run hard on at the election is where. Last night Opposition Leader Bill Shorten moved to keep control of the issue, promising to announce today; “Labor’s positive plan for universities – our plan for more graduates not $100 000 degrees.”

Yes, prime minister

The higher education lobbies were as efficient as ever last night, welcoming the new portfolio structure. Universities Australia set the tone for what were largely positive responses to Prime Minister Turnbull‘s emphasis on innovation. “The prime minister has already articulated a clear and optimistic vision for an agile, innovative and creative Australia. This is a vision shared by our universities and requires a partnership to leverage our intellectual infrastructure and human capital to position Australia for long-term national success. It is our universities that will produce the graduates to create and fill the jobs of the future. It is also our universities, through their research programs, that will deliver the products, the breakthroughs and new industries needed to secure our long-term prosperity,” UA CEO Belinda Robinson said.
“To ensure we have a truly innovative higher education sector we must better integrate our universities with industry. To succeed, we need to reward engaged research with industry and end-users as well as publications and citations,” Renee Hindmarsh from the Australian Technology Network added, not missing a chance to advance the ATN research reform agenda (see “Whats what for Watt,” below).The ever-focused Group of Eight chief Vicki Thomson did not waste the chance to focus on the main issue; “there is no argument that the current funding model is broken. The differences of opinion occur in finding a solution. It is to be hoped a new prime minister and minister can negotiate an outcome that enhances research capability and quality teaching.”

And the Regional Universities Network congratulated no less than eleven ministers and in a classy touch, thanked outgoing industry and science minister Ian Macfarlane.

But the National Tertiary Education Union was not having any  of the unqualified congratulations, welcoming Senator Birmingham’s appointment, but only if he acted on the opportunity to end the Coalition’s “unprincipled, unfair and unsustainable higher education policy.”

Kristjanson leads the charge

Swinburne VC Linda Kristjanson has given Senator Birmingham an opportunity to abandon Christopher Pyne’s policies on the grounds that they are not supported by university leaders. “There is no compelling case to radically alter the architecture of Australian higher education,” she writes in this morning’s Australian Financial Review.

Professor Kristjanson calls for no fee deregulation and an end to Mr Pyne’s proposal for a complementary 20 per cent cut in Canberra funding for student places, calling it “reckless policy” and “among the greatest threats to the higher education system.”

Professor Kristjanson goes on to comprehensively can the Pyne plan. “The truth is that no attempt at higher education ‘reform’ that is built around a straight-up funding cut of 20 per cent can be justified. Among OECD nations, Australia already ranks second lowest for public investment in tertiary education and our student contributions are already among the highest. Whatever problems we face, cutting government investment and saddling students with higher debt is not the answer.”

Professor Kristjanson also opposes fee deregulation in terms similar to the National Tertiary Education Union’s “$100 000 degree campaign,” and links the success of HECs to existing fee levels. “One of the greatest strengths of Australian higher education is that university is not priced out of reach of most Australians. … Our world-leading income contingent loan scheme allows students to defer the cost of their education until they are earning a decent income. Mess with this and we risk dismantling one of the key features that has powered our success.”

The Swinburne VC also suggests that assuring university resources will encourage innovation. “Stability of funding has allowed universities to be entrepreneurial. We understand only too well the need to innovate because improved connectivity is challenging the way in which universities create and transfer knowledge. Universities face technological disruptions of our own and this has required us to be creative in the way in which we respond. We get it and we are up for it.”

Professor Kristjanson’s intervention is immensely significant. It gives the government cover for a likely retreat and it sets a precedent other university leaders will quickly follow.

Murdoch’s Lines injured

Murdoch University’s Tom Lines is in a bad way, in intensive care after he was knocked off his bicycle in an apparent hit and run in Perth. Professor Lyons heads the WA Centre of Excellence for Climate Change Woodland and Forest Health at Murdoch.

ANU Sep 15 5

 Pyne does well

Christopher Pyne  is a big winner in yesterday’s reshuffle, walking away from the defeat of deregulation and into a portfolio with plenty of positives as industry, innovation and science minister. For a start the hard policy yards in science are made, with departing minister Ian Macfarlane having put the government’s applied research strategy firmly on the national agenda without much fuss from the scientific establishment. As Mr Pyne said yesterday, “we have a major agenda in the commercialisation of research outcomes.”

Mr Pyne now has a year to talk up innovations and inventions, research and development as the saving of the Australian economy. That his junior minister Wyatt Roy actually knows a bunch about innovation strategy mean the pair can make science a plus for the government in the lead-up to the election. Yes Mr Pyne has problems on his patch, for example how to measure research impact and actually get universities and industry to talk to each other, but these are nothing like the bitterness of the deregulation debate he has left behind.

As Vicki Thomson from the Group of Eight put it last night; “”in the years we have worked closely with Minister Pyne his commitment to innovation for the benefit of the nation has been to the forefront.” His appointment was “an inspired choice,” she said.

ATN sets out what’s what for Watt

There are inadequate public funding incentives for universities to prioritise engagement with industry, according to the Australian Technology Network.

The ATN submission to Ian Wattt’s Research Funding Review proposes seven measures to increase collaboration between universities and industry, notably using research block grants to establish incentives, aligning competitive funding with the National Research Priorities and “improving the assessment and measurement of research engagement.”

The ATN also points positively to the UK case study approach to measuring research impact however it also acknowledges the engagement metric developed by the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, calling it “a positive and pragmatic first step in recognising that more should be done to encourage engagement and the transfer of research knowledge with end-users”  (CMM April 24). What does not get a mention is the Australian Research Council’s Excellence for Research in Australia publication measure.

Another ATN idea that will upset advocates of the established order is for a new approach to research degrees, which “should incorporate training in broader, industry relevant skills, and transferable capabilities in addition to the highly specialised research skills and knowledge gained from a traditional research degree. This includes skills in project management, leadership and communication, research commercialisation, entrepreneurship, and public policy.” And research training (“where possible”) “should be aligned to areas of national priority.” The debate on measuring research impact has gone quite lately – but will certainly pick up when Dr Watt completes his review and the ARC releases ERA 2015.

Policing his patch

Then training minister Simon Birmingham posted a pic to Twitter of him talking to RTO IBSA’s sales team at a conference on Friday. CMM wonders he was checking that IBSA was obeying all the student recruitment rules. Someone has to do it,  given successfully policing VET seems such a stretch for the Australian Skills Quality Authority, but that someone is now Luke Hartsuyker.

Pyne positives

There was an alarum of school related announcements from Christopher Pyne on Friday, following the release of the QILT university information website on Thursday. It looked to CMM less like deck clearing than legacy setting and there is no denying some real achievements that Mr Pyne can be proud, including sign-off from state ministers of his plan to accredit all teacher education faculties and literacy and numeracy tests for teaching graduates before they are allowed in a classroom. These measures defused demands from populists for all new teachers to have off the graph ATARs while submitting education faculties to critical appraisal – both are big deals indeed.

But not a word of higher education reform. Like the song says accentuate the positives, eliminate the negatives.

Late yesterday Mr Pyne issued a statement of his achievements in education. There were still more school than higher education matters but he did include; “the development of a higher education reform package backed by all eight higher education peak bodies and all bar one vice-chancellor.” Clearly he did not know what was coming from Swinburne.


criterion update

Really applied research

The  Sax Institute (“research evidence in health policy”) has announced its first annual Research Action Awards, with two especially impressing CMM. Fahrah Magrabi (Macquarie U) is honoured for a study of IT related patient harm. The shambles that is the national e-health record programme makes this important work. Julie Leask (Uni Sydney) is also praised for her research on parent attitudes to vaccination. She suggests it is better to work on convincing fence-sitting parents than focusing on anti-vacc militants

Fast company

VC Warren Bebbington was in fit company yesterday, one of the 270 University of Adelaide staff in the City to Bay run yesterday. This puts him in an exclusive group, with CSU VC Andy Vann the only other running vice chancellor CMM knows of.

Birmingham holds the line

When then Training Minister Simon Birmingham wasn’tt calmly dealing with the latest private provider training rort he was calmly explaining how the South Australian Government is giving its TAFE system funds for student places that Canberra intended to be open to all qualified competitors.

He was it again in Adelaide on Friday, explaining for the umpteenth time that the Weatherill government was in breach of its VET funding deal with Canberra and that he would likely withhold funds when they fall due next year. “The premier can be as bolshy as he wants, in the end, he is not living up to and his government is not living up to the terms of an agreement they signed with the previous Labor government. I expected them to live up to those terms, that’s why we are being serious about talking to training providers as to whether any federal programmes could be adapted in a way to make it easier for them during this crisis point that state Labor has created for training in SA,” the senator said.

Wallet of wellness wasted

La Trobe Uni management will be kicking themselves over the $1.67bn purchase of Swisse Wellness complementary medicine company by Hong Kong investors. If the university research funding arrangement with Swisse had gone ahead last year the purchasers might have paid big bucks for LTU as well.


Demonstrating all publicity is good publicity, the University of Sydney was quick to announce its Nick Enfield is joint winner of an ig Noble Prize for research showing that the conversation clarifying “huh?” is a “universal word” used in languages all over the world. But not, CMM suggests, among academics. They say “more research is needed.”

Flinders was also fast to report it is home to a new Ig Noble laureate. Colin Raston, with Californian colleagues, has found a way to change the structure of proteins. This sounds like serious science which the university predicts “is set to revolutionise the production of medicines, biofuels, food and more” but the award went to the way Professor Raston demonstrated what his device does – he uncooked an egg.

The University of Adelaide is also pushing poultry research, on how students learning how to train animals by working with chickens discover the birds are quite bright. Which means the question is, (and CMM apologises for this) which came first- the chicken or the egg.