Get set for another debate on funding student places

Alternative energy

ANSTO ran a talk at the University of Wollongong Science Fair the other day asking, “can lemons generate electricity.” No, it was not about its Lucas Heights reactor

Possum stirring on places

Vice chancellors are a collegial lot and like to spread the fun around, which must be why Fred Hilmer passed the possum-stirring role in the Group of Eight to Glyn Davis on Friday, although the UNSW VC could not resist and got into the game this morning, suggesting the government should consider domestic student fee deregulation in high demand courses.
At the end of last week the University of Melbourne VC had the splash in The Australian with an argument that re-regulating university enrolments would free universities to compete in the market. The way this would work is that Canberra would decide how much money a university gets to educate students and then leave it to universities to design their own enrolment profile say changing the mix to keep UG numbers down so there is money to pay for bachelor graduates who progress to professional masters –as occurs (almost uniquely) at Melbourne.
If Professor Davis was looking for a reaction his statement had the desired effect. As Innovative Research Universities Executive Director Conor King put it; “it is strange to be proposing a major change to a government that has said it plans to continue with the ‘current arrangements of university funding’, when universities generally are in favour of the system.” Regional Universities Network chief Professor Peter Lee also strongly supported the status quo in a message I am sure government members for bush seats heard loud and clear over the weekend; “the student demand driven system is a significant driver for the increased participation of regional Australians in higher education, and hence the key to regional development and diversification of regional industry.’’
Given the winners out of any arrangement where Canberra set a specific amount for students per university but left it to institutions to allocate would likely be far fewer than the losers it is easy to dismiss the Davis doctrine (“de-regulation is whatever suits elite institutions”) as a bit of mischief with nil chance of success.
Easy but wrong. Education Minister Chris Pyne knows a solid majority of universities support the demand-driven status quo. And yet he has colleagues who think open access (which we have in all but name) has sent quality hell-bound in a hand basket. And we know finance department ministers and officials (and not just since the election) are appalled by the uncapped cost of the status quo. What the minister needs is a genuine debate about demand-driven funding so that if he does have to cut the number of commonwealth-supported student places it does not look like him acting unilaterally. I wonder if Professor Davis will be on the review of demand driven funding the minister has promised. It will be fun to watch the responses if he is.

Farewell forlorn hope

Any desperate wish that the government would not proceed with the Emerson higher education cuts, announced in April, was dashed late Friday when Prime Minister and Cabinet announced the legislative program for the Spring session of parliament. It includes, a bill to implement savings measures, involving the removal of the HECS-HELP upfront discount and voluntary HELP repayment bonus from 1 January 2014 and applying an efficiency dividend to Commonwealth contribution amounts in 2014 and 2015.

Slicing the research pie
Some people anguishing over the absence of a science minister would best be quiet in the aftermath of Friday’s ARC research announcements – because a dedicated minister with a mind to meddle in the way the research pie is sliced could find all sorts of interesting issues in them. For example, he or she would see the sense in the Group of Eight claim that it dominates research given 12 of 17 Laureate Fellowships went to its members. Of the 2014 Future Fellowships the Eight accounted for close to two-thirds. The Australian National University won as many as the entire Australian Technology Network (a powerhouse in applied research). The Innovative Research Universities group did ok-ish with 12 per cent, certainly way ahead of the regional network, which did not trouble the scorers. Of the unaligned universities, Macquarie did well with eight. The pattern is the same in the biggest program, Discovery Grants. The Group of Eight picked up 68 per cent of the 703 awards with the Australian National University accounting for 85, more than the entire ATN group. Of the unaligned Wollongong (20) and Macquarie (21) did best.
As for critics complaining that these are measures of past investment in research rather than the work of future stars, consider the outcome of the Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards. Of the 200 awards the G8 accounted for a touch under three quarters.
In combination the counts show what nobody outside the Group of Eight ever announces – that research is concentrated in a small minority of Australian universities. You can see what might occur to a minister conscious of cash and the need to spend it efficiently. If competition for grants were restricted to institutions with a research track record the others would not need the expensive infrastructure they now need to make bids. The Go8 has pushed in the past for something like this to occur, on the assumption that they, rather than Finance would pick up the extra grant money. Is this likely? If the government can find a way of saving money on research while keeping happy the universities that do the vast bulk of it you would have to think so. The government has already signalled an interest in reducing starters in the research-funding race. In opposition it floated the idea of an initial cull of research proposals before full bids are developed. It’s not far from that to restricting entry into the research race altogether.
For the majority of universities their interests are served by  the absence of a minister with the time to look at who gets what.

Firstest with the local mostest

It took the University of Wollongong just 25 minutes to tweet its ARC achievements – there’s no faulting the media team for speed

International objectives 

It is almost unpatriotic to point to the extraordinary work of international education marketing consultant Alan Olsen who briefed Australian university recruiters last month on the state of the industry. There is a mass of immensely useful data in his document, information that undoubtedly interests admiring US universities as they start to seriously chase export income. Understandably so, because Mr Olsen demonstrates what a river of gold a well-run operation generates. For a start the cost of recruitment per international student by Australian universities was 10.2 per cent last year, down 0.5 per cent on 2009. Last year it took 6.2 staff to recruit 1000 students, which looks lean to me – something for directors to tell deans who grumble about costs. As for the best market on cost and yield, it’s China by a country kilometre. And what makes for success is a quality product. In 2012 internationals outperformed locals in 22 universities. “We should interpret these results as showing that increasing numbers of Australian universities are setting entry standards for international undergraduates that lead to successful outcomes, are monitoring academic performance and are providing English language and study skills support,” he writes.

O’Brien over and out

James Cook University is looking for a new minister of truth, advertising in The Australian on Saturday. The post will be vacant come Christmas when veteran university spokesman Jim O’Brien goes on long leave before retiring. “Any farewell thoughts?” I asked. “I never think people in my position should be the story,” he replied.

Worth remembering

The way Australians remember WWI is conflicted, at one extreme there are the odious oi-oi-oiers, claiming General Monash won the war at the other academics who prefer war and society research to studies of the shooting. Most quality campaign historians stay out of the argument altogether – we are well served for combat studies. But for a sense of what we could achieve in explaining the home front experience have a look at the  BBC plan to enlist dozens of historians to work on hundreds of local history programs about the British experience of the war. It’s an idea worth emulating.