Plus how to confuse the Tax Office

Reframed debate

Bill Shorten was talking up Labor’s opposition to deregulation yesterday – warning us about “$100 000 degrees”. This could mean party polling shows the issue is biting among swinging, even Liberal voters. Or it could mean that the opposition leader is scoring safe points – if deregulation is adopted it would be very hard to undo at the next election, leaving Labor free of an ever increasing drain on the budget. But what it does show is that university funding is finally a big electoral issue. Just not in a way the higher education lobbies ever wanted. The focus is on what students will pay, rather than what universities will get.

Rhetorical questions predictable answers

Compared to the point scoring that is usually Q&A, last night’s science special was a delight, thanks to a very smart panel, including Nobel laureates Peter Doherty and Brian Schmidt, Chief Scientist Ian Chubb and  former president of the Academy of Science Suzanne Corey. Instead of culture war sniping Professor Schmidt explained how the infinite universe is expanding. Instead of point scoring, panelists focused on policy, nobody was much bothered by the absence of a specific science minister (although they all seemed to have forgotten that the Gillard Government had one). Overall it was an agree-a-thon, we need to spend more on blue sky research, we need to connect industry and researchers and we need to build an economy on science.Entirely predictable but impressive nonetheless.

Universities divided

Outgoing Group of Eight chief Mike Gallagher and University of Queensland economist John Quiggin are having a frank exchange of views on deregulation. With respect to the big intellects of both there is not a lot in either’s argument that will move anybody on the other side in the direction of Damascus. But what is interesting is Professor Quiggin’s conclusion yesterday, which demonstrates the depth of the divisions among university communities Minister Pyne’s proposals are producing.

Gallagher complains that I identify problems, but not solutions, so I’ll propose a first step. Ineffectual committees of vice-chancellors like the Group of Eight and Universities Australia should dissolve themselves and make room for a body that would represent the entire sector (students and academics as well as management) and would put up a fight for higher education in the same way as do other representative groups.”

It isn’t going to happen in the short-term, unless the NTEU gets over-excited but it demonstrates the sense of alienation that is common on campuses, thanks to the impact of restructures and now deregulation. The whole debate is degenerating into a chaotic brawl.

Strategy behind sackings

As La Trobe announces 1000 students in the ASPIRE program will pay below cost fees a reader reminds me of the university’s case for the restructure and job losses, which are ready to go once the present consultation concludes and will hit hard at the Bendigo campus. On June 24 La Trobe PVC Richard Speed told Andi Yu from the Bendigo Advertiser that cuts were necessary.

“Sixty per cent of our costs are salary costs so its extraordinarily difficult to make that saving without cutting jobs … It’s abundantly clear that we are not going to find that money from anywhere other than our own operations. … Every dollar we don’t manage to save out of our costs, the only place we can then look for that money is in higher student fees,” he said.

But it looks like La Trobe has money to spend on subsiding students-will the cash come from sacking staff?

Understated ACPET

Larry Davies from the Australian Council for Private Education and Training has set out an understated strategy to make members’ case in the deregulation debate. “It is important that all members but especially those involved in higher education are actively trying to engage senators in discussion about the Bill and the advantages to all Australians but especially students.” To make the job a little easier he assures readers ACPET has no view on interest rates on student loans – although he does predict, “for some courses there will be a reduction of fees.”

ACPET staff have been meeting with senators where ever possible but local support will be critical in the next few weeks,” he adds.

I’m guessing this is a deliberately soft summary of an energetic effort to convince the crossbench. As it represents the biggest winners from deregulation surely ACPET is throwing everything it has into the argument.

Never confuse the ATO

Legislation for a unique student identifier in the VET system became law in June and is due to start next year. This is good news for everybody who has studied in different states, or even just at different colleges and as such has a devil of a time putting a comprehensive record of achievement together. But I’m guessing making it work might be harder than it looks, if the state of things in the different but similar Higher Education Information Management System is an indication. HEIM is struggling with a “tidal wave” of providers issuing students duplicate IDs. “A change of name, gender or course is not a reason to allocate a new student ID.” Apparently this mucks things up when transferring files to the Tax Office, for HECS debt purposes. “In this latest transfer of data to the ATO, additional delays of up three weeks have been created in trying to decrypt and manage files where a provider has reported a student’s debts under two or more separate IDs.” Ye gods confusing education administrators is one thing – but an ATO which thinks you are two different people is a seriously scary prospect. Once confused it tends to stay that way.

Revealing (up to a point) rankings

The QS ratings (but not the ones universities have to pay to be in) are out, demonstrating nothing new. MIT is global number one, same as last year, followed by Cambridge and Imperial College (equal), Harvard, and Oxford and University College London (equal), followed by Stanford, Caltech, Princeton and Yale. While there are marginal movements in the top ten every institution there in 2013 stays on the list.

The one feature QS shares with just about all other rankings is US dominance, with the Americans accounting for 11 of the top 20 and 51 in the first 200. The other leaders are the UK (at least as configured for the next few days) (29), Germany (13), Netherlands (11), Canada (10) and Australia (8). For all the talk of China’s rise only Zhejiang U makes the cut for the ten fastest improving universities since 2009.

The rankings Australian coverage got off to a bad start with the Australian Financial Review breaking the embargo imposed by QS by eight hours (but then again it turned out QS broke it itself, going live before its specified 8 am AEST release). But for the rest of us, this morning’s news in the local derby is that ANU stays first, opening a small lead from the University of Melbourne, which is generally ahead of the pack in other rankings by many lengths. But the natural order, at least in the eyes of the Group of Eight is in place with the top eight Australian institutions, being, well the Eight. But after them there is less a gap than a chasm. The University of Adelaide is up four places making it in to the top 100, followed by Macquarie at 254. Just 23 Australian universities are in the top 500. Does of any of this tell us anything – certainly it does if you are interested in trends over time in QS scores but like all the other rankings the data only makes sense when compared to the same attributes in previous years. According to QS the rankings are driven by “the global emphasis on high-impact scientific and technological research,” measured by citations. QS weights citations (sourced via Scopus) at 20 per cent of reputation with the other attributes assessed being academic and employer reputations (based on surveys of around 90 000 people), plus staff/student ratios and proportion of international staff and students. Over time perhaps the ranking is an indication of university standing, if you value the metrics and popular opinion QS uses, but from year to year this is less a measure of quality and performance than perceptions of them.

Real future funds

There is talk Canberra’s innovation plan will include tax changes to encourage crowd funding for entrepreneurs. Labor is already on side in principle, with Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen calling for regulatory reform to end the existing need for crowd funding promoters to have a financial advice licence.

This is good news for universities. Deakin University’s funding $10k research programs via Pozible demonstrates people will support programs they understand and value. Question is can universities scale up the size of investments to major research with commercial applications. It is time to start working on ways to find out.