Birmingham commits to new student funding rates but says no extra money

plus management and union make Murdoch U a test case for the country

 Big news on research performance

The Academic Ranking of World Universities will be out this morning. A special CMM edition will be online and in subscriber mail boxes from 10 AEST, including Kylie Colvin‘s unique analysis. Ms Colvin has crunched the numbers to identify the exact rank  (not just the bands they are in!) of every Australian university on the ARWU.

Low growth law

As ever Conor King talks truth to panic. With people using lots of law graduates chasing too few jobs as a reason to regulate what universities teach the Innovative Research Universities director reminds us that law school numbers grew by 14 per cent between 2009 and 2014. In contrast, health enrolments are up by 37 per cent and overall equivalent full time student load grew by 23 per cent.


Big changes, no money

Education Minister Simon Birmingham has dug in to defend demand driven funding while signalling its cost forbids new higher education programmes. “There are some, perhaps, who seem to have the subtlety of a five-year-old pleading for more chocolate, who don’t appear to realise that budgets may have reached their limits already,” he said on Friday.

And in a clear signal shares of the funding chocolate are about to change the senator added “we have to have a look at how the financial incentives the government has in place actually drive behaviour by the universities in their decisions on how many people to enrol in different disciplines.

“That won’t be an easy part of the reform discussion and it’s not easy from our perspective either because it means that perhaps support in some courses needs to go up, while support in others needs to go down.”

In a carefully calibrated speech and calculated comments in response to questions at a Melbourne conference Friday Senator Birmingham responded to critics who argue opening university access has crucified standards and eroded graduate employment opportunities.

He emphasised the need for quality teachers, especially in maths and science, in schools. He made plain universities must be more “transparent” on student satisfaction and employment outcomes so students can make “more informed choices about their study options and career prospects.” The minister also reminded his audience that the Higher Education Standards Panel is working in new entry standards.

Senator Birmingham also spruiked STEM, ignoring suggestions last week that there are not enough jobs for graduates in the science and related disciplines. “The fastest growing industries require skills in STEM fields … But many skills in related STEM disciplines will also be increasingly relevant in jobs across a whole range of industries that are important to Australia today and will still be important to Australia in decades to come.”

But the biggest takeout was that a return to the days when government told universities what they could teach or couldn’t isn’t going to happen. In fact the senator wants student centred funding to work more like a market, by changing ancient funding arrangements which encourage universities to game enrolments. “If we were to actually change some of those enrolment practices, without it going back to a model driven by a bunch of officials sitting around a table in Canberra randomly allocating a number of places for each university then we need to find a method that drives an outcome that frankly is more attuned with what the employment market demands.”

As for chocolate, graduates will have to make do with less Lindt, “the debt level under the Higher Education Income Contingent Loan Scheme, which as I said is one of the most generous in the world … stands at over $40 billion. We would be doing a disservice to those generations of students we have been speaking about today to not do something about ensuring financial sustainability in our higher education structures and policies as well as education and excellence.

Friday July 1

Clean sweep

Alan Cooper is the South Australian Scientist of the Year. The ARC laureate fellow is based at the University of Adelaide where his Australian Centre for Ancient DNA examines issues including Aboriginal genetic heritage, the evolution of human diseases and climate change. The university is pleased with the win, but not too pleased, the runners up, Kieren Mitchell and Phiala Shanahan are also on staff.

The young scientist award went to chemist Justin Chalker from Flinders.

What works in the west

While all public universities in Western Australia are now negotiating new enterprise agreements Murdoch U is where managements and the National Tertiary Education Union are slugging it out. In common with the other universities, Murdoch’s bargaining team wants an agreement without the complex requirements and very specific conditions the NTEU relies on to assist members and uses to slow or stop restructures. As the VC’s put it what they want is; “simple, contemporary fair,” but the union responds that it is “a three word slogan for removing your employment conditions.”

The two sides seem to have settled on Murdoch as a proxy for the statewide fight, which the national union and the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association are watching closely. As past negotiations demonstrate, as Western Australia goes so goes the rest of the country.

Sharp end at ANU

The long dispute over a restructure in the ANU’s School of Culture, History and Languages is now at the sharp end. With some 20 or so (mainly fulltime) staff being advised they are surplus to requirements. Opponents of the cuts say they mean the there will be no full-time teachers of Vietnamese, Thai and Burmese in a school celebrated for its southeast Asian expertise


Chronicles of wasted time

Another week of TAFE lobbyists arguing there is no place for private organisations in training because they focus on profits not people, another patient explanation by Rod Camm that “unscrupulous providers have no place in our education and training system. The CEO of the Australian Council of Private Education and Training has the patience of a saint explaining how the legit private sector provides two thirds of the nation’s training and that his members provide a mass of services that TAFE cannot. It’s a lost cause, in terms of public perceptions. It will take years and years to undo the damage done by the VET FEE HELP scandals.

Keeping an eye on things

“It was a bright cold day in August and the clocks were striking 13 ….” Not, you understand anybody at the University of Melbourne would have noticed as they hurried across campus, on Friday, what with their wondering whether the location of their phones were being monitored.

Which they might well have been; as acting provost Richard James explains; “the university monitors and analyses WiFi traffic as part of a project that’s examining how intensely and effectively the university’s infrastructure is used.” As people have to identify themselves to sign-up for free WIFI this is not unreasonable, the university argues. And, as Professor James argues, “this project looks only at aggregate data, mostly at total building level.  It does not focus on individual student behaviours and does not track the online activities of individual students.”

Fair enough, this is not that much different to universities monitoring the temperature in lecture theatres to work out how many people are there. But it is not an especially good time for a project involving oversight. The campus branch of the NTEU was worried a clause in the draft appropriate behaviours policy could have restricted academics right to comment. The offending clause was dropped after protests but it seems to some that management is about keen on keeping an eye on things.