Plus research panels should dance outside the square

From banal to barking

The case for a name change for CQU is made, what with its continental reach making Central Queensland University inaccurate. But some of the suggestions for a replacement do not exactly sing. Australian National Regional University and National Regional University of Australia are not inspiring. However they are improvements on one idea floated in the Cairns Post yesterday, Antipodean Arcadian University Australia. Vice Chancellor Scott Bowman – tell us it ain’t so! Of course CQU could do a University of Western Sydney (soon to be Western Sydney U) but QUC sounds about as good as AAUA.


Positive thinking about brown rice

A  study of post-menopausal women by James Gangwisch and colleagues at Columbia University finds increased consumption of dietary fibre, whole grains, vegetables and non-juice fruits is associated with decreased risk of depression. Nothing like a nice plate of brown rice to cheer one up.

But Edith Cowan U researchers say a study suggests a link between treatable depression and reducing what they politely call, “cognitive decline.” Hard to imagine how anybody faced by the prospect of Alzheimer’s Disease could be anything other than depressed

Peace offensive

Linda Kristjanson has offered the campus National Tertiary Education Union less an olive branch than an entire grove in pursuit of an enterprise agreement at Swinburne University, which is years overdue.

In an open letter to staff, the vice chancellor acknowledges the collapse in relations with the comrades that followed the 2012 decision to close the Lilydale campus. “The University subsequently apologised for the failure to consult on the closure of Lilydale and, since that time, we have made significant changes to our processes of consultation to ensure that staff have greater visibility and a stronger voice in key decisions,” she writes.

And Professor Kristjanson makes it very plain that management accepts the union has a place at the table in the imminent negotiations on an academic workload model.

“We need to ensure that any new agreement ensures both the rights of staff and, importantly, the NTEU to be consulted on significant change. This is a key priority both for the university and the union and I am hopeful that discussions between our representatives can reach a shared understanding on this point.”

Professor Kristjanson also makes it plain why she is so keen to talk.

“Since the previous agreement was reached in 2009, policy and funding settings have fundamentally changed both in higher education and vocational education. Swinburne’s capacity to survive and thrive – and through that, our capacity to provide job security for our people – depends on us being able to be competitive in the markets in which we operate. If we are unable to secure an agreement that places us on a competitive footing with other Victorian universities, the risks are significant. We do not have the billion dollar endowments that established universities can rely on.”

There is no doubting Professor Kristjanson’s sincerity, no vice chancellor would write a letter like this if the need for an agreement was not urgent. But it is also a politically astute document. For the union to reject its intent and dig in for a clause by clause confrontation in the new round of negotiations would make it look obsessive and obdurate. Better for the negotiators, Stephen Beall for the university and Dr Colin Long for the union to take some of the olives and put them in peace celebrating martinis.

ANU June 4

Dance outside the square

The ever-adventurous Marnie Hughes Warrington suggests using grants schemes to encourage innovation, even reward risk-takers. Dangerous ideas to be sure, but these are what CMM has come to expect from the ANU DVC. Last month she suggested that the evidence was in on the future of the undergraduate lecture, which would not be long. Now she suggests that the way grant panels (including her’s at the Office of Learning and Teaching), decide who gets what is a two-step death dance. First they try to breathe hope into applicants by using a less (money) is more (awards) approach and then they try to reduce the pool via the “rule of the margins,” “technical requirements on font, page margins, budget details and application length.”

“Backwards and forwards we move, implementing and then reversing these steps, all the while spending more and more on compliance officers and never managing to assuage the grief that this dance is meant to stem.”

So what’s to be done? Plenty, she says, but it will not make many people all that happy. Fund innovative ideas; “budgeting and project management skills can be learned: innovation is what we want to foreground,” she writes. But learn from industry how to offset the risk;

“What if we fund two ideas per grant: one an applicant perceives as a safe bet, the other a curve ball? What if the safe bet is funded as a loan, the curve ball a grant, or the other way around? Or we treat the curve ball as an option in considering whether to fund the safe bet?”

There are choices beyond the mazurka of misery that is safely slicing money into not especially interesting projects, she says. Time to step, sorry, dance, outside the research funding square.

Hold the phone

Ex Telstra CEO David Thodey will become chair of the CSIRO in November. CMM suspects he did not get the job on the strength of his previous organisation’s customer service.


For-profits big loss

Training Minister Simon Birmingham has worked hard to restore public trust in for-profit training, giving regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, new powers and more money to focus on spivs who came close to crippling the credibility of the sector. And Australian Council for Private Education and Training chief Rod Camm has hammered away at the need to expel shonks from his organisation. They have made progress; with stories of private providers collecting government subsidies for people who could neither complete nor pay for courses, dropping out of the news.

Or they had until yesterday, when charges were laid against people connected to a Melbourne private training provider, St Stephen College, allegedly used as a conduit to place aspiring immigrants in poorly paid work with Australia Post contractors. But before news of this broke St Stephen appears to have been in good standing with ASQA as a registered training organisation approved to deliver and assess certificates and diplomas in IT, business and management. Of course it all changed on Thursday morning, when the story broke, with ASQA suspending St Stephen and a related provider. According to ASQA Chief Commissioner Chris RobinsonASQA has been assisting the Australian Federal Police with its investigation … into individuals who either own or are high managerial agents with these registered training organisations.”

CMM wonders when the assistance started, because ASQA took over regulating St Stephen from a Victorian agency in 2011, with a 2020 accreditation end date. A spokesman for ASQA declined to comment when CMM asked about this, referring to Mr Robinson’s statement.

This case will give the education unions, Greens and Labor, which all want to see TAFE restored to unchallenged eminence in training, a new example to use against all private providers, arguing that for-profits have no place in education and training. And voters will listen.

Still listening

There was a rally at Flinders U yesterday, organised by student activists opposed to Bjorn Lomberg setting up shop there. Estimates of numbers vary from “vast” to “not many” (100 or so seems a reasonable estimate) and by all accounts it was a civil affair. But has Vice Chancellor Colin Stirling heard the voice of some of the people? It seems so; he was out in the crowd yesterday, but saying not much, if only because there is not much to say. CMM hears Flinders has not made a decision on a proposal from the feds for it to house a Lomborg consensus centre, basically because there isn’t an offer. For the moment the Flinders community is talking and talking, amongst itself, with a dedicated web page for presentations and discussion.

The lady’s not for turning

It is starting to look like Gail Gago has outlasted all the outrage at her decision to ban private providers in South Australia from competing for 90 per cent of 2016 training place funding, on the grounds that TAFE is so hopeless it needs all the help it can get. (“We are supporting TAFE SA while it transitions to more innovative and flexible training provision that better responds to community and industry needs and is more sustainable in a competitive market, the state skills minister said in May.)

Federal Training Minister Simon Birmingham is appalled, the SA Opposition is outraged and Adelaide media was apoplectic. Even Australian Council for Private Education and Training lobby leader, the customarily calm Rod Camm was upset, pointing out this denied students a choice of provider, as federal funding rules require. But Minister Gago just ignored everybody, evidently assuming that sooner or later her critics would run out of rhetoric. And now, ACPET asserts, she is at it again, delaying applications for the small number of training places that are open to all providers. “I don’t understand what is happening in South Australia,” Mr Camm says.

Back in May, Ms Gago said private providers would be able to provide places under a small programme, she just did not say when.