Plus Medical Research Institutes: healthier in hospitals 

Fit to print

Flinders University is hiring a comms director. The hermit kingdom wants a hack who knows a story when they see one and is “able to establish and maintain strong relations with senior education and political and business journalists.” No mention of all that new-fangled social media though. Quite right – it’s not news if it’s not in the ‘Tiser.

UA Conference Campus Morning Mail 728 x 210

Could do better

The Independent Medical Research Institute sector always emphasises its independence, explains its achievements and manages to infer (without ever stating it) that any minister or mandarin that does not give IMRIs what they want is not really committed to curing cancer.

So I’m guessing there are bits in the new discussion paper by Graeme Samuel, Warwick Anderson and two senior business people on improving their efficiency, (now with the health minister), that will appal IMRIs. Including this bit;

“the panel is of the preliminary view that assimilating IMRIs into universities, hospitals or health services provides an opportunity to reduce the financial risks to which vulnerable Institutes are exposed by bringing them into a larger entity, and also reduce the scientific risk associated with a narrow research effort. The loss in autonomy and independence, and the involvement by university administrations may be offset by enhanced security and other opportunities associated with larger universities. Careful consideration of the governance structures for the integrated IMRI may minimise the risk of less favourable outcomes.”

There is a great deal more that is quizzical and critical, with the overall message being institutes could be more efficient and transparent about what they do. But while they may not like it the government will.

As an especially astute observer of the corridors of power predicts, this gives Health Minister Susan Ley an excellent opportunity to deep-freeze the Medical Research Future Fund, which IMRIs thought should be all theirs. It is hard to make a case for handing over more money to organisations whose efficiency and accountability could be better.

Rice Davies Law

Private training lobby chief Rodd Camm slammed Friday’s Australian Education Union report, which argued privatisation “has led to a drop in quality of courses and huge taxpayer-funded profits to private providers.” Then again, “he would,” as Mandy famously said, “say that wouldn’t he?” Mr Camm is trying to contain the comrades by arguing self-regulation will rid the industry of spivs selling crook courses. To have any hope of success he needs examples of action fast.

Sydney steps up

The University of Sydney has a new open access policy and while it’s as inspiring as a land tax assessment it does take a stand for freedom of scholarship. It endorses “the initiatives of major funding agencies,” in committing to open access (I think this means the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council requirement that publications made possible by their money must be freely available after a year). And while the university “will retain the publisher’s version of Campus Morning Mail  - 728 x 210 pixelsall collected scholarly works in a password protected, restricted access repository … the university will retain accepted manuscript versions of all journal articles and other scholarly works submitted directly to the university’s external access repository.”

Uni Syd is by no means the first Australian university to do this. Still it is another mine beneath the for-profit publishers fortifications. However the keep of their castle, “gold” open access remains – where institutions pay for the privilege of their academics work appearing in for-profit journals.

Rules to live by

Among all the talk on about policing and punishing perfidious private providers (sorry) a quality assurance expert from Charles Sturt U pointed me at the final proposal for the Higher Education Standards Framework, wherein right from the start there is much sound stuff intended to address the sort of shonkery now said to plague VET.

Such as S1.1 on admissions, which specifies only students with “preparation and proficiency” a course needs are admitted. And Section Seven sets out basic consumer rights and the obligation of providers to keep agents under control. The rules are ready; of course enforcing them is another issue.

Anderson clears the decks

Warwick Anderson ends his term as chair of the National Health and Medical Research Council in March and he is already ensuring he leaves the office in good order, addressing issues that are as politically permanent as the reality of funding makes them intractable for institutions and individuals.

The reality, he says, is that the NHMRC will continue to fund fewer people, ““It’s terrific that we have so many bright bio-medical trained people but our acute problem is falling success rates, they will be lower again this year because of longer and bigger grants,” he says.

“In my view, nothing is more rewarding than working in medical research. It is deeply satisfying to feel that you are working on a project that is deeply challenging mentally, and with the potential to benefit humankind. But, a full time, lifelong career in research can only ever be available to a few. It will also involve lifelong competition for funding. Since funds for research are always limited, a career in research is necessarily a very competitive existence, pitting your ideas and achievement against others through peer review for the limited funds.”

So he suggests highly qualified researchers who cannot find funding should go into other disciplines, like Justice Annabelle Bennett of the Federal Court who also has a medical research PhD and chairs the NHMRC.

And they can work in private sector research – the problem is they don’t.

Council-backed fellowships in the private sector two years back had eight applicants, compared to 249 for more conventional research career funding. And rather than calling for impossibly more ARC biomedical fellowships, Professor Anderson points to the emerging shortage of clinical researchers. “The amount of NHMRC funding available for fellowships is not a substitute for a national training strategy. Regrettably, it does appear to be the basis upon which too many institutions base their postdoctoral employment strategy,” he says.

Still, the NHMRC is contemplating doing what it can to improve the allocation of fellowships;

“the key suggestions are to reduce the numbers of levels to promote the potential of more rapid rise for the very best, to increase the duration of some fellowships (but this would concomitantly reduce the numbers available), and to limit the number of times researchers can hold a fellowship (to promote great through put and opportunities for next generations). We are also considering whether to adopt obligations similar to those for ARC’s Future Fellowships; that is, the expectation that institutions provide ongoing support beyond the end of an NHMRC Fellowship.”

“There will be a paper next month,” he says. No opting for an easy exit then.

ANU tap into

Wait till Uber hears of this

“It may be one of the few times when combining cars, robots and wine is a good idea,” the University of New South Wales announced on Friday. Just about the only time, I’m guessing. In any case why are the three a bad combination? Since when did robots get hammered?

Same success lower cost

The Productivity Commissions annual report on publicly funded training is out and while entertaining it ain’t important it is for two important and overlooked points. First that training is a big deal indeed and secondly that publicly funded (not just state delivered) courses are doing ok, well ok-ish. For a start there are more people in the system than at university, around 1.5m to 1m or so in higher education. And 83 per cent of people completing courses in 2012-13 said study had helped/partly helped them achieved their objectives – a consistent 85 per cent or so of people in all jurisdictions were happy with their courses, including in Victoria where deregulation and the participation of private providers has led to claims of declining standards.

But what isn’t consistent between the states and territories is the cost of study. At $9.36 Victoria had a lower cost per government-funded hour in 2013 than everywhere else, $14.07 in NSW and $20.10 in Queensland.