Plus Chief Scientist Chubb to go at Christmas

Cliff hanger

In his second chatty newsletter new UNSW VC Ian Jacobs tells staff that he asked a heads of school forum what aspect of the university they want to start, stop, or continue.The suggestions covered a broad range of topics, but there were some common themes fed back from all of the groups,“ he says, before not revealing what they are. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode


Chubb to go

Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane gracelessly announced Chief Scientist Ian Chubb’s resignation yesterday. Professor Chubb’s term expires in a few months, but he will stay on to year’s end to give the government time for “a detailed and thorough international recruitment process for a new appointee to this important role,” Mr Macfarlane said. Surely the announcement Professor Chubb is going could have waited on news of his successor, if the government had not left starting the process more than a little late.

Professor Chubb is 72 and perhaps decided to give it away, I have no idea. All he would say last night came in a statement released by his office, “the Chief Scientist requested an extension of his appointment, until the end of 2015, to conclude the important work he had started. He is pleased the extension was approved.”

Whatever the reason, he will be missed. Professor Chubb is a tiger for work who found himself in positions of power in the government’s new science policy structure. He is head of the National Science, Technology and Research officials committee, which includes the heads of the ARC and NHMRC plus secretaries of relevant Commonwealth departments and chief executives of scientific and research agencies as well as being a member of the Prime Minister’s Science Council. His advocacy for science education and his realistic assessment that Australian science does not do as well as we think in comparison to the North Americans and Europeans and what we need to do about it, stated in a gazillion speeches, make him a hard act to follow.

So who can? What about retiring ANU VC and very serious scientist Ian ”the gent” Young? As Chubb’s successor at ANU Young would be up to speed on how his predecessor worked. As chair of the Group of Eight, Professor Young demonstrated he is not bothered by having to tell people many things they don’t like. Young wants to return to research, at Swinburne, but why do it when you can run it?

Hold the phone

Critics of deregulation gleefully point out that Mr Pyne’s info-line has only taken 130 calls – so surely, I thought, this shows students are not fussed about the plan. But what do I know? Late yesterday Mr Pyne’s office issued a statement detailing enormous social media attention – thus giving the Opposition ammunition for its claims that deregulation scares students silly

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The day after

Now that deregulation has passed the House of Representatives, again, policy thinkers are starting to think about what will happen if the Pyne Package MkII is voted down in the Senate. And the general view is that it could be very bad indeed. For a start the government will not let bygones be bygones. It will continue with the still to be legislated Labor cuts from 2013 and its own budget savings from last year (which deregulation was intended to allow universities to make up with fees). People also expect Mr Pyne to be as good as his oft-repeated promise that the budget will not include money for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy and Australian Research Council Future Fellows if deregulation is defeated. And don’t expect the government to come back with Pyne MkIII in the budget. “John Howard ignored universities for a decade after somebody leaked the West voucher plan,” a veteran of many reforms said yesterday. But, and it is a very big but, the coalition, well the prime minister, needs a policy win and higher education is his best chance to demonstrate the government is actually governing and, all appearances to the contrary, can pass legislation. As one very close observer of government backbenchers says deregulation is something they all agree on.

So what could be the basis of a deal? Just about everybody agrees that the Xenophon plan for a student fee increase to cover the two years or so until another inquiry completes will not fly. “The coalition in opposition would oppose on general principle whatever an inquiry sold to a Labor government,” another observer says and yes people are starting to face the prospect of a government where Kim Carr was again minister. And to suggest that most of the other proposals popping up are deregulatory would require rhetorical skill beyond even Minister Pyne.

Which means it’s a big welcome for Bruce Chapman who proposes allowing universities to charge what they like but with government funding declining for institutions that charge above a cap on course fees set by Canberra.

“My view is that there is no clear economic justification for public sector universities to be allowed the use of a government instrument, HECS, to raise substantial revenue, in a situation in which this can lead to unjustifiably very high fees,” Professor Chapman writes.

It’s an elegant answer, befitting the father of HECs, and it might be enough to convince cross-benchers that a cap does not leave students at the mercy of markets. Certainly powerful people in universities see Professor Chapman as the source of a failsafe solution.

As he mentions in his submission to the government’s Senate inquiry into Pyne MkII, he and his colleague David Phillips, “spent several days with technical staff in the department developing our suggestion, and testing it with current data held by the government. This assisted us through the use of their expertise in an understanding of the development of the reform suggestion, and the results of some of this work are provided with the permission of both the department and the minister’s office.” Sounds to me like a proposal in Mr Pyne’s back pocket to use in an emergency.

But would it be enough? Who knows, but the idea of a deregulated system where the government controls prices might be oxymoronic enough to appeal to the economic innovators among cross-bench senators. As for VCs, it seems most of them will settle for a deal of any sort that means the sun will rise and shine on a growth revenue stream the day after the Senate votes.

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You can keep your robes on

CRC Association chief Tony Peacock notes that Dutch universities have a post called rector magnificus, which seems to me to be a combination of provost and research head. “It’s an under used academic title in Australia. We should learn from the Dutch,” he says. This is a bad idea. Imagine what could happen if the prime minister heard, we could end up with academic peerages. “Lord Vice Chancellor” has a frighteningly plausible ring to it.

 Not tough enough

Training Minister Simon Birmingham has delivered on his promise to increase regulation of private sector providers. The senator’s legislation, announced yesterday, gives the government the power to create new quality standards to “quickly address” problems with courses and providers, requires brokers to identify which organisation will provide the training they are promoting and extends registration from five to seven years so the Australian Skills Quality Authority can focus on baddies rather than spend its time re-registering goodies.

And that’s about it – this looks like a bureaucratic solution to a political problem and it will not calm critics who will ask what is to stop a trainer getting up to no-good in the seven years between registrations.

In contrast, Victorian Training Minister Steve Herbert yesterday disqualified a bunch of automotive employers from hiring apprentices after the state qualification authority found they were not meeting their training obligations to staff. “This year the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority will conduct regulatory campaigns targeting specific qualifications and occupations and will be on the lookout for inadequate supervision, work or duties that don’t match the qualification an apprentice is enrolled in and employers who don’t release apprentices to attend training or pay them to attend training,” Mr Herbert said.

This is the correct response and one, which Senator Birmingham should emulate if he wants to protect the credibility of the for-profit training sector. Making examples of crook trainers is no substitute for a process in the long term but it is has more immediate impact, which is what the industry needs now.

Pick the pandemic

Norwegian and Swiss researchers conclude the 14th century Black Death pandemic in Europe was not brought from Asia by rat-bearing flees whose descendants catalysed outbreaks off and on for another 500 years. Rather, the disease was continually imported by gerbils transporting flees in warm seasons. Well, I’m glad that is settled – then again plague studies is always changing. Back in 2013 English academics argued the Black Death wasn’t bubonic plague at all but Ebola. Always good to know what terrifying disease is out there.

Local hero not for long

Incoming Universities Australia president Barney Glover hasn’t started talking about issues as they effect all member institutions and wisely so. Although much will appeal to the many VCs not as well-disposed to root and branch deregulation as they once were in his University of Western Sydney submission to the government’s Senate inquiry it will not be universallyteammate_banner_campus-morning popular.

UWS argues for demand driven funding, which is still acceptable to many university chiefs, and suggests a committee of wise-persons to work out “what moderated forms of deregulation are possible to better support the competitiveness and quality of Australian higher education,” (but not for a 2016 start). And it wants non-university higher education providers excluded from the honey-pot for three years. No problems there, but the rich and urban will not like his idea of a national scholarships fund which is distributed across the system by a “transparent formula” instead of each university spending the money it collects from its own students. And the poor and rural will not much like having to share the proposed structural adjustment fund with “outer metropolitan growth corridor universities” – like UWS. Looks like Professor Glover is enjoying the independence of speaking for just one university while it lasts.

Parish pump

Yesterday CMM reported the University of Sunshine Coast’s new initiative in banning bottled water sales and encouraging students to drink the free Chateau Baroon Pocket or chilled stuff for sale. Harrumph, said other universities, including the University of Canberra and Monash Clayton, which reported they have done this for years. Drink up everybody.