Super sparkies

“Venture capital is important – but courage capital, well-invested, is gold,” Chief Scientist Alan Finkel in his John Monash Oration, Monday. The general was another bloke who planned a new electricity system.

Everybody’s talking about free speech

At UniMelb management and union are in favour of academic comment but they disagree on how best to protect it

With management and the union emailing staff the argument over free-speech protection at the University of Melbourne rolls on. The university claims that published policy protects scholars right to free expression (CMM Monday). To which the National Tertiary Education Union replies that the policy statement does not apply to the university’s enterprise agreement, and it should. The NTEU also wants a “fair and transparent procedures for the protection of ‘whistleblowers.’ ”

Carbon dating the nibbles

The Australian Archaeological Association is holding a wine and cheese night in Sydney next month with speakers on archaeobotanical sampling methods. Perhaps there is a prize for getting the age of the wine and cheese right.

App of the day

People considering moving into a retirement village face a Harvey of Horribles, a perfect storm of doubt and anxiety as tax and welfare worries interact with not knowing what new digs will actually cost. So good for Macquarie U financial lecture Tim Kyng who has built an on-line  calculator to compare the monthly costs at providers, based on the variable fees and charges they levy.

Closed meet on open access

The 25th National Scholarly Communication Forum convenes in Canberra on Thursday to discuss making publicly funded data easier to access and use. But if you are not already invited you aren’t going, the 40-place invitation-only forum is full.

CMM hears that it will be the last meeting for one attendee, former ANU librarian and present open access activist Colin Steele. He organised the first and has worked on all that followed.

Gardner to government: it is our mission to seek to define the future. Birmingham to unis: we consulted plus unis are still well-funded


Margaret Gardner has a message for the minister

Universities Australia chair and Monash U, VC Margaret Gardner has warned the government against tinkering with the university system which delivers, “internationally competitive research and education, a major services export; and the foundation of national capabilities for future innovation and resilience.”

Tertiary education has become a site for piecemeal reform and policy experimentation, often without sufficient design thinking or open deliberation about what goals we are seeking to achieve and what new circumstances we really face,” Professor Gardner told an AFR conference yesterday.

“Australian policy makers and pundits must ask themselves how many other sectors of national endeavour match this breadth and depth of international performance. And before they attempt to ‘reform,’ ask how these reforms will affect that performance.”

And she warned that while governments talk of “quality and value for money,” “the subtext, writ large in recent years, has been fiscal constraint and budget repair due to rising costs in other areas of government spending.”

Professor Gardner also warns that with government focusing on finance not the future, higher education faces a risk that, “our university sector will continue to be seen by governments mostly as a source for further savings for federal budgets, driven by extraneous budget repair priorities. Policy starting from the view that the sector can always be made to wear cuts or can export more to counter any future funding shortfall.”

And with government ducking the debate on how to build on the system’s present success, (“it will not start from the reform proposals before us now”) it is up to universities.

“We in higher education cannot and should not abdicate to others the shaping of this debate. It is in or hands. It is our mission to seek to define the future, not just for our universities but for that better future to which university education and research is committed, that is our goal. It is the big challenges, the big questions, and the bold goals that should be the focus of a university system on whose strength Australia can rely.”


And Simon Birmingham has one for unis: “freedoms come with responsibilities and consequences”

The Education Minister will stick to the script in his speech to the AFR conference this morning, arguing his proposed cuts are manageable, only reduce the rate of funding growth, and follow extensive consultation. And Senator Birmingham will add that the deficit the government is addressing is partly a problem of universities making.

“I appreciate that nobody likes receiving less funding, even if it is only a slightly slower rate of growth than would otherwise have been the case.  However, the sector is kidding itself if it thinks the pressure to address the contribution escalating higher education spending made to the budget deficit will just go away.”

The minister also argued that the future of the demand driven system depended on his proposals.

“If you want to maintain equity of access with no upfront fee barriers, then you should support our HELP reforms. If you want to maintain and expand the autonomy of a demand driven model then you should support our budget sustainability reforms. And if you want to build student, government and community confidence in the demand driven system then you should support our plans for performance contingent funding.”

He argued that his plan to tie 7.5 per cent of Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding to performance measures,” will provide incentives for universities to do even more to improve rates of retention, completion, student satisfaction and employment outcomes.”

It is “good for students” and “entirely consistent with university autonomy,” the minister will say.

If Senator Birmingham has not got the cross-bench numbers he needs to pass the key parts of his package he is not letting on.

Agree-a-thon on open access

The government has its (12 month) delayed ducks in a row

The federal government has responded to the Productivity Commission report on intellectual property arrangements. The feds support the PC’s proposal for “free and open access arrangements” for government funded research within a year of publication. “The policy should minimise exemptions.” Which the Australian Research Council already does, in a round-about way. It’s open access policy requires research it funds to be publicly available within 12 months, unless, “legal or contractual obligations” prevent this. But in “all cases research metadata has to be available within three months. Three being a bunch better than 12.

The data does not lie: this is a MOOC in the making

Curtin U staff and student have won the campus marketing hackathon with a concept for a short course on managing and presenting data

By 2020 there will be 40 zettabytes of digital data, – 40 trillion gigs, give or take and people will need to know how to mine all the info and refine it into actionable ideas for fun and profit. Enter the un-named seven members of Curtin’s Winfographic hack squad who propose a six-month unit, a “flexible, stackable course in infographic design that emphasises the critical thinking required for effective communication and linking data with business and academic objectives.” It could be on-line, on-campus or blended.

Curtin U says it is “hopeful” that the concept can become a course, or embed into others. But if the university doesn’t somebody will – CMM bets a zettabyte to a brick that this is a MOOC in the making.

Murdoch U’s big win means it negotiates on its preferred terms

The Fair Work Commission has found for Murdoch U in its major dispute with the NTEU

what happened: Murdoch U has won its case for cancelling its now expired, but still applied enterprise agreement. Fair Work Commissioner Willams found for the university yesterday in a judgement which gives Murdoch what it wants – the ability to negotiate a new enterprise agreement outside the context of what university management considers the unsustainably generous terms of the old one.

and why: As Provost Andrew Taggart puts it; “we need to find new ways of running our university so that it is viable in the long term, whilst maintaining academic excellence and delivering quality teaching.”

Commissioner Williams agreed, “it is entirely appropriate that a university in a poor financial situation look into all aspects of its business for improvement. There is no reason why the employment arrangements, particularly when these were negotiated some years ago, should not now be reviewed as part of striving for improvement. Importantly for this application Murdoch’s argument is about the future and is that the clauses it impugns in the agreement will hinder or obstruct it making the changes it needs in order to improve its financial situation,” he said in his decision, released yesterday.

According to the commissioner, between 2013 and last year staff costs increased by 10 per cent, five times the rate of growth in student fees.

how it happened: This is a major defeat for the National Tertiary Education Union, which argued overturning the old agreement at Murdoch could lead to a reduction in wages and conditions and encourage other universities to follow. However Commissioner Williams decided that ending the old agreement would allow both parties to focus on finding terms for a new one

“The context for the negotiations to date has been that the provisions of the expired agreement remain in operation unless both parties agree to changes. This is important in this instance because the specific changes Murdoch is bargaining to achieve is to remove or redraft numerous clauses in the agreement it views as problematic. If bargaining does not result in an agreement the problematic clauses continue to apply unchanged into the future, indefinitely. In this situation the current context for negotiations has not been neutral, it has favoured the NTEU where they do not agree to change these clauses.”

“It is entirely appropriate that a university in a poor financial situation look into all aspects of its business for improvement. There is no reason why the employment arrangements, particularly when these were negotiated some years ago, should not now be reviewed as part of striving for improvement,” the commissioner added.

what it means: Few, if any, other universities will follow Murdoch – winning a judgement by convincing the FWC that your institution has the financial staggers is desperate stuff. But, and it is a but of Himalayan heights, this decision is a blow to the NTEU’s preferred instruments of industrial authority – the presence of immensely complex terms and conditions in university agreements that union officers use to protect members and search for precedents for better wages and conditions.

In contrast, while they are not given to display at the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, they may indulge in a quiet smile this morning. This decision gives AHEIA something it has long wanted –an acknowledgement that complex industrial agreements can harm productivity in universities

what’s next: Nothing until the National Tertiary Education Union’s leadership decides its best chance to have the judgement reversed.

According to industrial relations consultant Andrew Dempster; “for universities that are in a strong financial position, the decision is likely to be of limited value given Murdoch’s financial circumstances were a key factor in the decision. For universities that are struggling financially and unable to secure concessions through normal bargaining processes, the decision opens-up options.

“The decision will also play into the wider political discussion of whether it is reasonable for employers to seek termination of expired agreements, with the ALP indicating that it intends to wind back termination as a legal option for employers if elected.

On Monday Murdoch U management said it was keen to get on with enterprise bargaining, the parties not having met for months. The union now seems to have little choice but to talk.

reaction: The National Tertiary Education Union was quick to issue a statement yesterday but left union state secretary Gabe Gooding to do the talking. “The way in which this agreement has been terminated is another example that our laws are badly broken and must change to ensure the just treatment of workers. … Murdoch employees must be distressed and wondering today why their management could not also settle a deal without seeking to terminate their collective agreement” she said.

Murdoch Vice Chancellor Eeva Leinonen said the FWC decision would “greatly assist the parties to negotiate from a more workable starting point.” She also reaffirmed Murdoch’s promise to maintain pay and conditions under the now cancelled agreement for six months from September 26, “allowing sufficient time to reach an agreement. Not only does the NTEU not have much choice to talk, it does not have a great deal of time.

Unless of course it appeals and wins.