Plus Uni Sydney’s new campaign and Productivity Commission on international education

Lost in space

“What an outstanding group of astronomers discussing ‘are we alone – the $100M question’ at the National Library,” Parly Sec for Science Karen Andrews tweeted yesterday. Perhaps all the librarians had fallen into that black hole in the stacks.

MRFF in the money

The Senate passed the Medical Research Future Fund yesterday, after a debate in which Opposition senators argued for more oversight but the Greens voted with the government (ministers thanked the comrades for “constructive suggestions”). The government has long argued the MRFF is not a threat to the National Health and Medical Research Council. But while the former will support applied research and development and the latter scientific exploration the brutal truth is that the Council no longer controls the money supply. The MRFF’s brief allows it to fund medical research infrastructure for state governments, universities, medical research institutes and corporations. “This could involve supporting research into the development of medicines or medical technologies (including personal health technologies) for commercial use,” (CMM June 24)


This enthused the independent medical research institute sector yesterday no end, with members quick to cheer the arrival of the MRFF. But even with the government commitment to an advisory board seat for the NHMRC chair the legislation will still bring on a case of conniptions to medical research traditionalists, steeped in the tradition of peer review based funding. As shadow health minister Catherine King said yesterday, Labor “welcomes the passage of the bills through the Senate but remains concerned that they still do not appropriately ensure significant funding decisions are not politicised.”

This seems a lost cause – with Universities Australia welcoming the MRFF because it “will strengthen university medical research and innovation.” But not by much, the $20bn fund target is a ways off, with the government kicking in an initial $1bn. The feds predict distributing $400m over the next four years. As this is new money it is much better than none. But yesterday cynics were suggesting that in the tough budget after next whoever is treasurer will either cut funding from the NHMRC but say that when the MRFF is added there is still more money overall for research. Alternatively a treasurer could reduce deposits to the fund but say the NHMRC is still in the money. It will depend on which agency has the best public profile.

It’s out of the operating theatre and onto the PR stage for medical research chiefs, except for the ones who are there already. Standby for another round of celebration when government amendments introduced in the Senate pass the Reps.

House that didn’t divide

The push to split politics and international relations at the University of Adelaide has stalled (CMM August 12). Staff have explained why it is a bad idea for weeks but it seems management decided it was time to calm things down when professors from across the Faculty of Arts came out against the proposal. “The consultation process on structural change in the School of Social Sciences has been suspended and instead a working party will be established to consider how the school can best meet the challenges it faces beyond 2015” a university spokeswoman said last night. “It is refreshing to know the vice chancellor respects and responds to the views of his professors,” an observer sympathetic to the political science side responded last night.

Fishing trip

Yesterday afternoon the Senate agreed to Senator Lee Rhiannon’s (Greens-NSW) order for production of documents which directs Minister Pyne to hand over “modelling and costings” on the impact of fee deregulation on student debt, for-profit higher education and VET providers plus regional universities, among other things. Another reason why the deregulation legislation as last sighted isn’t coming back next week.


Change of the day

The University of Sydney (the one that covers all points of the Sydney compass) wins change of the day with a new branding poster campaign, “Leadership for Good Starts Here.” One around town features “women’s rights activist, journalist and author PhD ‘79” Anne Summers in the ‘70s with the quote “I will battle inequality with rage and reason.” Another is “broadcaster and maths geek BA Hons ‘92” Adam Spencer. Interesting to see who else appears.

Urquhart’s (really old) other law

CMM is a great believer in Urquhart’s Law of Political Communication, (as per the original House of Cards) that the correct response to scandalous statements is “you may say that but I could not possibly comment.” But it turns out another Urquhart had a different law. A reader found it and wanted to know what it means; “the inter-library loan demand for a periodical is as a rule a measure of its total use.” Readers under 50 ask an old librarian why anybody would need to get a library to loan a printed journal

Productivity Commission prescription

The Productivity Commission draft report on service exports, released yesterday endorsed the government’s student visa reforms and offered some eminently achievable suggestions intended to leave the industry to get on with business.

On visas the Commission acknowledges study is used as a migration route and points to problems with the 2012 system, notably students course hopping and enrolling in institutions they mistakenly believe have more status with the immigration authorities. “These perverse incentives reduce the likelihood that international students will have a quality learning experience in Australia and have the potential to adversely affect the reputation of Australian education institutions,” the PC suggest. It points approvingly to the plan to assess applicants on the immigration risk profile of their country and the institution where they intend to study, with the Department of Immigration having charge of the process. This is, “a major improvement on current arrangements and should be progressed,” the PC says.

ANU June 1

In other areas the Commission thinks exporters should be left to get on with business. It calls on the government to review the coming Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching website after three years to assess its impact. And it suggests waiting until the proposed quality framework for international agents is up before considering “more heavy handed forms of regulations (such as direct regulation of agents), which would likely involve considerable administrative and compliance costs.”

But as for suggestions that Australian course standards are an impediment to selling VET offshore, the Commission is not having it. “Risks associated with relaxing standards, coupled with the possibility of providing non-accredited training, mean that the Commission does not consider that Australian accreditation requirements constitute an unnecessary barrier to exports of education services.” 

Gifted amateurs

“I just love the fact that Fed Uni uses real students (not professional market talent) for its ads,” DVC Todd Walker wrote yesterday. Gosh, which slick student sales campaign that doesn’t was he thinking of as he gazed westward, quite a way west.