Campus Morning Mail Summer Edition

The ATAR as an avatar of excellence

That ATARs for teaching degrees at the Australian Catholic University are down does not mean its graduates will be bad teachers – as the university regularly reminds us. But it does demonstrate how dependent ACU’S business model is on keeping its teacher education enrolments up. In 2012 the university had 8,800 education students, up 2500 since 2008 and a third of enrolments.
Not that this has anything to do with ACU VC Greg Craven’s, weekend warning in The Australian that some universities game admissions, publishing minimum entry scores way higher than students actually need to enter a course.
Professor Craven does not run the only university that needs to explain why it admits students with low ATARS to teaching degrees. However Charles Sturt University, also heavily dependent on teacher education, less confronts the issue than renders it irrelevant. The immediate danger is NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli promising that to teach in state schools teaching graduates will need to enter university with a higher ATAR than many do at CSU. So the university is offering a classic warning-solution PR plan. Yesterday Executive Dean of Education Toni Downes said the minister’s proposal would mean very few country kids teaching in bush schools, leading to a fly-in fly-out workforce. (Not enough of CSU teaching students from country schools would make the minister’s base mark.) But Professor Downes has a solution; she proposes a plan for a panel of principals to assess low ATAR applicants for CSU teacher education courses. This puts a pertinent question to Mr Piccoli – who is a potentially better teacher, somebody with a good entry score or an individual who principals think has what it takes? And it gets CSU off the quality hook. Smart stuff.

Not full Flinders

It’s a tricky time for student recruiters. On the one hand they get an ear-full from deans, terrified by the absence of the enrolments they need to make budget and who want their courses promoted loud and fast. On the other the corporate marketers are anxious that the university does not look desperate, contradicting their expensively crafted image of exclusivity. I wonder who won at Flinders University, which announced degrees which were still open on Friday, over 110 degrees in fact, from applied geographical information systems through business to theology.

Unconvinced crowd

Crowd funding is an easier way of securing support for smallish research projects than filling in forms and grovelling to the DVC R, as long as the citizenry stumps up. Which, despite all the success stories out there, doesn’t always happen. This is demonstrated by the fate of a James Cook University project. Patrick Schaeffer and Alanna Sorenson wanted $20,000 to develop their new test for Melioidosis, a bacterial disease that exists in tropical soils and is fatal in 20 per cent of cases in Australia and double that in Thailand. The existing test takes days and can be wrong half the time. In contrast, their method is complete in under half an hour, thus making treatment much faster. It sounds like a winner, a real product with an important purpose, relevant to Australia and its neighbours. But it bombed on Pozible – the bid closed on Friday with just over half the required $20 000 raised and all donations accordingly refunded.
I suspect it failed for two reasons. First, the pitch was worthy but dull – it needed a copywriter not a grant submission author and individual examples of who the test would help. Second it was too far removed from the generality of donors’ everyday experience to encourage them to cough up. It’s an excellent example of why we should be careful that crowd funding is not seen as an alternative to conventionally sourced research support. People have every right to donate to work that appeals to their interests, self-image, emotions- fair enough, it’s their money. But it does not always get the serious science done.

Hip to be hot

On Friday I defied any university to make Adelaide’s crippling heat a marketing positive for prospective international students. Dirk Mulder, international director at the University of South Australia took me on, tweeting: “ADL is now officially the hottest city on the planet to visit. Tell that to Lonely Planet who only ranked it in the top 10”. Quite. Just cash the cheques before the next warm spell.

 Think things are bad here?

Well they’re bad in the US as well for new doctoral graduates looking for work. According to new numbers from the US National Science Foundation the proportion of 2012 graduating PhDs in physical and life sciences, as well as engineering, with employment or postdoctoral appointments lined up fell to the lowest level in a decade, anywhere from 2 per cent to 11 per cent under the 2002 figure. The job market picked up in other disciplines but still remained at 20 year lows. The NSF also argued the US needs to invest in doctoral programs lest “the world’s brightest students, including US citizens, may go elsewhere for the doctoral degree, and they may begin careers elsewhere as well.” Spot the flaw in that argument – the problem is less education than employment. And this is just nor a problem for the yanks.