Australia does well in THE uni ratings while Mike Gallagher argues that everything has changed

Poisoned path

“You know you’re in Australia when…your university circulates a snake warning notice,” a tweet from a certain university yesterday. Presumably the VC’s enforcer was out for a walk.

Embargo ignored again

It’s Times Higher Education rankings morning, but not for The Australian’s website, which ran a wire story on the announcement first thing yesterday, breaking embargo by 22 hours. (The story was gone by noon.) While all sorts of sites picked up on the yarn every other hack who covers higher education – and as far as I can tell, all universities – ignored the breach and maintained the embargo. Which is pretty much what happened when The Australian broke the embargo on the Academic Ranking of World Universities data in August (CMM August 15). That time the paper’s own people wrote the story so I suppose yesterday was an improvement.

Ratings lift

Thanks to The Australian the Times Higher Education table is not the newsiest of news this morning but it will still generate the usual amalgam of acclamation and excuses from winners and losers. The big winner is the University of Adelaide, moving into the top 200, at 164, a big jump from the 201-225 bracket where it was last year. The University of Melbourne stays on top, moving up a single spot to 33rd in the world. ANU is second, well within the global first 50 at 45. Other than Adelaide the significant improver is the University of Sydney, rising 12 places to number 60. Go8 institutions take the top eight Australian spots but the gap between them and the other rated campuses is large with at least 50 places between Adelaide and UTS which follows in the 226-250 group, another large lift from last year. The University of South Australia also moves up an entire group to the 276-300 band. The two big winners in the also-rans are Curtin and UWS, which were not rated last year and now appear in the last 350-400 range. However the THE is terrible for Murdoch University which drops to the bottom band.

Not that annual differences mean all that much and the THE is not a definitive guide to what sort of education an undergraduate will get – the teaching indicators emphasise staff productivity rather than student learning and the reputation survey is essentially anecdotal. This makes the government’s proposed online universities guide really, really important, if deregulation occurs.

Easy on the Oi-Oi-Oing

Overall THE is good news for Australia, with around half the system rated in the world’s best 400 – so much for all the warnings last year of imminent decline. Australia rates equal fifth in the world, with the Canadians but behind the Netherlands. But to put it in perspective the US has no less than 74 universities in the top 400 (down three on last year) and 15 in the top 20 – the UK has three and the Swiss and Canadians one each. Caltech is number one for the fourth consecutive year. While experts predict the end of the western world’s dominance of higher education it hasn’t happened quite yet. I wonder what protesting students in Hong Kong make of the good result for three HK universities.

Important gatesway

CSIRO has a new $14.5m grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve crop productivity in Africa. Dr Anna Koltunow from the CSIRO lab at the Waite campus in Adelaide leads the project. There is a pattern here. This time last year the Gates were in Queensland, visiting James Dale (QUT) who has $10m in funding from their foundation to reduce banana crop losses, also in Africa.

Less changing than changed

Paradigms are shifting all over the joint this week. On Monday University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington argued that whatever happens to the Pyne package every Australian university’s operating environment had changed in terms of competition and costs and. And yesterday Mike Gallagher, outgoing chief executive of the Group of Eight, argued that in just six months the enduring faith in Whitlamite wonders had passed, that the days of dreaming government would one day deliver all the money university communities believe they need are over, and that everybody managing campuses knows it.

“This is now the new consensus within the higher education provider sector. … It is the overwhelming view presented in submissions to the Senate committee reviewing the bill. It may be a position arrived at by some reluctantly but it is where they all are now. This position replaces the old insatiable common-denominator consensus of the former AVCC (Australian vice chancellors committee), that government funding – even when increasing – was never enough, leaning on the Whitlamite legacy in public policy and middle-class community sentiment, that the federal government (in distributing the revenues it receives from general taxpayers) should bear the large bulk of the higher education funding responsibility,” Mr Gallagher said.

He went on to set out the changed and changing structural circumstances of education, arguing that “many of the foundational assumptions of the framework for higher education policy and financing put in place a quarter of a century ago no longer hold sufficiently to support contemporary and emerging practices.”

It is a powerful case for the Group of Eight’s preferred version of the Pyne plan for deregulation (pretty much the same as the minister’s except with no change to the existing HELP interest rate) but I doubt it will convince many who agree that something has got to give but oppose open slather on increased fees.

Already agreed

The Education Department did not bother including a link to the new Education Services for Overseas Students Act discussion paper yesterday in its announcement yesterday but that document wasn’t hard to find – or follow. Apparently, stakeholders, “are seeking a system that is more contemporary and better reflects developments in international education over recent years.” The review team has already talked to major players in the international education industry. This paper is the result, pretty much outlining what they want and what they are likely to get from the government: on reducing reporting requirements, fine tuning the national code of conduct, focusing regulators on high risk areas and updating study obligations. Yes, responses to the discussion paper are requested, but I doubt the review team is expecting new and original ideas.

Independent thinking

There are focus groups for University of Sydney staff today to discuss how the university will deal with whatever the Senate delivers on deregulation. According to Provost Stephen Garton, “the consultation we have held across the university to date has revealed a range of views on the government’s proposals, including strong opposition to the proposed funding cuts, increases in student debt and the principle of fee deregulation” but the meetings “have also provided an opportunity for us to start to discuss how the University of Sydney might respond to the final legal position determined in Canberra, regardless of the pros and cons of any part of that position.” “That is an important distinction,” Professor Garton advised, “we will have to comply with the legal framework agreed by parliament whatever our own views.” Just in case anybody thought the republic of letters was independent.