Legislation reducing the agency’s role looks set to pass the Senate while Labor gives Chris Pyne a free pass in the House

Big (as in billions) news

Thanks to the reader who came across this latest example of the government’s commitment to research in Monday’s Senate Question Time. Senator Sue Boyce  asked minister for Human Services Marise Payne, representing Minister Pyne to explain all the goodies in the budget. Which Senator Payne was delighted to do – understandably so, given she advised, “we have committed $150 billion in 2015-16 to support the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy.” And there I was thinking NCRIS got a much more modest $150 million.

TEQSA’s fate confirmed

What a surprise, the Senate Committee examining the TEQSA legislation has waived the original version through. Readers with a taste for the futile will remember that in March Labor and the Greens sent a bill based on the Lee Dow-Braithwaite report on the agency’s overreach to committee. Labor education spokesman Kim Carr was especially concerned by a spill of commissioners and splitting the TEQSA CEO and chair. But after considering submissions senators on the Education and Employment Legislation Committee decided that the bill does what is required, that there is no problem with functions and that “legislative change is still necessary to overcome the core problem that TEQSA has been trying to do too many things and needs to focus its efforts.”

But not all the senators. Labor’s Sue Lines produced a detailed dissent, which argued against binding ministerial direction of TEQSA’s head and restricting some of the agency’s authority. However the overall concern was that de-regulation could see “dodgy fly-by-night operators” appear; “how can we be confident that a substantially diminished regulator will be able to deal with them?” Senator Lines asked. Lee Rhiannon (Greens) also dissented, making the reasonable point that the legislation was first in parliament before Christopher Pyne announced deregulation. True, but leaving TEQSA dressed in great authority rather contradicts the government’s plan.

Reality injection

The anti-vaccination argument is regularly shot with silver bullets and buried at crossroads on the stroke of midnight and yet it is alive and kicking. So lively that the biggest of big guns is about to have something to say on the subject for the first time in a couple of years. Sir Gustave Nossal will deliver a public lecture for the Australian Society for Microbiology on July 6 in Melbourne, titled, “Vaccination: global good or wasteful peril?” I’m guessing the question is rhetorical. Details here.

Government knows best

The Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development is  very pleased with itself on the way public funding in the training industry is meeting community needs. Courses “with less vocational outcome” dropped from 31 per cent in 2012 to 9 per cent last year – I think they mean fewer personal trainers in training. In a sign of the times the highest enrolment by occupation was in aged or disabled care with 18, 800 students (10 000 more than motor mechanics). Overall some 484,000 students received subsidised training – up 43 per cent on 2010. So all is well? Um, not quite, “Challenges remain as government seeks to support apprenticeships in a climate of business contraction in trade related industries as well as managing growth in training areas that are not aligned with industry or student needs.” That’s real student needs, as defined by the department – not what prospective students think they need.

CGI science

The University of Wollongong reports research showing that Finding Nemo does not accurately present clown fish behaviour! Who would have thought it. When it comes to explaining science, who is setting the agenda, Pixar?

No access all areas

QUT’s Tom Cochrane made a solid case for open access on Radio National the other day but admitted support from institutions “is patchy.” Which is a big part of the problem in trying to end journals charging the public to read research paid from its purse – some of the greatest allies the commercial publishers have are scholars who support the status quo. Academics who publish in the top ranking journals have nothing to gain from an end to the existing hierarchy, constructed over time, which has the established outlets on the top. But they have a great deal to lose if journal names are no longer a proxy for research quality and every author has to shout out their arguments in the open market of ideas.

Labor lays off

Chris Pyne must be off the medication. Yesterday in the House of Representatives he turned a dorothy dixer asking about the many benefits of the government’s higher education policy into a broad ranging (to understate it) attack on Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Perhaps the minister misses the days before the election, when he made an art of attacks from the opposition benches that did not have anything to do with the original point. What intrigues me is why the Opposition gives him the latitude to do this – why isn’t he being hammered Question Time in, Question Time out on what de-regulation will mean for the cost of study? And why isn’t Labor bringing on MPIs on the dangers of public funding for private providers? It couldn’t be because Labor has decided higher education isn’t a first order budget issue, could it? Perhaps Mr Pyne was excited by the chances of passing his package.

Super selective selection

Tseen Kho explains the importance of internal funding for research on the excellent Research Whisperer blog, which she co-created. “It can boost project competitiveness and track-record before a go at a bigger external grant. It can certainly boost the confidence of researchers trying to get their work off the blocks, or build their CV in the early days of their research career. It can bridge external grant gaps and allow researchers to stay on the radar.” Good-oh but the days when universities can afford such relatively low impact schemes may end once deregulation kicks in – it will be harder to fund lab time or a travel grant from undergraduate fees if they are set in a competitive market. Which is why I wonder how long it will be until other universities wake up to Deakin’s first-rate program using crowd funder Pozible to support research. Like Dr Mel Thomson’s excellent “Hips 4 hipsters” (developing antibiotics-CMM yesterday), which last night made its $11,762 (no I don’t why it is that exact) target. Crowd funding is almost impossible to beat to raise research funds for small projects and you can just hear a strapped for cash DVC R suggesting young scholars raise their own money rather than access university funds. Sort of like filling in a grant application – only crowd sourcing applications are considered by a planet size panel which takes some convincing, what with members donating their own dosh.

Competent accreditation

Udacity announces “nanodegrees,” “compact, flexible, and job-focused credentials that are stackable throughout your career”. They will take 6-12 months part time and teach specific skills. The early offerings are all in web development and IT comms. Gosh, they sound like competencies to me, based on training rather than higher education teaching and learning. Whatever, Australian universities like Charles Sturt are already using a MOOC model to do this sort of thing. But how, or can, these sort of courses can be accredited? Will people be able to assemble an academically recognised nano-degree? People at TEQSA may not be in the mood to contemplate taking on tasks this morning but this is surely a job for the agency.