Plus why it is all over for the lecture and innovation is the new deregulation

Opportunity knocks

Malcolm Turnbull is not the first politician to impertinently assert that universities could perhaps do more to forge industry links (CMM, Friday). A reader remembers a University of Melbourne academic asking Labor education minister “Silent Chris” Evans what could be done to get business to knock on university doors. “You could open the door, for a start,” Senator Evans replied.

Uni applications up again

Thanks to Andrew Norton for pointing to final stats on 2015 university offers and acceptances. With applications up 2.6 per cent on 2014 Mr Norton suggests, “whatever political impact the Labor/National Union of Students/National Tertiary Education Union $100,000 degree campaign had, there was no discernible impact on market demand.” Fair enough but given the optimism of the young, CMM suspects that the people who the campaign influenced were the parents of young applicants.

Where listening is not learning

Marnie Hughes-Warrington has a clear and confronting message for those who insist lecturing has a future. “We have the evidence suggesting the need for change and yet we still declare the death of the lecture to be a bit of larking about,” she warns.

The ANU DVC upset academics when she last suggested the lecture is a legacy of a time past in education, that the stats show students don’t show (CMM July 9). But some were relieved, telling her they had thought the trend she showed was in fact only happening in their lectures.

But at ANU it is occurring all over.

Professor Hughes Warrington now reports new Australian National University numbers showing total lecture consumption (physically and electronically) for this year’s first semester and it is devastating for ANU teachers who have devoted their working lives to lecturing.

“On average, two thirds of students are not attending and not downloading lectures beyond week three. This pattern shows up regardless of the size, age or condition of the lecture theatre, or indeed whether it has decent wireless coverage or not. Nor does the discipline matter, or the level of the course taught,” Even last-minute downloads in exam week, when added to semester consumption, don’t equal enrolments.

“It is time to talk to one another and to stop assuming that this wave of change doesn’t matter and that it doesn’t hurt,” she writes. Nor does whacking live lectures online and calling it e-learning deliver. “ Professor Hughes Warrington writes datasets from big MOOC platforms indicate the optimal length for recorded talks is six to eight minutes.

The challenge, she warns is not to conflate hours talking with outcomes, not confuse “listening with learning.”

Understated sell

Marketing maven Byron Sharp suggests that if Australian industry is not interested in engaging with universities then academics should look offshore. When asked Professor Sharp just happened to have an example handy, his own Ehrenberg Bass Marketing Institute at the University of South Australia. “Half the institute’s research income comes from overseas. Which means that local companies are able to access research that is largely paid for by Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Coca-Cola etc. And our students get the best marketing degree in the world because of it.” You can see why Professor Sharp is a marketing academic and not an advertising agency executive – way too understated.

ANU Sep 15 5

PM applauded

The prime minister’s suggestion that “publish and perish” is a problem for academics isn’t unsettling everybody in the research community. Tony Peacock from the Cooperative Research Centre Association is delighted Mr Turnbull, “is looking at changing incentives for academics.” This, he adds “is not trivial for CRCs”.

Innovation over deregulation

While Education Minister Simon Birmingham still talks about fee deregulation of some sort he does not mention when it will happen. On Friday he talked of discussing challenges and opportunities “over the coming weeks and months,” so that the government “can carry the support of not just those in the sector, as we’ve enjoyed previously, but also of course those across society and in the political class too.” In fact the chance of any of this happening before the election recedes with every speech the prime minister and treasurer make about tax reform, on the general principal of one-crazy brave proposal per campaign.

That’s the bad news for VCs keen to see more money – it is also the good news. With student fees off the agenda the government will focus on research funding, as part of Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation agenda.

Scary numbers

New research from the estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research research demonstrates the disaster that the VET FEE HELP loan system has become for the federal government and the legitimate private sector training industry. Students commencing training and taking out loans between 2009 and 2012 had a 21 per cent chance of completing training but NCVER expects this to drop to 8 per cent for those enrolled with loans since then who are studying for advanced diplomas externally and are unemployed. The number of jobless students with loans has increased by 370 per cent, to 50 000 in the last few years. “This may not bode well for future course completions of VET FEE-HELP assisted students,” the NCVER suggests.

Should regulators have seen problems coming? Given the number of private providers reporting VET FEE HELP data grew from 25 or so in 2009 to 150 plus in 2014 you would think so. Particularly given the rate of their enrolments rocketed from a bare 2000 in ’09 to 120 000 in ’14. The government’s commitment to tighten standards is necessary but in terms of the damage done is way too little way too late.

Other seven absent

News that Monash is the only Group of Eight university in the dozen commended by the Workplace Gender Equality Organisation (CMM Friday) generated a good deal of unseemly glee among readers. “Finally, a league table the eight will not boast about,” one of the kinder commentators said.

Share the wealth

It didn’t take long for the WA branch of the National Tertiary Education Union to point to the surpluses run by the state’s five universities, as per last week’s federal figures (CMM November 5), “negating management claims that they need to cut staff costs and bump up student tuition fees.” But some negating is greater than others, the University of Western Australia ran a $190m 7 per cent surplus but Murdoch U could only manage $6.5m or 2.5 per cent. Still any surplus will be good enough for the union when the new round of wage negotiations starts next year.

Market from another age

The Australian Council for Private Education and Training quietly released a commissioned report on the “case for VET reform” on Friday. While dated June it is less a paper than a parchment from another age, making the case for private sector training addressing needs TAFE does not address. And it explains the role for a regulated market based on income contingent loans.

However the paper also acknowledges regulatory failures in Victoria and sets out what a properly managed market requires.

“Given the large amount of public funding that flows into the VET sector, it is clear that government’s role as the purchaser requires a sophisticated and coordinated approach. However, the role for government in market management is equally important and closely linked to its role in market design.”

The report details regulatory problems but argues the government is on to them and; “while the industry continues to wrestle with a range of important but otherwise transitional issues, it is worth acknowledging that with improved regulatory oversight, more sophisticated approaches to contracting and purchasing, and continued industry action, VET reform continues to offer considerable benefits to students, firms and industry.”

This is solid assessment of the training system but in its advocacy of a market system is way too late. The horror-stories of spivs and shonks collecting public subsidies by enrolling ill-equipped and unemployed people in courses they cannot complete are so frequent that they have discredited private sector training as a whole for many months, probably years to come.

The public education lobby is certainly seizing the opportunity to make the case for a regulated TAFE-centric system run by the states.

TAFE campuses are closing and jobs are being lost, while taxpayer are subsidising private profits made on the back of VET FEE- HELP debts,” the Australian Education Union argues. The comrades are calling for state control of TAFE to continue, and for 70 per cent of all training places to stay in the states’ systems.

Given the present mess this will strike voters as less reasonable than realistic.

More bad news for Murdoch

Finally a rating that Murdoch University leads on, although not one it will want to claim. The Western Australian Auditor General  assessed seven public sector agencies and found the university’s finance function led for the number of extreme and high database security risks. The Murdoch HR and student administrations were not far behind. All were way ahead of Curtin, the other university assessed.