Plus low ATARs in teacher ed and training markets at risk 

Duty called

Good on Monash VC Margaret Gardner for making the long trip to inspect a remote outpost of her empire, a tiny campus with few students and little research impact compared to mighty Clayton and Caulfield. Yes, a trip to Monash’s Prato Centre is truly devotion to duty. Imagine, having to endure Tuscany in the spring.

Glover shifts emphasis in funding debate

Back in April then incoming Universities Australia chair Barney Glover was keen to keep all options alive in the deregulation debate, “it is critical that government and the sector work together to consider the full range of proposals with regard to the sustainable funding of Australian universities,” he said (CMM April 1). But the debate has moved on, with no sign the Senate will pass the Pyne package and UA member groups starting to splinter. The Group of Eight in particular has signalled it will advance its own interests (CMM, also April 1). Professor Glover, now UA chair, has moved to assert the peak group’s authority by speaking up for the one thing all his members agree on – more government money. Fairfax’s Matthew Knott reports this morning Professor Glover says public investment in universities rather than increased student fees are the issue in the lead-up to the next election, although debates on ways to increase student contributions should continue.

Health in demand but education on outer

Demand for undergraduate places appears to have peaked, with 314 000 applications at the end of February (ex WA), up 1 per cent on 2014. Ex WA there were 207 000 offers, down 1 per cent.

Figures are anomalous because of the half-cohort of high school completers, due to the 2003 split in school starts in Western Australia to bring years of schooling into line with the rest of the country.

The most popular discipline areas were health, with applications up 7.5 per cent and IT up 3.3 per cent. The largest decline in demand was for agriculture, 20 per cent lower than 2014. In line with warnings of graduate unemployment, teaching courses were down 9 per cent. Engineering (-2.9 per cent) and sciences (-3 per cent) were also lower. Health disciplines were hardest to enter, (60 per cent) with an overall national acceptance rate (ex WA) of 81.3 percent, marginally down on 2014.

The number of students accepted on the basis of a low ATAR is up, but not as dramatically as critics warning of a collapse in standards have it. In 2011 2.1 per cent of undergraduates entered university with an ATAR under 50, rising to 5.8 per cent this year. However while the numbers are relatively small it is much easier to enter university with a very low ATAR, 18.2 per cent of such applicants were accepted in 2011 and 38 per cent this year. Some 39 per cent of science and engineering students entering on the basis of ATARs had scores of 90 and above, compared to 5.3 per cent for education. As Andrew “knowledgeable” Norton points out, nearly 900 applicants with ATARs under 50 were offered places in education courses. The implication for teacher education faculties isn’t good – demand is down, making them more reliant on low academic-quality entrants.

Applications to member institutions of all university lobby groups were down, except the Innovative Research Universities (ex WA’s Murdoch), which were up 10 per cent.

The patterns for direct applications vary from the above, but involve much lower numbers.

ANU new 5

Birmingham puts policy first

Training Minister Simon Birmingham has put a stop on $65m in federal training funds for his home state of South Australia following local minister Gail Gago’s decision to reserve 90 per cent of publicly funded training places for TAFE. Minister Gago says this is only for a year and will give TAFE chance to get its act together. Senator Birmingham says it breaches a deal between the states and the Gillard Government. It is also ensuring apoplexy among private providers who all of a sudden find what is meant to be an open market largely closed to them.  

Even so, Birmingham‘s move should look like courage of the Sir Humphrey kind, given the Abbott Government’s not strong standing in SA since news that the next class of submarines may not be built there. But Senator Birmingham has had a good run in the Adelaide media by sticking to policy above parochialism. “I want to see as much money invested as wisely as possible in training in South Australia in to the future and I think it’s incredibly important that that money is used for quality training that is as cost effective as possible. It’s not about TAFE versus private providers. It’s about giving students and employers choice to access the training they need in the future for the jobs that will exist in the future,” he said on Friday. However Ms Gago shows no sign of budging, or talking – saying nothing substantive on the issue since her original announcement. Perhaps she is waiting to announce a TAFE certificate course on submarine construction.

This is a fight which states with struggling TAFE‘s, notably Victoria will be watching closely. As a way of repairing businesses that are struggling, monopolies are hard to beat. If the feds concede in SA the whole idea of competitive training markets will be at risk.

Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear

CMM’s Mack the Knife correspondent reports a survey of Western Australian surfers and fishers that found most do not mind, and some quite like, sharks, in their place that is. According to the University of Wollongong’s Leah Gibbs and Andrew Warren there is widespread opposition to killing sharks among “many ocean-users.” “They believe that the ocean is the sharks׳ habitat, and that people should be encouraged to understand risks associated with entering marine environments and adapt their behaviour accordingly.” Better that than, “scarlet billows start to spread.”

Uni Adelaide sets staff standards

The University of Adelaide released its new performance metric, Academic Adelaide, late on Friday. It is designed to set minimum standards for teaching and research staff, who will be assessed against the model. The scheme is part of a suite of initiatives, including a plan to move a minimum 100 teaching and research staff to full-time teaching. By reducing the need for casuals this is expected to free up an additional $14m per annum for research by 2019.

According to Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington, Academic Adelaide “is not a process for retrenchment, those who do not make the minimum will be given an opportunity to improve their performance.” However while the vice chancellor told CMM that most staff will exceed the requirements he was quite plain that he expected everybody to meet them. “We need people to pull their weight. The work is there to be done and the burden is placed on others if people don’t.” He added that while there is already strong interest in teaching only roles he would be happy if demand was twice the target, which would bring the university into line with other Group of Eight institutions. “Now is the time for people to put up their hands,” he said.

The AA metric was developed in consultation with deans and heads of schools and is customised for the different circumstances of each. Output requirements are set for each academic level in research and teaching output and quality plus university and community service. Staff can select the measures they are assessed on but an 80 per cent ranking by student evaluation for teaching is mandatory. The mass of variables and assessment measures make this a complex system but Professor Bebbington is not concerned by possible criticism of the methodology. “This is about starting a conversation,’ he says. Heads of schools will talk to staff affected by the assessment in July.

The university branch of the National Tertiary Education Union has not responded to a request for comment, however a May members meeting expressed concern that staff would be “pressured” to move to teaching only roles by management.

New chair for Young

Denise Bradley is stepping down as chair of VERNET, the Victorian higher education and research digital network, after chairing the venture for eight of its ten years. She, as in all her endeavours, will be a hard act to follow but CMM knows her successor will certainly give it a go. Ian “the gent” Young, outgoing ANU VC who is returning to research, at Swinburne, is the new chair.

Southern Cross shines bright-ish

Last year the NSW Auditor General copped a huge serve from Southern Cross U VC Peter Lee for suggesting the university’s income was down and expenses up. “Southern Cross University accepts that the Auditor General is developing its understanding of the sector and the nuances of performance reporting … but would encourage broader assessment of financial importance,” Professor Lee said, adding that improving plans were in place. (CMM June 4 2014) And, so it seems, they were (and thanks to the reader who recommended digging into the AG’s new report on universities.) As the Auditor reports, indicators of SCU’s financial sustainability “improved significantly” in 2014, with a 9.9 per cent growth in revenue. Good but perhaps not great given the university relies on federal grants for 54 per cent of income, 15 per cent more than the state average. And SCU’s 1.1 current ratio (ability to pay short term debts with cash on hand) is not flash. The Department of Education recommends a range of 1.5 to 3 as good practise. SCU also had the worse operating margin, -4.7 per cent, although it is positive when capital grants from Canberra are included and it is up from -8.8 in 2013.

Good news maker needed

Peak lobby Universities Australia is in the market for a “strategic communications director,” to ensure hacks like CMM understand what’s what in higher education policy and generally get the word out that unis are many splendoured things. Incumbent Louise Dodson wants a change and is moving to run copyright for UA. Melbourne recruiter Jo Fisher has the brief.

Rooms of their own

Consultations on the government’s draft international education strategy closed on Friday, but don’t expect the feds to mull over them for months. There is talk of an imminent announcement by Chris Pyne including student accommodation, the cost and scarcity of which is a particular problem for internationals at hip inner city campuses. (CMM May 28).

Not that Canberra hasn’t helped. A reader reminds CMM of the former Labor government’s National Rental Affordability Scheme. The scheme supported entrepreneurs to build and rent housing, to rent at 20 per cent under market value to “low and moderate income households.” As of December six universities were listed participants. The University of Canberra having 605 “active dwellings” with another 352 proposed. Charles Darwin would like to build 100 and the Australian Catholic University 50 (at which campus is not specified). The University of Tasmania has 180 up and wants another 590. ANU has completed its programme, with 947 complete and Monash has a proposed 600 units on the NRAS’s books. CMM suspects everybody has buckleys of getting any built, with the government putting the scheme on hold a year back.

So how many internationals have discount digs courtesy of Canberra? The scheme’s guidelines state students travelling from other parts of Australia have priority for campus accommodation and despite talk of universities piling internationals in property industry observers say they occupy way less than 10 per cent of units. CMM asked ANU how many internationals liven in its 947 units but received no answer.

Which means hundreds of thousands of internationals are in the commercial market place, which is especially hard for those studying at universities in high-demand areas. Yes it ‘s the market at work but it does not do much for international competitiveness.

Expert advice

Two responses to the draft international strategy the feds will want to read went in on Friday, from the Group of Eight and the Innovative Research Universities.

The Go8 argues for a whole of government approach, at a federal level involving the departments of education, immigration and trade, which goes much deeper than top-level talks. Canberra also needs to talk to the states, “to ensure better support for international students in the areas of health, accommodation and public transport.”

But these are problems to address when students get here. The Eight also warn cuts to infrastructure funding will reduce Australia’s research output and thus reputation in the international rankings, which drive export demand. “Go8 world rankings are a major ‘brand health’ tool. They are what attract international students to our universities.”

The IRU makes the point that international education needs to be about more than export income, and wants the government to address difficult policy areas, notably the link between study and immigration; “the issue has been fraught in Australia, with the tendency to not discuss it.” While graduates should have no more than “the legitimate potential to apply,” “attaining a qualification from an Australian university or other provider is a positive outcome for a person in demonstrating their relative standing for skilled immigration visas.”

The lobby also calls for the government to support its members’ commitment to teaching Asian languages.

No Sepp spin

Charles Sturt U’s Andrew Marshman has image management advice for FIFA sponsors, suggesting any involved in the new scandal “need to need to get on the front foot as soon as possible”. Unless the want to pay a straight blatter (sorry).