Plus Pyne out of time – the Senate must settle fee deregulation

Nicking off

The long-anticipated advertisement for a CEO to take over at TEQSA appeared on Friday. Despite the unhappy experience of original chief commissioner Carol Nicholl, running the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency is not an especially poisoned chalice now – due to university concerns over the agency’s ambitions being resolved by the Lee Dow – Brathwaite review and the steadying style of interim chief, former University of Newcastle VC Nicholas Saunders. Professor Saunders is a safe pair of hands, as demonstrated by his professional performance before the Senate inquiry into the Pyne Package in November and people who do business with TEQSA are keen to see him to stay on. I asked the agency if he is interested in the job and was firmly told he isn’t.

ANU computing

Decision delayed

The University of Wollongong and National Tertiary Education Union are in dispute over management’s decision to put its proposed general staff enterprise agreement to a vote, without NTEU support. The CPSU, which also has campus members, is said to agree to the offer. Management’s strategy is straight out of the Andy Vann playbook. In September 2013 the Charles Sturt University VC put an offer direct to staff in similar circumstances (NTEU opposed and CPSU supported), which romped home. Wollongong management says academic pay negotiations continue.

In the money

With Southern Cross and UNSW, Wollongong is one of the few universities, without industrial agreements in place until 2017 and despite the occasional setback the NTEU should be reasonably pleased with the agreements it extracted across the country. Certainly managements bargained campus branches down from the original national claim of 7 per cent per annum pay rises, claiming Labor’s proposed cuts in 2013 reduced their capacity to pay. That the funding reduction is still not legislated nearly two years after it was announced means managements are quids in. Even so, wage hikes around 3 per cent pa over three years, makes for very respectable rises, compared to what workers across the wider economy are receiving, around 2.6 per cent over the 12 months to last September.

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Everybody’s invited

It’s time for university entry announcements in Victoria (today) and NSW (Wednesday). I’m guessing we will see a repeat of the Queensland, South Australian and WA experience last week. (Perth is a bit peculiar because of the half cohort entry, due to the state changing its school starting age in 2002, to align the states’ schools with the rest of the country. While an unchanged 85 per cent of applicants received a place the number of applicants is down because only people born from January to June 1997 finished school last year).

Universities in all states reported exclusive courses closed but places available in just about everything else – and most made more offers than last year, some because they have ambitious plans to finance and others because they are rebuilding balance sheets. And those are the numbers they are announcing through the state authorities Experts in enrolment arcana suggest that most universities offer another 25 per cent of places through various customised entry schemes. There will be many cases where we do not know the real entry score, or other entry qualification, that gets people into courses. But it seems certain that damn near everybody who wants to go to university can start somewhere, that supply more than equals demand. As Andrew Norton explains, in 2014 the number of applications across the country was flat on the prior year at a touch over 300 000. And 86 per cent of applicants were offered a place, including to 7000 with ATARS under 50, although most of them gave it away long before the end of first year. It seems the system is delivering on the bipartisan commitment of a place for everybody a university will accept.

And so it begins

If you aren’t happy about being back at work at least you’re not (unless you are) working on the budget in the Department of Education. Planning for next May’s must be tough, given last May’s has not passed in full, including the April 2013 cuts, which Labor announced in government but is blocking in opposition. And then there is the problem of projecting funding for universities if the Pyne Package Mk II passes, or doesn’t. As for what students will pay from 2016, who knows? One way or another the Senate needs to decide on the minister’s proposal and fast.


The state of the Senate

Is unchanged with Education Minister Chris Mr Pyne two votes short (assuming everybody else stays solid) to pass his Mk II package. Senator Xenyha Wang (PUP) has long made it known that he respects the work of private providers and elite institutions like UWA, which support deregulation and Nick Xenophon believes that the existing funding model is unsustainable while demand drives university enrolments – but whether Minister Pyne can offer them enough ideas and incentives to swing their votes is unknown. With Jacqui Lambie (still PUP?) and Glenn Lazarus adamantly opposed senators Wang and Xenophon are Mr Pyne’s best, well only, hopes.

Indifferent electorate

It seems (now quietened) talk of an increased GST and the proposed lower Medicare rebate on “six-minute medicine” were canned in part because neither was helping the consrvatives in the Queensland election. But nobody has mentioned increased university fees in the campaign. And the state of training is not up the agenda. Despite a determined push by the NTEU and the Greens to maintain the rage over the summer anguish over the Pyne package appears to have evaporated, which means the minister might go for broke and try to push his legislation through parliament as soon as it sits.

Cash from Campbell

More money for education, just not from students, is being promised in Queensland. Yesterday’s LNP campaign launch included two wins for researchers and a commitment to lifting the quality of graduates teaching in state schools.

Premier Campbell Newman promised $90m for new research, contingent on successful bidders finding matching funding. The government’s share will come from “early repayment” of government loans to state universities. He also promised a $500m capital fund with the income going to “research and productivity development” in resources, agriculture, construction and tourism and improving “front-line services” in standard state government areas, health and welfare, education and policing.

Mr Newman also announced 200 scholarships for teaching education students with top university entry scores and funding for 300 teachers to do maths and sciences masters.