Plus Ian Chubb makes the case for science (relentlessly)

Ambulances chased

Charles Sturt U reports the London Ambulance Service hired 55 of its recent paramedic graduates on an Australian recruiting drive this month. I trust they will all make their HECs repayments while busy in Blighty.

ANU new 2

Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend

Anybody who says they know what’s next in the great deregulation debate doesn’t have a clue. With the Pyne Package defeated, influential advocates of funding reform are seeing no sense in starting the slog to sell any set scheme. Rather than a new policy to present to cross benchers it seems there is a sense that it is time for vice chancellors to speak their minds and for policy thinkers to put up all sorts of ideas that address underfunding of teaching and research. While there is support for the Chapman-Phillips “regulated deregulation” model nobody I spoke to yesterday was prepared to back it as a compulsory party-line for any university lobby.

The decision for a debate explains why Universities Australia has gone quiet, apparently intent on listening to whatever ideas shake out among members, which means I was wrong yesterday to anticipate a VCs meeting “in a few days.” The next plenary is not until May. Sure, there is a whole lot of talking going on in and around UA but it is about options rather than sales-strategy for a particular proposal. Good-oh, however discussions do have a habit of dragging on and the challenge is for the policy community to agree on a process that leads to two or three clear options. Easier said than done, for a start who would be mad enough to accept the task of drawing up policy plans, come to that who could select the drafters without people complaining their particular hobby horse would not get a run? Never the less, a short-term commission of elder states-people would be a way of giving cross bench senators a sense that there are options they can consider, rather than just asking them to vote for changes they may not like, because they are told the status quo is unsustainable. Ricky Muir made the point on Monday, when he said he opposed fee deregulation but accepted reform was needed.

 Mr Pyne might help

Advocates of a short report by policy veterans are taking comfort from Mr Pyne’s speech in the Reps on Monday commemorating Malcolm Fraser. “Malcolm’s interest in ideas and in universities was reflected in his turning to leading scholars for ideas and specialist advice. In 1971, briefly again on the back bench, he invited professors from the Australian National University to help him think through how best to develop and expound the Liberal philosophy for the challenges of the times.” If he is thinking of a commission of elders he will need to look beyond ANU, and the rest of the Group of Eight, for that matter.

Turn that cigarette off!

There is something for both sides of the argument in the National Health and Medical Research Council’s statement on e-cigarettes. Yes the new fangled fags are not as dangerous as traditional smokes, because the former “expose users to fewer toxic substances.” “There is some preliminary evidence that supports this view,” the Council states. But their long term-term effects are unknown. “Some experts” “are also concerned that the potential benefits to smokers are outweighed by the risks posed by widespread e-cigarette use within the community, including the possibility that they may make smoking socially acceptable again.” That is the bit that will get quoted, what I suspect will be left out is the qualification, “evidence of this is limited.” As to whether e-cigarettes help smokers stop, the NHMRC is working on it and will let us know.


 Not what all the doctors ordered

The bad news in National Health and Medical Research funding announced yesterday is as expected. Only 18 per cent of overall development grants were successful and just 12 per cent of the 82 applications for clinical medicine and science funding got good news. The result for postgraduate scholarships was better, with 32 per cent of the 215 applications succeeding. The universities of Melbourne and Sydney picked up 30 of 69.

Overall the usual elite organisations cleaned up, with the top five accounting for 71 per cent of the $123m in total funding as follows, U Melbourne (21 per cent), UNSW (14 per cent), Walter and Eliza Hall (14 per cent), Macquarie University (12 per cent) and Monash (11 per cent). Some 18 of the 48 applying institutions did not bother the book-keeper. Victorian institutions scored half the money with a further 37 per cent going to some in NSW.

Complete the correct form, creatively

The University of Western Sydney wants staff to contribute new ideas. Here’s how, “read the ideascale email sent to you, which enables activation through using a ‘verify your account’ link within it. On clicking this link, you will be directed to the ‘BBC core review brainstorm campaign’ ”. Perhaps it is a test to see how serious staff are about communicating their ideas.


Fair Work no bargain

A big majority of public universities are not wildly happy with the way the industrial relations systems works. The Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, which represents 31 of them, makes this clear in its submission to the Productivity Commission’s workplace relations framework review. AHEIA’s submission sets out ten problems under the Fair Work Act 2009, many of which come from the “complexity of content” in enterprise agreements, “as a by-product of previous awards of the federal tribunal.” For example, AHEIA says universities “are highly constrained in their employment decisions” by restrictions on offering fixed term employment. “These restrictions were imposed by a sector-specific award of the federal tribunal that pre-dated enterprise bargaining. They were then incorporated in university enterprise agreements at a time when federal government regulations mandated that agreements had to be ‘closed and comprehensive’, which led to an incorporation of all award matters into agreements.”

The Innovative Research University group also wants industrial flexibility so its members can adjust faster to changing enterprise needs. “The overarching challenge is the difficulty and slowness of agreeing and implementing change, much of which is driven by arrangements defined in existing enterprise agreements.”

The IRU additionally complains, “current restrictions” on pattern bargaining “are ineffective. This will surely shock everybody who thought the similarity of union demands in the last enterprise bargaining round at universities across the country were coincidental.

On the other side of the IR divide, the National Tertiary Education Union is not making its own submission to the PC inquiry. It has “contributed” to the ACTU’s.

Chubb keeps making his case

Scary thought though it is, Ian Chubb would have made a great reforming politician, if only because he understands that when a minister can barely bring him/her self to make their case for change again the electorate is just starting to listen. And so the Chief Scientist spoke yesterday at the National Press Club, on themes so familiar to him that he could probably communicate them via contemporary dance. But as usual, Professor Chubb included new illustrations and ideas that built on his established case.

Thus he talked of the need to improve the teaching of science in schools, of the importance of research in fields where Australia has a comparative advantage or a specific need, but without excluding curiosity as a driver, and of the need to spend on science in the national interest, and on behalf of all the people of the planet. And he made a concise case why free-riding should not be the Australian way,

“imagine if we no longer ranked at the bottom of the OECD table for industry and higher education research collaboration, and imagine that we might aspire to be at the top. That we would limit the stultifying but pervasive notion of that being a ‘fast follower’ is OK when all that it does is condemn us to never being better than second.”

The Chief Scientist’s appointment ends at year’s end making this speech a farewell address (it will not be the only one) and so Professor Chubb reflected on what his work is about. “The need for good science will outlive us all. Each and every one of us will be outlived by good science. But the platform we build now will be the platform that supports the science of the future. When we support the future we are handing on to those who come after us something worth handing on.”

If, as is expected, the Prime Minister’s Science Council signs-off on Professor Chubb’s strategic pan next month he will have gone a long way towards establishing his policy legacy. Just ask him, he will probably tell you about it.