Just in from the “who knew!” desk

UWA reports research finding that the obese need knee replacements eight years earlier than persons of “regular weight.”

A Corona Bot with no lime, but lots of AI

Uni Sydney wanted a bot double-quick, to answer student questions on COVID-19. So, they asked Microsoft

The company created Corona Bot in a week. It answers two or three questions from 300-400 students a day. How it happened and why it works are explained by Microsoft, here.

There’s more in the Mail

In Features this morning

Jack Goodman (Studiosity) sets out what the crisis will change, “COVID will refocus university efforts on students as the top priority

Vitomir Kovanovic, (Uni SA) and Maren Scheffel, (Open Universiteit, The Netherlands) explain how to prevent COVID-19 killing your conference – a new contribution to Contributing Editor Sally Kift’s series, Needed now in teaching and learning.

In the first of a six part series, Steve Mackay and Edwina Ross from the Engineering Institute of Technology set out what works  on-line for EIT’s 2000 students across 150 countries.

The shape of things to come

Dan Tehan explains the new six-month diploma certificates, Ten Network, Sunday

“It’s where the higher education sector is moving towards. But, we have used this opportunity to be one of the first countries to really put micro-credentialing, or short courses, on the map,” the education minister said. As Rahm Emanuel said, “never allow a good crisis go to waste.”

Government to unis: work with what you’ve got

Education Minister Dan Tehan’s Sunday announcement was designed to maximise positive community impact and take the air out of funding complaints

The minister committed to

* funding providers for existing domestic student levels for the rest of the year – regardless of reduced enrolments

* fees paid by institutions under the government’s new user-pay requirements for regulators TEQSA and AQSA will be repaid/waived

* students at private HE providers will now not pay the 20 per cent loan fee to access the HELP scheme.

Mr Tehan’s major initiative is short courses in National Priority areas such as nursing, teaching, health, IT and science.

“This plan will help Australians who have lost their job or are looking to retrain to use their time studying nursing, teaching, counselling, allied health or other areas considered national priorities. It will also provide a revenue stream for universities and private providers to assist their financial stability,” the minister said.

There is sparse public detail how these “diploma certificates”  and graduate certificates will be funded by the feds, but Mr Tehan says universities are ready to go. In a radio interview yesterday he cited courses from Swinburne U, Western Sydney U and Uni SA as set to start.

Mr Tehan is on the front foot with this announcement, which will resonate in the community.


Bond U braces for hard times

Help for students, jobs going

Vice Chancellor Tim Brailsford tells staff modelling demonstrates, “that even under very adverse assumptions, the university has planned for contingencies.”

Bond’s assumptions are adverse indeed. Professor Brailsford advises the university might qualify for the federal government’s JobKeeper Allowance for staff – this would mean BU revenue was down 30 per cent on YTD 2019, “hence we have most of April to make ends meet with an inevitable reduction in revenue fast approaching.”

However, some jobs are already gone. “We have already had to advise some of our sessional academic staff who were expecting to teach subjects in semester two that their services will not be required for next semester.  This is not something that we have done lightly, and nor is it a reflection of the high value we place upon their contributions,” the VC says

And more will follow. “For our professional staff, there will also be changes to roles as we adjust to the new environment, and in some cases, there will be less work to do and consequent adjustments will need to be made.”

While staff take a hit the university is helping students. Semester Two tuition will be cut by 20 per cent and the reduction will stay in place even if on-campus classes return. The student amenities fee will not be levied next semester. International students who now cannot commence as intended in S2 and S3 will be repaid deposits, as long as they cancel by May 25.

Monash U wants to avoid redundancies, but …

There will be bad news after today

The university expects to know more about its financial position after student census date, today.

“We do not yet have a clear picture of what will happen in second semester, but we expect it to be worse than this one in terms of a decline in student numbers, and all of this will flow into first semester next year,” Vice Chancellor Margaret Gardner told staff in an Easter-eve message.

And so, she got down to it, “we began this unusual year with a plan to avoid redundancies and to try to keep the momentum that we’ve built over previous years.

“This is still our goal, but it is dependent on the extent of the downturn in second semester. There are other measures we can take to help us over this year, but if current measures are not enough, these other measures will involve talking to all of you about what we can do to keep people employed, because they will also involve changes to staff employment arrangements.

“And to answer the inevitable question, neither I nor the senior executive will be exempt.”

Professor Gardner is a member of the group of vice-chancellors that met the National Tertiary Education Union to discuss jobs and conditions, which are codified in enterprise agreements last week.

Uni Melbourne to drop $500m

VC mentions but does not detail new “cost-saving measures” that could come

Buried in a long-message on COVID-19 measures received by staff in the hours before the Easter break VC Duncan Maskell told staff, that “initial estimates” of the financial impact of the virus “will be $500m in 2020 alone.”

Professor Maskell specified cost-savings in response; a freeze on “non-essential staff appointments”, reducing operating expenditure and a hold on capex “where possible.” He added that the university executive was taking a 20 per cent pay cut, for at least six months.

However, the vice chancellor made no mention of any consideration of cuts to sessional staff numbers or contract hours for this semester, or potentially next, perhaps because census date is not to April 30.

Although learned readers suggest Professor Maskell saying, “we continue to examine other cost-saving measures,” is alarmingly ambiguous.

The university is also stumping-up for student support, (in COVID-19 wrap) below.

Greg Craven to exit ACU

The Vice Chancellor will retire in January

The university announced his departure quietly, on Easter Thursday, with chancellor John Fahey advising staff , “with considerable sadness” that the VC will leave on January 8.

Professor Craven added that it was time to go, “13 years is a long-time to be a VC. … I feel the time has come for someone with fresh insights and perspectives to lead ACU.

“I would like to spend more time reading, writing, tending my cows, and herding my grandson,” he says.

It was an understated announcement, at least compared to much of Professor Craven’s years of commentary on the issues of the hour. He once described Kevin Rudd as “a short-term Australian messiah, a veritable cross between Hercules and Popeye the Sailorman.”

It also brings forward his departure by a year – at the end of 2018 the university extended his term to 2022, (CMM December 4 2018).

Unis Aus says “tough road ahead” Union says government support “not enough”

UA president Deborah Terry repeats warning 21 000 jobs to go

The peak body responded to Minister Tehan’s Sunday announcement with a mixed message. UA “welcomed” the commitment to maintain Commonwealth Grant Scheme revenues and HELP payments for the now projected number of local students for the rest of the year.

But president Deborah Terry warned,

“There will be a tough road ahead.  We estimate 16 per cent of jobs at Australian universities will go within the next six months – that’s more than 21,000 livelihoods. Without guaranteed CGS and HELP funding that figure would have been even higher.”

“Individual universities are already cutting costs across the board … however, this will be nowhere near enough to cover what we conservatively estimate as a revenue decline of between $3 billion and $4.6 billion.”

The National Tertiary Education Union was quick to comment on the government’s commitment Sunday, with national president Alison Barnes, saying “it is just not enough.”

“Higher education was hit hard and early by COVID-19 and there is a risk of long term damage to institutions and their crucial role in our future.”

And with universities excluded from the JobSeeker allowance, “tens of thousands of jobs in the sector are still threatened,” (via Twitter)

“The NTEU will continue its discussions with employers on ways to protect jobs and the higher education sector itself, in the absence of any meaningful government assistance,” Dr Barnes added.

HE lobbies real politik response to Tehan  

Uni groups point to positives and go easy on the negatives

 The Group of Eight recognised reality;  “we understand the acute financial impost of COVID-19 on all industry sectors, so we are pleased to see the government providing funding certainty in those most uncertain and debilitating times,” CEO Vicki Thomson said yesterday.

But she added that her members are facing a $3bn shortfall in revenue and their continuing capacity to assist staff and students, “is rapidly being exhausted.”

“ Our biggest challenge is ensuring we can continue to do the research, which at its core is all about people, which will change and save lives – including research related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Australian Technology Network focused on positives, welcoming the government’s guarantee of existing funding for domestic student places and applauding the new 20 000 short course places.

“ Certainty of Commonwealth funding will ensure ATN universities to continue to deliver research and teaching for hundreds of thousands of students, while doing the heavy lifting in skills development to aid Australia’s recovery. “The ATN saw the short-courses, “as a recognition of the crucial role that universities have in responding to this crisis and will have in the eventual recovery.”

The Innovative Research Universities called “guaranteed” funding for domestic students, “an important first step” but asked for more, “the Government’s package is only a partial answer. It still leaves the universities facing a big hole in international student fee income, research funding and other commercial income.”

Independent Higher Education Australia welcomed the announcement, notably the six month hold on the loan fee students at private providers pay to access HELP loans.  The lobby was particularly pleased with the new funding for short courses, which will allow people to, “continue their career growth through a period of reduced employment opportunities.”

The Regional Universities Network was also positive, welcoming the regulation fee suspension, the confirmation of base funding and the short-course plan. “RUN is beginning to consider post-pandemic opportunities to support industry and boost economic development, to strengthen and renew partnerships with industry and community stakeholders, and to align our research expertise and capability with areas of need in the communities in which we operate” chair Helen Bartlett (VC Federation U) says.

Appointments, achievements

Amy Shepherd from Uni Melbourne is a 2020 Schmidt Science Fellow. The fellowships provide US$100 00 and mentor support to inter-disciplinary researchers working in inter-disciplinary science. Dr Shepherd is a behavioural neuroscientist.

Megan Cassidy-Welch becomes the first woman to hold the McCaughey Chair in History at Uni Queensland. She is the sixth chair in its 98 years.

COVID 19 wrap

Deakin U stumps up $25m for international students

Vice Chancellor Iain Martin announced the fund late Thursday. That internationals cannot return to their homes and are ineligible for Australian public funding leaves them in “an untenable position” Professor Martin said. “Our additional hardship support will prevent students from falling through the cracks during the difficult months ahead. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our international students.”

Monash U management cop a cut

The vice chancellor and senior executives will contribute pay to COVID-19 relief. Some 10 per cent of pay packets will go to a student support fund and 10 per cent to university revenue.

Uni Melbourne student assistance

Support includes an Emergency Support Fund, with payments up to $7500 for students, “suffering hardship.” VC Duncan Maskell told staff Thursday an eye-watering 60 000 UGs, PGs and graduate researchers without stipends are eligible. There is also $7 500 available for international students, “who were affected by travel restrictions in Semester One.” FT doctoral students coming up to three years also get a six-month extension with 12 months for part-timers.

Swinburne U faces its biggest-ever crisis

On the basis of pre-census analysis Swinburne U faces a full-year fall in revenue of $75 to $150m. “Swinburne is in the midst of the most significant crisis we have ever faced,” VC Linda Kristjanson tells staff.

“To protect jobs and limit the impact on our people, we must work together to reduce costs and manage our cash flow,” she says. With possible losses of around $3m a week on average protecting and limiting with take spectacularly reducing and managing.

The university will have final student numbers after census date, (tomorrow).

 Uni Auckland to stay on top level alert

Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater (ex UWA) says the university will stay physically closed until the start of second semester (July 27) even if the government reduces the existing level of contact-restrictions.

“The rationale for this decision is that there is more to consider than just the alert level – we also need to take into account the stability of the alert level and the practicalities of re-opening our campuses.”

Uni Adelaide student support

The university and student union jointly announce a COVID-19 student support package. It “consolidates” existing services and provides a safety-net, “for those of you experiencing significant hardship and without access to support elsewhere.” It includes hardship grants, emergency accommodation, food vouchers and IT access. Details will be available today.

 Swinburne U to start late in ‘21

The university has followed the Victorian Government’s wish to see a delayed start to the next academic year. This is in-line with the government’s decision to move schooling on-line and delay end of year exams to “at least” December. The university says it, “is adapting our approach and working with secondary schools and VTAC to help students enter their desired course,” but Swinburne makes no mention of when classes will commence.