“Hey Dave! How do I open the pod bay doors?”

A Uni Adelaide student team has won third place in NASA’s Space Robotics Challenge. The contest was to code robots for mining and transport on moons/planets.

Defence research: way more supply than demand

National Intelligence and Security Discovery Research Grants are announced

Eight universities share five projects, ANU, Griffith U, La Trobe U, Macquarie U, Uni Adelaide, UNSW, Uni Queensland, UWA. The projects cover crowdsourcing messages against misinformation, cyber-security risks in machine learning, forensic investigation of materials, smart satellites and big data detection of digital payments to crime.

The NISDIRC is exclusive. The administering Australian Research Council reports the success rate was 3 per cent. No there is not a digit missing.

There’s more in the Mail

In Features this morning

James Guthrie (Macquarie U) on Deakin U annual reports and what they reveal.

plus Susan Blackley and Lisa Tee (both Curtin U) argue students like campus life and blended learning is not a complete substitute. This week’s selection by Commissioning Editor Sally Kift for her celebrated series, Needed now in teaching and learning.

with Angel Calderon (RMIT) on the new QS employability ranking – universities with industry-aligned missions shine.

and Merlin Crossley (UNSW) on the true aim of a university education. Not every student has to be expert in everything but they have to be an expert in something.


National Skills Agreement: overdue but not imminent


The key elements of the next National Skills Agreement were signed off in a Heads of Agreement back in August 2020

The new Agreement was then intended to be signed in August 2021 for commencement in January 2022, focussing on:

* a new funding model that improves national consistency and is linked with efficient pricing

* developing and funding nationally accredited micro-credentials

* providing stronger support for foundation skills

* promoting apprenticeships and undertaking reforms to boost geographic mobility and labour supply

* improving the quality and relevance of VET in schools

* reducing the proliferation of careers information available

* enhancing transparency and accountability through more publicly available data and analysis

* a viable and robust system of public, private and not for profit providers, with contestability in VET markets, and

* increasing real investment in VET.

Although the August deadline has well and truly passed, having previously been involved in these negotiations for the Commonwealth, I was relatively unperturbed.

The priorities for the new Agreement will result in less autonomy for states and territories in the operation of their VET systems, so it was never going to be easy to finalise these negotiations no matter how much extra money the Commonwealth puts on the table.

Two announcements last week though suggest the new Agreement could still be a way off.

The ACT government announced a $17m expansion of JobTrainer places which will roll out later this year. And the Victorian government announced seven more qualifications will be added to the Free TAFE list for 2022.

Meanwhile, VET providers do what they do best: getting on with the work at hand providing high quality training to individuals and working with employers and communities to meet their skill needs; all while looking for improvements to the way the sector operates – as Sally Curtain, CEO of Bendigo Kangan Institute outlines in the latest episode of the ‘What Now? What Next?’ podcast.

Claire Field is the host of ‘What now? What next?’. Her interview with Sally Curtain is out now

We see what you did there

Uni New England headlines a story, “an injection of goodwill” – it’s a yarn about UNE’s community vax programme across its region. Want to know how regional unis make themselves loved? This is how.

Universities Australa steps up in the wild west of micro-credentials

The lobby releases this morning “new guidance” on micro-credentials.

“A lack of standardisation provides challenges for the recognition and portability of microcredentials,” Keitha Dunstan (Bond U) and colleagues write*.

They propose minimum standards for MCs to be recognised by Australian universities.

* clear evidence of achievement/outcome: “Issuers of credentials should ensure that credentials are associated with information that enables others to easily understand what knowledge, skills and attributes can be expected of a learner that has been issued with a microcredential”

* an understandable unit of exchange”: given the unregulated way credit is assigned and the mass of credentials, “a sector-wide system for denominating a common unit of exchange amongst providers is currently not feasible.” However what an MC means should, “understandable to others.”

* quality assured and verifiable: “learners, employers and recognising institutions must also be satisfied as to the integrity of the credential”

This is smart: MCs are the wild west of post-compulsory education and training, with neither law on what they actually are or order as to how they interact with formal providers. As the learned Beverley Oliver points out for UNESCO, there is no agreement on what MCs can be (CMM September 23). Until (or if) this is sorted by regulators there needs to be a sheriff providing workable rules that stop the cowboys running riot.  The Dunstan rules, sorry guidance do this – and they also establish UA’s leadership in keeping the MC peace.

* Keitha Dunstan (Bond U), Simon Barrie, (WSU), Theo Farrell (Uni Wollongong), Mark Hoffman (Uni Newcastle), Elizabeth Johnson (Deakin U), Karen Nelson Uni Southern Queensland, Belinda Tynan Australian Catholic U


Nervous wait at Uni Adelaide

Management’s draft change proposal is imminent

In July, the university announced what would be involved – a review of the academic workforce, transforming five faculties into three and ending 130 professional staff positions (CMM July 9).

People whose positions will go are being advised but Uni Adelaide observers say staff who are staying wonder what will follow for them, whether positions will be merged and created – with new ones at different, some lower, some higher, pay grades than where they are now.

So CMM asked and received the “’Go Away!’ of the Day.” “The University of Adelaide will treat communications with staff and students as its priority. Once we have made announcements to our community, we’ll be in touch with you.”

Uni financials: the 2020 bad news is not as good as it looks

Combined universities income was down just 4.8 per cent last year on 2019 – but the numbers for many were way worse

Frank Larkins and Ian Marshman analyse all the financials in a new paper for the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

They find 30 of 37 universities had lower income, 19 increased expenditure and 23 had an operating surplus (down from 34 in 2019).

And while collective earnings dropped a bare 5 per cent, universities did not save anywhere near that – with expenditure down just 0.3 per cent. Larkins and Marshman attribute this to redundancy costs and institutions spending to support internationals students without work and ineligible for government support.

Where the pain was worst: In proportional per centage terms ANU took the hardest hit, with a 14.9 per cent income decline from 2019, followed by QUT, Swinburne and La Trobe U all down 9 per cent). Overall, times were tougher in Victoria than NSW and Queensland – which Larkins and Marshman attribute to dependence on the international market and length of lockdowns.

Where it wasn’t: the three SA universities all increased earnings, just. Uni Sunshine Coast was up 3.5 per cent, Uni Southern Queensland up 5.5 per cent and Charles Darwin U earnings were 8 per cent higher. But geography is not a sovereign cure – CQU, dependent on internationals, was down nearly 8 per cent

What’s intriguing: is the way losses are inconsistent. Some universities heavily exposed to internationals did badly. Some didn’t – the big five, Uni Queensland, UNSW, Uni Sydney, Uni Melbourne and Monash U, “appear to be ‘in the pack’ rather than out in front in terms of financial impact.” Other universities lost domestic market share.

“This analysis suggests that other factors such as institutional strategy, leadership and nimbleness in risk management have all made a significant contribution to the financial health and well-being of universities in 2020. As part of this, some universities may be more advanced than others in terms of implementing measures designed to reduce employee expenditure to match anticipated declines in student enrolments,” Larkins and Marshman write.

What’s next: This year will be worse than last, with a second year of lower international enrolments and lockdowns in NSW and Victoria. “2021 is now likely to be the proving ground for the strategies and pandemic responses each university has adopted – whether explicitly or implicitly – in the first year of the pandemic,” they conclude.

Appointment, achievements

 At RMIT, Kate Fox wins the STEM College’s Peter Coloe Medal.

 Maree Meredith is confirmed as director of the indigenous health Poche Centre SA and the Northern Territory, at Flinders U. AsPro Meredith has been acting since June 2020.

 Murdoch U announces the VC awards. Early career research: Camilla Hill (Agricultural Studies) Brendan Scott (Exercise Science). Research distinguished achievement: Richard Harper (Agricultural Studies). Community, industry impact: Brad Norman (Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems). Research output: Martin Anda, G M Shafiullah, Furat Dawood (Engineering and Energy) Timothy Teo, Natasha Rappa, Hai Min Dai – (Fang Huang co-author) (Education) Sandra Wilson, Dean Aszkielowicz (Robert Cribb, Beatrice Trefait co-authors). PhD thesis: Philipp Schoenhoefer (Maths).

Teaching citations: Ashah Tana and Terri McCann, Martin Hill, Sarah Courtis, Kerry-Lee Jacobsen, Xuan Yong, Julie Page and the peer academic coach team.

Senate Medal: Bernard Dell, Daniel Byles and Peter Waring