Universities are an infrastructure investment not a drag on the budget, says UA’s Robinson

plus Curtin makes staff an offer they could refuse

Who knows what higher uni super for all would cost

and Uni Sydney’s big (very big) law competition win while RMIT students fly high

Cyber comrades

Here’s a seminar university HR people will not want to miss, “using robotics in teaching and learning.” It’s on the Friday after next as part of the University of Western Australia’s Robotics Week. “It will be an opportunity for educators to think about practical applications for robotics in teaching and also to begin considering higher education futures when robotics becomes omnipresent in the teaching and learning sphere.” Not to mention a chance for university executives to contemplate how much easier workplace relations with robots will be. Until the singularity and they decide to form a union.

UA warns too much already cut

Public funding for universities is down $3.9bn over six years and they cannot afford any hit in next month’s budget, according to a new report. The analysis from Universities Australia warns this figure does not include the $3.7bn Education Investment Fund, which the government has signalled it will seize.

Any further cuts would reduce the quality of teaching and research and “put in jeopardy” the $22bn international education industry, UA chief Belinda Robinson says.

Funding lost from programmes UA identifies as cut or cancelled include $648m from the sustainable research scheme, $968m in abolished performance funding and $90m removed from the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Programme (the budget abolition of HEPP altogether is widely rumoured).

Anticipating arguments that universities are rolling in revenue UA suggests headline figures do not demonstrate that growth in enrolments has not been matched by comparable funding per individual student. And it discounts the $1.7bn, 6.1 per cent system-wide surplus in 2015, pointing out that any year’s figures do not account for long-term commitments of funds and that universities are under permanent pressure to maintain capital assets. Universities also have to support research grants with a further 85 per cent of funding, to cover indirect costs involved, UA argues.

Universities are a critical part of the productive infrastructure of the nation – and should be acknowledged as an investment rather than a drag on the budget,” Ms Robinson says.

Always seats on ICYMI Air

If a United Airlines researcher throws you out of your seat at the University of Sydney  conference on Aviation Cultures on Thursday not to worry. You can probably find a bulkhead spot at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney’s seminar that follows on Styling Up: refashioning American aviation.

How much for how many?

Friday’s CMM report that an extra 7.5 per cent employment contribution for  casual and contract staff  superannuation would cost universities $700m over four years sent higher education observers scrambling to check the figures. As part of enterprise bargaining negotiations the National Tertiary Education Union  is calling on universities to contribute 17 per cent to casual and contract staff superannuation. This would bring them into line with permanent uni staff, and way ahead of the millions of mere mortals who get a government specified 9.5 per cent from employers.

But at least some actuarially inclined observers concluded that the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association’s $700m warning was less a worse than a not possible case. For a start, while there are tens of thousands of casuals the extra 7.5 per cent would not be that big a burden for universities because most don’t work a full week or make much money from teaching – around $40 000 a year on average. And while AHEIA did not include contract staff in its calculations one observer suggests it would not matter if it had because universities structure contracts so that workers do not make the cut to qualify for superannuation, which often requires two consecutive years of employment. Perhaps indicating how few people would actually be involved, Curtin U has offered to extend 17 per cent super coverage to part-time staff, who now receive just the 9.5 per cent government mandated payment.

On one calculation suggested to CMM saw the overall cost is $50-$60m a year across the system, on a $15bn system salary cost. “We have been here before,” one long-time observer of wage negotiations says. “When maternity leave was being negotiated university managements warned it would push salary bills up by 15 per cent.”

However Curtin U’s calculation of the cost of extending extra super to all staff now excluded, which means casuals as well as fixed term is $35m over four years (CMM April 5) , which makes $60m a year for the whole system look a touch optimistic.


High-flying firefighting

RMIT students have soared (sorry) into the finals of the Airbus “fly your ideas” competition. From 48 starters the RMIT Aquarius team is in the final five, up against competitors from universities in France, Hong Kong, the UK and Nigeria.   Philipp Klink, Kerry Phillips and Anil Ravindran have a very Australian entry – creating a modular firefighting system which can be stationed at airports and loaded onto existing Airbus planes. The teams will test their ideas at the Airbus base at Toulouse.

Curtin makes an offer

Curtin U has presented staff with a take it or leave it offer for a new enterprise agreement. The university is offering a pay rise in four annual increments ranging from 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent and adoption of 19 work-place changes it says are already settled. These include clauses covering position classifications and review and change management. In a partial but precedent-setting win for the union the university offers to increase super for part time continuing staff to 17 per cent (above). It also backs away from its original demands for tougher provisions on misconduct and union originated disputes. However Curtin demands an end to review committees in redundancy and serious misconduct matters.

In the last enterprise bargaining round Curtin set an expensive benchmark with a 16 per cent pay rise over four years. By going first this time it could set a base for other universities again. This time the cash component is not as high but the employment condition offsets are not as onerous as other universities are demanding. And with revenues flat last year, up $6m to $919m, Curtin can understandably claim that this is the best it can do on pay.

The question is will the National Tertiary Education Union and its Curtin members decide this is, again, a good precedent, especially as budget cuts are expected to give universities cover for less generous offers. At this stage the answer is they won’t. The Curtin offer falls well short from the union claim, which is a 15 per cent pay rise over and protection, and some extensions of existing employment conditions. CMM hears that no deal is done.


Uni Sydney’s big MOOT win

The University of Sydney has won the Jessup Cup for law mooting – setting a world record with five wins over 20 years. Some 550 teams from 87 countries competed this year with the UniSyd team defeating Norman Manley Law School from Jamaica in the final. The Sydney squad was Alyssa Glass, Will Khun, Joel Phillips, Eric Shi and Harry Stratton. Ms Glass was named best oralist in the final. The competition requires each team to make minute submissions on a fictitious case before the International Court of Justice.

Lost skills

Outgoing vice chancellor Warren Bebbington has already fonded his farewells to the University of Adelaide, but now presents more parting words to the wider world via the Times Higher. It’s standard Bebbington, carefully crafted, restrained in presenting radical ideas. In essence he makes the case for the small group discovery teaching and learning strategy which he introduced at UniAdelaide. “It would not surprise me to see universities ban laptops and smartphones from their classes, … universities will need to find more opportunities for individual research projects, and they will have to overtly teach note-taking to every student, to revive the dying manual art of précis, distillation and organisation. … A code of practice will need to be adopted that requires every recorded lecture, online course vehicle or MOOC to be balanced with seminars – face-to-face, academic-led dialogue, in which a student’s abilities to reason and argue are methodically polished.”

Good-oh, but where pray will he discover young university teachers to pass on these ancient skills – the postgrads doing the teaching are as digitally-focused as their students.