Plus cheers for Chubb: support for applied research strategy

Endless exchange

“Time to withdraw and apologise Kim Carr. QUT have exposed your sham,” Christopher Pyne tweeted on Friday after the Queensland University of Technology announced it would only charge an arm, but no leg, for a degree. To which Kim Carr replied in a matter of minutes “Don’t hold your breath. How can an education minister celebrate increased student fees directly caused by government cuts?” Pointless suggestion. Chris Pyne does not need oxygen to keep talking.

UA argues on

Universities Australia took a terrible beating last week. Not from its vice chancellor members, who (apart from U of Canberra’s Stephen Parker) stayed solid in support of the organisation’s demand for deregulation with more concessions. Rather the peak body copped it from academic and student groups who say the organisation has sold them out. UA chief Belinda Robinson’s former job as a petroleum industry lobbyist was even mentioned – the suggestion being a woman with fossil fuel on her hands could never understand education.

It was more than a bit steep – UA has always lobbied for more money. And this morning, while the organisation shows no sign of abandoning its support for deregulation, its demand for more resources, specifically a reduction in Canberra’s planned 20 per cent cut to student funding, stays. “Why would UA stop? It goes to the whole argument over resources,” somebody who has sat in many meetings with UA representatives over the last few months says. “They think neither major party is inclined to make the investment required so there is either a new approach or universities settle for long term decline, with higher staff-student ratios and increased use of casual staff.”


But if the VCs are solid what about the Senate cross bench, will enough senators vote for UA’s model of deregulation which requires more money on top of the concessions Mr Pyne is already offering? “The longer this is left the greater the prospect of curious ideas being added on,” an education advisor who talks to all sorts of senators says. Which is why UA will hammer away at the reasons why more money for the sector is essential to fund a deregulated system. “What parties say in opposition is always different to what they do in government. Once in government they cut.” And UA has had enough. According to a sympathetic lobbyist, “the sector is sick of being treated like a political football.”

Policy pragmatism, practical politics

University of Adelaide Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington waited until late Friday to intervene in the debate over Deregulation MklI, with a circuit breaker statement designed to focus attention on what is on offer.

He argued the existing higher education model is unsustainable. “Responding to rising cost pressures without the power to increasing price means universities endlessly increasing volume. … It would eventually ruin Australia’s reputation for high quality university education.

And he called on all parties to the higher education debate to acknowledge its political context.

“Those opposing higher university fees are largely silent about what they actually mean for the community at large – higher taxpayer contributions,” he said. “Yet both sides of politics know the taxpayer will not pay more for Australia’s higher education.” He also warns universities will not accept “compacts–the stultifying centralised government control of degree types and student numbers.”

As for arguments the second Pyne package is inequitable “no-one should think the current system is fair: some students pay as much as 400 per cent of the cost of their education, others as little as 8 per cent … the truth is that the new Pyne proposal would spread the Commonwealth subsidy more widely than ever before.”

Professor Bebbington’s intervention appears intended to remind supporters of deregulation that politics is the art of the possible. And to challenge opponents to put up on policy or shut up.

Fourth R

Heather Brooks and colleagues have edited an e-book anthology on the first year experience, published by the University of Adelaide  e-press. “In the midst of changing global economic conditions affecting the international student market, as well as shifting domestic politics surrounding university funding, the equation of dollars with student numbers has remained a constant, and has kept universities’ attention on the current ‘three Rs’ of higher education — recruitment, retention, reward.” They missed a fourth that recruitment managers who do not meet target will face if deregulation occurs, retrenchment.

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More please

“They were desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. They rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at their own temerity: ‘please, sir, we want some more,’ ” – who knew Charles Dickens understood the way vice chancellors work? But it explains why the collective noun for university lobby groups is “an oliver,” which is entirely appropriate for the twist Universities Australia, the Regional Universities Network and now the Innovative Research Universities have placed on Minister Pyne’s Deregulation MkII bill. They want some more. Quite a bit more. The IRU is calling for a four-fold increase in the proposed structural adjustment fund to $500m, to help universities much like its members. It wants no cuts to research student funding and it is calling for pooled scholarship funds, so students can select where they want to study. But above all it wants the government’s proposed 20 per cent cut in student funding reduced, “so that the flexibilities from deregulated fees are used to improve higher education delivery not offset government funding reductions.” “For IRU to urge senators to pass the bill we need MkIII” director Conor King says.

Commercial in confidence

Deregulation is nowhere near adopted and already universities are keeping pricing strategies under wraps. While the University of Western Australia and QUT are upfront about what they would charge the University of Western Sydney is not giving anything away and not just because deregulation is not adopted. “We are also conscious of the competitive environment between universities in NSW and the implications of an early release of fee information in a deregulated context,” VC Barney Glover told staff late Friday.

Applied agenda impact

Merlin Crossley is backing Chief Scientist Ian Chubb’s call for an applied research strategy. “I am a deep admirer of Chubb, this is a good strategy and we need somebody of his stature to stand up for science and keep it on the agenda. It’s good to see him working with (industry minister) Ian Macfarlane,” the University of New South Wales dean of science says. “Professor Chubb understands politics and knows Treasury needs evidence.”

Professor Crossley acknowledges the emerging emphasis on applied research and funding areas where applied Australian science is strong challenges the traditional “blue-sky” model, but “we are not going to see the research budget tripled. While people do not like ‘picking winners’ it’s good to recognise winning areas and back them. Professor Chubb understands politics and knows Treasury needs evidence.”

And while he acknowledges that without serendipitous science there are ultimately no new ideas to apply, “you can’t fund everybody and it is impossible to rank blue sky ideas.” He suggests the way to back theoretical research is to fund productive people, through schemes like Laureate and Federation Fellowships, “we have to get behind individuals and say ‘here’s five years – go for it.’ ”

What he does not want are “start-stop” industry-linked research funds where “every new scheme is half the size” of the last one.

Dream not dollars

Cross bench senators will only pass Deregulation MkII (or MkIII) if they decide future students, and more particularly their parents, will accept it – so how to convince them? In Friday’s CMM marketing maven Chrissa Favarola from the Australian Catholic University explained the campaign she would commission to sell fee deregulation to 18 year olds. She should know, the university’s “life less ordinary campaign” is based on students talking about study in their own terms, instead of all the usual bumf universities spout about research excellence and how their graduates can become secretary general of the UN.

Phill Crone from Federation U, another marketer who runs student, not VC ego, focused, recruitment campaigns proposes (in a personal capacity) something similar.

“Focus more on the journey of learning and growing as a person and the outcomes of whatever it is they are studying and the person they will become. The reality is that people study to improve something, be it personal circumstances, a career, or knowledge. In a campaign showing that journey, especially the desired outcomes and realisation of a dream or passion, the fears around cost and the transition would not be front and centre. It is all about recognising and addressing the fears and barriers we all experience when undertaking something unknown.”

Share out

People who work in equity programmes are worrying about who will get how much and when under deregulation. As reported on Friday, equity practitioners fear funding for jobs could go next year. According to Education Minister Pyne’s office universities will learn their 2015 allocations “shortly,” based on a formula which includes the number of low SES students at a university and their success rates. We will know how many when the minister decides. But universities that fear being excluded from the allocation should not worry. Yes the new deregulation bill refers to “affected providers, particularly “regional and outer-metropolitan universities,” but Mr Pyne’s office says all “Table A” institutions (that is public universities and ACU ) qualify. Of course qualifying for cash and counting it in an institution’s equity account are not necessarily the same thing.


Less than they pay for

Elite law schools would do well under deregulation – undergraduates think they put them on track for jobs in corporate firms. However the rest will scrabble for students, as they are under-cut on price by for-profits, according to ANU law professor Margaret Thornton, writing in an article released ahead of publication by the Alternative Law Journal. “The for-profits will offer a lowest common denominator degree with minimal requirements for admission to be completed in minimum time. This suits the applied approach favoured by the new knowledge economy but does not bode well for the calibre of the new generation of law graduates — as creative and caring new knowledge workers of the future,” she writes.

Professor Thornton also argues that instead of accepting deregulation is inevitable law deans should stick up for students and argue against their having to pay higher fees to fund research. “This is a highly questionable state of affairs, and one that has received remarkably little attention.”

She’s right, but you can bet the situation will change if deregulation occurs and students start wondering why law schools charge very different fees for similar products.


Thanks to recruiter Rosalind de Sailly for pointing me at the mystery of the missing moggies, a phenomena which shows even science is not immune to kitten-memes. It seems Australian Popular Science magazine published an on-line story about “the eleven most important cats in science.” But it was not live for long, apparently because people who went looking for a list of cats that built better mousetraps were disappointed. As Dr de Sailly suggests, “social media indicates people who clicked the link hoping for amusing cat stories, pictures memes, as one does (as I did), instead found a story about moments in science involving cats that were not so amusing for the cats.” My experiment (well a Twitter search) conforms her hypothesis. The story included a genetically modified cat that glowed in the dark and an unfortunate kitty being tossed around a cockpit by a pilot wearing a pressure-suit, which the cat lacked. Maybe outraged friends of felines demanded the story be taken down. Which would prove? Even science folk are emotionally engaged when it comes to kitties.


Saying nothing

Supporters of Confucius Institutes point to the good work they do teaching Chinese language and culture but universities that host them (ten or so in Australia) tend to stay silent on the way CIs are extensions of the Beijing government. However US academics are less quiescent. In June the American Association of University Professors demanded universities removes CIs while they function as arms of the Chinese state. A reader has also sent me a link to University of California Chinese literary expert Perry Link’s testimony to a US House of Representatives committee hearing.

“ The teachers at Confucius Institutes are selected and trained to present pro-(Chinese Communist Party) versions of Chinese history and society in all contexts, formal and informal, while they are abroad. The degree to which they do this willingly is irrelevant to the fact that they will be held responsible if they do not do it correctly. American administrators who accept funds understand, without needing to be directly told, that topics the (party) does not welcome. …Money-induced self-censorship prevents even the suggestion of such topics.”

Is it happening here? I have no idea – when I wrote to Australian universities with CIs about the role of the Chinese state mid year none replied. With the China FTA sorted I’m guessing they will not be any more inclined to talk now.