“Open ended power … could be used for a range of purposes including those not yet envisaged,” peak body warns


Feds fix visa mess: international researchers welcome, again


Murdoch and Union square off in precedent setting workplace case


and the VET loans fiasco:$2bn reasons why it must not be forgotten

Positively balmy

“I think this is the coldest it’s been since I’ve moved to Canberra 24 years ago -8.7C (16F) – and yet still a lovely day!” ANU VC Brian Schmidt, via Twitter, Saturday. That the man grew up in Alaska probably accounts for it.


Universities Australia slams education package

A “majority” of universities oppose all the government’s budget props but there are bits that some VC hate more than others

Peak body Universities Australia’s submission to the Senate committee inquiry on the government’s higher education legislation warns that the proposed funding cuts come as “competing nations” invest in higher education and research “as a way of safeguarding their economies against profound economic, industrial and social upheaval.”

But some bits are more appalling than others: UA urges the committee to contemplate the catastrophe of the 2.5 per cent efficiency dividend, to apply for each of two years and consequently to permanently reduce the baseline for future increases.  It also abhors what it calls the “immaturity” of proposals to tie some grant funds to yet unspecified performance criteria.

However, UA also suggests senators consider how “positive elements” of the bill can best be progressed through a “considered and consultative process.” These are extending demand driven access to associate degrees, retaining and protecting the “flagship equity” Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Programme and “further support” for work integrated learning.”

Government to give less: UA also rejects the government’s claim that it is increasing funding, explaining to senators that 87 per cent of that growth comes from student fees, via HECS HELP, “most of which will be paid back”.  And it denies suggestions that financial surpluses across the university system demonstrate wealth beyond vice chancellors’ dreams of avarice.

“More generally, surpluses insulate university finances against external shocks, including changes to government funding policy and downturns in international education. The maintenance of a vibrant, contemporary, globally-competitive university system requires universities to be financially secure,” UA asserts.

Time bomb is ticking : The peak body is really worried by the government’s proposal for performance based funding and anticipates arguments in its favour that Minister Birmingham might seek to sell senators. Thus UA asserts, attrition is no worse than it ever was, measures of accountability are already in-place, graduate employment is improving with employers acknowledging the skills degrees deliver.

UA also argues that to tie funding to unspecified measures gives the minister “very broad discretion over the performance measures to be used, including the power to vary them from year to year.

“As it is currently structured, the government’s proposed approach to performance funding provides no assurance that future governments would retain even the general outlines, metrics and criteria that may eventually be identified.”

This “open ended power” UA warns “could be used for a range of purposes including those not yet envisaged.”

Like using it to take money from under-performing universities and give it back to Treasury, instead (as the government now says will happen) better performing institutions? UA does not suggest this but you can see how senators reading its submission could get that idea.

Murphy moves up

Birmingham minder moves

Consummate wrangler of hacks James Murphy is leaving Simon Birmingham’s service for the Prime Minister’s Office. Nick Creevey steps up to the senior media spot with the education minister.

Researchers welcome again

Academics were collateral damage when the feds cracked down on the 457 visa for foreign workers. Now the government has restored their work rights and access to immigration.

The federal government has updated the skilled visa list to include university lecturers and vice chancellors plus a range of scientific and technical workers. Exclusions to the list in April had caught an estimated 3000 researchers and university staff.

The move follows a concerted effort by peak higher education and research bodies, which were very pleased with the news.

““The global community of university lecturers and researchers is a highly mobile one. Australia needs policy settings that allow us to remain competitive, and ensure we are able to snap up the best global talent to work alongside our brilliant home-grown researchers,” Universities Australia CEO Belinda Robinson said Friday.

Tony Cunningham, president of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes was equally enthused.

“This is really great news for medical research and for the outstanding medical researchers who have come to Australia to share their exceptional talents and discoveries with us. The changes mean we can continue to recruit the world’s best, and for those already here, it provides them with the certainty they need to continue their work.”

Ms Robinson added the government had “given UA a commitment” that study for a PhD in Australia would count as work experience for visa applications.

The government has form on making a mess applying migration rules to education but quickly correcting itself.

Last winter a new streamlined student visa scheme turned out to be anything but (CMM August 30 2016). With 1000 international students caught by bureaucratic delay Education Minister Simon Birmingham and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton got involved and the pace of processing picked up.

No time to waste

It was all smiles the other day at ACOLAs big launch, although some were fixed when Alan Finkel spoke

The Australian Academy of Learned Academies launched the $10m, Securing Australia’s Future: Harnessing interdisciplinary research for innovation and prosperity the other day. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel spoke and while polite and positive about the project he was also pointed, suggesting it would be good if second stage SAF Horizon Scanning projects do not take as long some of the original work. CMM hears some work for SAF ended up taking three years, way 0ver schedule. The successor scans are contracted to take 12 months and Dr Finkel, whose office is part-funding the work, suggested that work scheduled to take a year is done in that.

Flinders on course

The university establishes a new structure on-time and by the book

Last November (CMM November 25) Flinders management announced it would restructure academic operations by today and so it has.

This morning the university’s previous four faculties and 14 schools become six new colleges. “Our new structure will enable a step-change in performance – reducing bureaucracy, simplifying processes, fostering interdisciplinary collaborations, increasing research outcomes and enabling our students to succeed to the very best of their abilities,” Vice Chancellor Colin Stirling tells staff.

A restructure of support services to match the new model is underway, expected to be complete by year end.

As restructures go it appears pleasantly painless. While the proposal was not initially popular with staff the campus community was rendered comatose by consultation by the time the new organisation was announced and now appears relatively relaxed. That around 200 early retirements and voluntary redundancies account for just about all needed head count cuts helps, although assessing the same administrative roles now at different pay grades will undoubtedly upset people. Of course, there was the usual big issue in any university restructure, letterheads and logos. After parking nothing upsets scholars like stationery.

Much bigger than Murdoch

The high-stakes strife between Murdoch University and the National Tertiary Education Union escalates tomorrow when the parties appear in the Fair Work Commission.

What’s involved: The university is applying to end the application of the now expired enterprise agreement – this would allow Murdoch to reduce wages and conditions to those specified in the relevant industrial awards, below those applying at the university. Murdoch’s motive is not to cut staff entitlements but to pressure the union to accept management’s offer of a new enterprise agreement, which the union says falls short on pay and includes radical revisions to codified working conditions.

Why it matters: This is a big deal indeed, with implications extending way beyond Murdoch. And both peak bodies know it. A win for management would give the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association evidence to encourage other university managements to hang tough on enterprise bargaining – which is what the national leadership of the NTEU does not want. The union was delighted in May when Deakin University signed a deal which does not include Murdoch-style reductions to the detailed statements of conditions and employment protections (https://campusmorningmail.com.au/more-international-students-need-not-mean-fewer-locals-says-industry-leader/ CMM May 16). Back then AHEIA was anxious to explain why the Deakin deal did not set a precedent and to date no universities have followed. The NTEU is equally anxious for Murdoch not to have a precedent setting win in FWA.

Gongs at the Gong

The University of Wollongong has announced its 2017 Vice Chancellor’s research awards

Researchers of the Year: Gordon Waitt (household inequality) and  Xiaolin Wang (Australian Institute for Innovative Materials)

Emerging Researcher:  Xiaoqi Feng (public health, geography and economics)

Interdisciplinary Researchers: Robert Gorkin, Jason McArthur, Christopher Magee, Kate Senior, Laura Grozdanovski, Geoff Spinks, designing the “next-generation” condom

Research Partnership and Impact: Long Nghiem, Will Price, Pascal Perez for a partnership with Sydney Water on resources in waste water

Excellence in Research Supervision: Weihua Li (Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences)

Keeping languages alive

Steven Bird has joined Charles Darwin University to work on technologies to preserve Indigenous languages. The former University of Melbourne aspro in information systems is now based at the Kabulwarnamyo Outstation, in West Arnhem Land.

Remembering and explaining

With the federal government’s new voced loan programme fully operational this morning we can all forget about the VET FEE HELP catastrophe that the Commonwealth auditor estimates will cost $2.2bn. We shouldn’t.

In announcing the end of the transition period to the new system of student loans, assistant training minister Karen Andrews says the new VET Ombudsman will be able to assist students “still affected by the failed VET FEE HELP scheme.” Which is good, but having assistance accompanied by a full history of how this great regulatory disaster occurred would be better.

Certainly the Australian National Audit Office has nailed the Department of Education and Training concluding it; “did not establish processes to ensure that all objectives, risks and consequences were managed in implementing the expanded scheme, (CMM December 21 2016).

But it was beyond the ANAO’s brief to address the obvious questions – did nobody in the department recognise the potential for disaster before it occurred, did no top official warn the offices of Labor and Liberal ministers as the rivers of rorted gold flowed?

Given various deregulation bills across 2011-2013 dealt with protecting students, assuring quality and preventing financial abuse it is hard to imagine the department was not aware of what could and then did go wrong. By 2014 news reports of private providers enrolling people with no hope of completing courses must have led to the department briefing ministers.

But thanks to questions by Labor Senator Doug Cameron we know it was not until March 2016 that the department and the Australian Skills Quality Authority began cooperating to the extent that they were able to provide ministers with a weekly brief.  By which stage the damage was done.

VET FEE HELP was a public policy catastrophe. It discredited by unjust association, legitimate and blameless private training providers. It destroyed any possibility of new student-centric, market-based delivery in training for the length of popular political memory. None but the crazy-bravest of ministers will dare propose anything other than the TAFE dominated status quo for a decade. We need to know how it happened to stop it happening again.