plus La Trobe backs down on Red Roz

Swinburne’s bold research strategy

and James Cook sets sail on enterprise bargaining


Local knowledge

Malcolm Turnbull has announced 1200 scholarships for South Australians studying VET through to postgraduate level to “make the most of our defence industry plan,” which in SA means building new subs and frigates. So will there be a similar announcement for scholarships in aircraft engineering for the Hunter region of NSW, where three squadrons of the new F-35 fighters will be based? Probably not, the University of Newcastle is already promised money to expand its medical school, at (marginal seat-rich) Gosford, and the Libs have a lot of regions in need of pork, sorry programmes.



Universities Australia peace plan on the ATAR

Universities Australia has moved to make peace in the great university entry argument with a  plan to restore the integrity of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank while conserving the credibility of universities that accept low entry scores and rely on alternative entry schemes. “While the ATAR is a useful indicator of the academic preparedness of school leavers it is much less relevant to other applicants (that now represent the majority of university entrants) … entry requirements must ensure that no student with the ability to successfully complete a university degrees is denied the opportunity to do so,” the peak body states in its submission to the Higher Education Standards Panel’s inquiry into undergraduate admissions.

UA points out that the ATAR is a measure of supply and demand of places in a university course rather than a measure of its difficulty. And it sets out ways to clarify entry standards that reduce the ATAR’s impact by requiring universities to set out all entry information in standard formats.

“Clear and more comparable presentation by universities of basic, generic information on course admissions requirements will help all students to make more informed study choices and support public confidence in the rigour, integrity and fairness of university admission policies, practices and procedures,” UA announces.

This is a smart and subtle strategy. Universities that game the entry system to keep enrolments up without revealing their real entry standards may not like it but will not dare publicly complain. UA’s plan also acknowledges the interests of constituent lobbies that differ on the importance of the ATAR, notably the Group of Eight and the Innovative Research Universities. Above all the proposal asserts UA’s authority as defender of the academic credibility of courses at Australian universities in the face of confected claims of a collapse in standards. As UA points out, despite the rapid enrolment growth accompanying demand driven funding, undergraduate attrition rates are unchanged from 2005.


Swinburne staffing up

Aleksandar Subic was a man with a plan when he moved from RMIT to Swinburne to become DVC Research (CMM April 10) a year back. And since then SU has given him the budget to implement it, with a review by the US based Illuminate Consulting Group and a series of strategic hires designed to build research output and rises in the rankings.

Last September Professor Subic wooed advanced materials manufacturing expert Bronwyn Fox from Deakin U. In November Swinburne hired big data analyst Timos Sellis from RMIT. In January the university recruited research development and metrics expert (CMM May 11) Alan Kin-tak Lau from Hong Kong Poly. And in March Professor Subic recruited Griffith U engineer Qing-Long Han as PVC reseach quality. Now Neville Owen is joining Swinburne U from the Baker IDI, reflecting SU’s emerging investment in health science. Professor Owen researches physical activity in preventing Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. CMM wonders whether that it is or if Professor Subic has still more money.

From ANU to UoQ

Mark Erickson is moving from ANU to become academic registrar at the University of Queensland. He replaces veteran Maureen Bowen who held the post for the last five of her 27 year UoQ career.

La Trobe backs down on Red Roz

Late Friday La Trobe VC John Dewar withdrew the university’s serious misconduct charges against staffer Roz Ward. For readers on Mars last week the university had suspended her for suggesting a red flag should fly over the Victorian state parliament in place of the “racist Australian one,” (CMM June 3). On Thursday the National Tertiary Education Union retained Josh Bornstein and Kelly Thomas from Maurice Blackburn who warned they would go to court unless the university lifted Ms Ward’s suspension by 10 am today.

But just before 6pm on Friday Professor Dewar issued an all-staff statement, announcing he had “decided after much consideration and in consultation with colleagues, that the allegations against Ms Ward and her suspension will be withdrawn.”

Professor Dewar denied that the university had attacked academic freedom in response “to an expression of political opinion.” Rather the university was seeking to protect the work of La Trobe’s Australian Research Centre for Sex Health and Society where Ms Ward works and the Safe Schools Programme in Victoria, an anti-bullying program run in schools to support LGBTI students, with which she was “closely associated.”

“La Trobe has stood by the program and our staff and research at ARCSHS throughout these attacks. We have both publicly and privately supported them on many occasions, and will continue to do so,” Professor Dewar said.

“The reason the university took the action it did was not that her views are political, or that they might be considered offensive by some; but because they were made at a time, and in a context, when there is intense scrutiny of a program which is closely associated with La Trobe, and which she could have foreseen would further inflame opinion about the Safe Schools program and her involvement in it.”

Despite this Professor Dewar had decided, “it is not in the university’s interests to be engaged in a high profile and protracted legal dispute when there are so many other important priorities for the university.”

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WA managements toughen-up

Western Australia is always the first front in the enterprise bargaining battle and on the basis of what is already occurring the new round of negotiations will be tough. Last month the state branch of the National Tertiary Education Union and Curtin, Edith Cowan and Murdoch U managements took each other to the Fair Work Commission alleging the other side was up to no good. Specifically the union argued the three managements had breached commitments to begin bargaining by the end of March and called on the FWC to tell the bosses to start. The managements countered that they were indeed bargaining, by talking direct to their staff and that the union should stop saying they weren’t. (CMM May 16).

The commission has now found that the union did misrepresent the three managements but “has properly responded to the legitimate concerns raised by the universities”.

While the FWC did not provide the universities with what they wanted – an order that the union should bargain fairly, managements are counting this as a win. In previous bargaining rounds the NTEU has generally made the running in the commission with individual universities responding defensively rather than attacking union behaviour. It looks like that the universities will be much tougher opponents than in the last round. To ensure the union gets the message CMM hears the three WA institutions are calling in the heavy mob from the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association.

New med dean at UoW

The University of Wollongong has a new dean of medicine, Nicholas Zwar, now at UNSW. Professor Zwar replaces current dean Ian Wilson who wants to “return to his preferred role” as associate dean, learning and teaching. Professor Zwar starts in October. He “is looking forward to implementing an ambitious research strategy and taking the next steps in research development at UOW as well as continuing to develop excellence in teaching.”

More of the same at JCU

It’s business as usual at James Cook U where management and union are not always on the best of terms. The last round of enterprise bargaining was long and difficult and a round of retrenchments earlier this year was fraught for all. And negotiations just starting for a new industrial agreement look like delivering more of the same. The campus National Tertiary Education Union says the university’s initial proposal involves cuts to penalty rates for professional staff, teaching only positions for academics and no pay offer until all other conditions are agreed on. “They want the cake, the plate it came on, the oven it was cooked in and the chef who baked it,” an observer says. JCU’s first bid calls for “flexibility of working conditions and modes of employment which support the university’s current and future needs and student expectations while catering for uncontrollable external impacts.” While the union’s core claim is four 3.75 per cent pay rises by October 2020 it is very keen on protecting and extending conditions. With the last of four annual 3 per cent pay rises under the expiring agreement kicking in this month management will be hoping rank and file staff are more charitably inclined than union negotiators.