Here we go again with another Liberal plan for HE

The government’s higher education funding package is scheduled for the House of Reps today but when the tumult and the shouting ends, there will be more, probably much more, of the same in the Senate

Watchers of the red benches say even if the government does not want the bill to go to committee, one way or another it will. It looks likely that the Opposition have the numbers to send the bill to a committee of its own. If not it could be picked up by the committee inquiring into the overall impact of COVID 19, which has already looked at HE issues.

There’s more in the Mail

In Features this morning

Garry Carnegie and James Guthrie argue we need more up to date financial information than universities have supplied on the pandemic’s impact.

Student data is essential for learning analytics but it must be kept say Ruth Marshall (Practera) and colleagues. It’s this week’s piece in contributing editor Sally Kift’s series on what is needed now in teaching and learning.

Tracy Woodroffe (Charles Darwin U) argues a cultural shift is required to improve educational outcomes for Indigenous students. It’s a new contribution to a series by Indigenous academics and policy people from commissioning editor Claire Field

Needed: a way to work out what classes cost

The governments proposed discipline funding rates for teaching are not universally trusted. Mark Warburton proposes a way to work out what they should be

Policy maven Vin Massaro points to less flaws than folly in the figuring the government has used to set the funding rates for courses (CMM July 15).  But as Department of Education, Skills and Employment deputy secretary Rob Heferen told a Senate inquiry (July 28), the information from universities that was used is the best going.

“I don’t think anyone would say it’s perfect information, but rarely do we have the luxury of operating with perfect information. We have to deal with what’s the best available. It’s not as if there’s any other set of data or set of information out there that says, ‘Actually, you shouldn’t use that information, you should use this information, because this information is better.’ In this context, there is no ‘this’, there is just the ‘that’.”

But that that is hardly a way for the feds to fund billions of dollars of university teaching and Mark Warburton (Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education) has an idea.

Establishing efficient costs should be undertaken with the same sort of rigour, on-going review and consultation with sector experts as is the work undertaken on hospital services by the Independent Hospital Pricing Authority,” he suggests in a new paper.

If any crossbench senator has a list of changes for Minister Tehan’s funding legislation they could add this. If only to cause conniptions among people responsible for the existing “that”.

ATN asks for achievable amendments

The Australian Technology Network might accept the government’s new student funding legislation

The peak group is expected to suggest a range of changes to the package, including:

* moving the funding mechanism for the proposed National Priorities and Industry Linkages Fund, for research, to the legislation. It is now in the attached regulations

* similarly moving indexation for Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding from regulations to the proposed act

* demand driven access for remote and regional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students be expanded to cover all aspiring ATSI students, regardless of residence

ATN also is expected to ask for further consultation on student protection measures. It has previously warned that as they stand, these are largely adapted from responses to the VET FEE HELP catastrophe and as such are not easily applied to HE, (CMM August 18).

ATN is also understood to be concerned by the slumbering stuff-up in the funding package, the discipline- based funding rates for teaching, notably for STEM subjects. It is expected to ask the government for a review of the existing model.

If the ATN announces it can live with the legislation it will join three other peak bodies with positions ranging from ambivalence to endorsement.

Universities Australia says its members, “are pleased the government has heard the sector by making changes,” (CMM August 28).  The Innovative Research Universities proposes amendments, but “supports the need for the package overall,” (CMM August 18). And the Regional University Network, “fully supports the timely passage of the bill.”

Higher education taking heat in parliament

It is about to get way-warmer

A Senate committee is inquiring into, “evidence based regulation of farm practices impacting water quality on the Great Barrier Reef”

Research peak bodies appeared the other day and started off with a statement which acknowledged “cane-growers, graziers and other landholders in northern Queensland … we respect the concerns they raise about the viability of their properties, for the future of food production in Australia, and as agricultural professionals.”

The Australian Academy of Science, Science and Technology Australia and Universities Australia then added, “respect is important. It is also crucial that we show respect for research, respect for science and how universities can bring their expertise to help find a respectful way forward in this debate.”

where this came from: The inquiry was established a year back and reflects farmer angry that they accused of damaging the GBR.  And it occurred in the context of a suspicion of the science community.

Last year the National Party adopted a policy to establish an “independent science quality assurance agency,” to “provide quality assurance and verification of scientific papers which are used to influence, formulate or determine public policy.”

It was sponsored by LNP MP George Christensen, whose federal electorate is bounded by the Reef to the east and agriculture and mines to the west. (CMM September 16 2019). Mr Christensen is a strong supporter of Peter Ridd, the scientist who is critical of GBR research at James Cook U, where was a professor until it sacked him.

why this matters: As the science lobbies who spoke at the committee appear to understand, this committee points to a problem way bigger than the GBR – pointing to scientific method and peer review is now not enough to silence critics.

And now the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security will inquire into “foreign interference” in universities   

where this came from: In July, Independent MP Bob Katter announced he would push in parliament for a “full-blooded inquiry”, parliamentary inquiry into Chinese Government influence in Australian universities. Mr Katter pointed to Uni Queensland’s misconduct investigation and findings against undergraduate Drew Pavlou, who campaigns for human rights in China and is a fierce critic of the university’s links with Chinese government agencies, (CMM July 24).

But Mr Katter is pre-empted, with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton asking federal parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to inquire into “foreign interference in Australian universities”.

“Universities are granted significant funding and responsibility by the Australian people. But recent investigations have given us reasons to be concerned about the role of foreign interference on campus and in research.  Australians need to know that their tax dollars are being spent in our national interest,” committee chair Andrew Hastie (Lib-WA) posted to Facebook yesterday.

why it matters: Mr Dutton did not have much choice. The government could not have supported an inquiry specifically on Chinese Government influence, particularly after The Australian newspaper’s coverage of researchers with China-links. Beijing would have objected to being singled out and could have introduced trade restrictions on whatever Australian exports it hasn’t slugged already.

However, it would be unwise indeed to dismiss this inquiry as all politics. The intelligence and security committee is perhaps the most respected in parliament – for its by-partisan approach, the discipline of its members and the quality of it work.

Whatever the committee determines, that it is investigating what occurs at universities is not bad for their reputations – it is disastrous.

overall: There was harrumphing around the traps yesterday that both inquiries are culture-warring designed to diminish universities and what they stand for – which may well be so. But this does not make the inquiries any less a threat to the community-standing of the HE system.