Hoj warns the government’s plan could mean a higher proportion of international students at the University of Queensland


and: the research roadmap is out but whatever happened to the plan to pay for infrastructure?


The 39 steps: that’s the number of senators the government needs to walk to its side to pass the Birmingham package


plus: mentoring on the money – new study reveals help that delivers for equity target groups

Straight into it

Universities Australia meets today and tomorrow Monash VC Margaret Gardner will take over as chair from Western Sydney U’s Barney Glover. Not the quietest week to take over.

Hoj warns of increased international and less local students

The University of Queensland could increase enrolments of fee paying international students while reducing the number of Australians it accepts, due to federal government funding cuts.

In a message to staff Vice Chancellor Peter Hoj warns; “the federal budget cuts – if passed – will increase the likelihood that we decide to enrol a higher percentage of international students, likely with commensurately fewer domestic students, as federal funding for infrastructure expansion and renewal has been siphoned away.”

Professor Hoj said the government’s “so called ‘efficiency dividend’ will cost the university $14m a year by 2019 and that hits to the university’s bottom-line will force “a greater reliance on full-fee paying international students to fund our research.”

He also warned that other budget measures “pose significant risks of further cuts” to the university. These include making 7.5 per cent of Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding contestible on performance measures, which “constitutes a massive risk to most universities.” Professor Hoj also warned funding-changes for sub-bachelor courses, “could end government support for students who wish to undertake a diploma in languages.”

The vice chancellor also rejected information provided by the government showing most universities running surpluses, stating UoQ made a loss last year following a run of less than 1 per cent surpluses. “This is largely because federal funding does not cover the full costs of research and federal actions with negative impacts for high-quality university research have accumulated over a number of years.”

Back to the beginning in international education

Peter Hoj had just arrived in Australia when the international education industry was starting. So he may not know how hard it was to explain to the community that fee paying international students did not take places from Australians, that by paying fees the visitors effectively created their own place at university. It took years for the message to sink-in throughout the community.

But the University of Queensland VC will be here for the second round of explanations why international students do not push locals out, as his warning that UoQ will have to accommodate the government’s cuts by taking more fee-paying internationals and fewer locals percolates in politics. Professor Hoj was undoubtedly simply describing the circumstances of his university in his statement to staff on Friday. But that will not stop populists assuming his words apply to all universities and it will inevitably influence Senate debate over the government’s funding plan. Given the numbers in the upper house, Professor Hoj’s intervention might be enough to see the government’s plan defeated by swaying, for example, Pauline Hanson and her colleagues. But if it leads to uninformed attacks on international students studying here it will be a pyrrhic victory.

Media releases are cheaper

UNSW Engineering has a journalist

 in residence fellowship and the first hack in place will be BBC London Global Science Correspondent Rebecca Morelle. She will be on campus for three weeks, “visiting labs and meeting key researchers.” It is a great way of generating UK awareness for the faculty but isn’t Ms Morelle already on the university’s distribution list for engineering stories?

Counting to 39

Talking to crossbench senators will start this week, following the Universities Australia meeting, as the peak body and the other university groups decide objectives and who to lobby loudest. While no one CMM talked to knows how the senators who will decide the matter will vote the general sense is it will be down to Nick Xenophon and colleagues. It will take 39 senators to pass the bill of which the government has 29 votes plus likely yeas from senators Bernardi and Leyonhjelm and possible support from the four Pauline Hanson’s One, Nation members. This leaves the government one short.

There are 36 definite nays, being Labor, the Greens and Jacquie Lambie.

The makers or breakers are the Nick Xenophon Team (three) Derryn Hinch (Vic) and Lucy Gichuhi (SA).

If Senator Xenophon and colleagues go with the nays the legislation is lost. For the government to win it needs Ms Hanson’s supporters, the Xenophon Team and either or both Senator Hinch and Senator Gichuhi.


Mapping the infrastructure road but not how to pay for it

What extraordinary bad luck that the government was only able to release its research infrastructure roadmap on Friday, after the budget. What took so long is a mystery given the roadmap reproduces much, well nearly all actually, of what was in Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s discussion draft, published in December ( CMM December 6).

But there is another mystery; why so little of the Clark review of infrastructure funding is included.

The government certainly likes Dr Finkel’s big ideas, adopting the draft’s recommended nine core research areas; digital data and eResearch platforms • platforms for humanities, arts and social sciences • characterisation (“technologies in advanced microscopy and microanalysis”) • advanced fabrication and manufacturing • advanced physics and astronomy • earth and environmental systems • biosecurity • complex biology and therapeutic development.

The roadmap also includes the December draft’s list of elements of achievement in each area. But while the draft set out where research needed to go and what it needed for the journey there was no detail now on what the fare would be and how long paying would take. There isn’t any in the final plan either. As Universities Australia’s Belinda Robinson puts it; “it is great to have a map, but you also need petrol in the tank to reach your destination.”

While the draft did not look at mechanisms for funding all this science there is a report which does, a report which people close to policy making said last December would be considered in the final roadmap, (but is not,) does.

In 2014 then education minister Christopher Pyne commissioned Philip Marcus Clark to lead a review of research infrastructure needs. His team included now former chief scientist Ian Chubb and his successor Dr Finkel, plus University of Wollongong VC Paul Wellings. They filed in September 2015 but the report disappeared until it was (very quietly) released at Christmas (CMM December 16).

Gosh, why was that, you ask? No idea, CMM replies, unless it was because the report included bold ideas, which do not always go down well in Canberra.

Bold ideas like a $6.6bn national infrastructure fund, created with 10 per cent of federal research outlays (net of the R&D tax concession) and an immediate deposit of $3.7bn, which was the balance in the Education Investment Fund.

Given the government announced three weeks later that the EIF money was going to support the NDIS probably explains why ministers did not want to think about a new fund.

But the Clark review had another idea which survived, sort of. The committee floated creating a nine-member board for their infrastructure fund, including three scientists, three industry reps, the chief scientist, secretary of the Department of Finance and an independent chair. Even before they filed the review team got the message this idea wasn’t on – but they left it in the report anyway.

And it got picked up by Dr Finkel’s draft roadmap which, recommended “the establishment of a body, made up of independent experts who are highly regarded across the stakeholder community in both the private and public sectors, with responsibility for providing expert advice to the government.”

It is still there in the final report. Gosh, who to appoint – how about people from the Clark committee? It’s the least the government could do after ignoring so much quality policy advice for so long.

House keys

There is a practical way to build low-income housing buried in the budget and Julie Lawson, Mike Berry (both RMIT) and colleagues deserve credit for it. As a learned reader advises the RMIT pair with other experts have built a model bond aggregator – a low cost means of raising money in the market which a provider can then parcel out to community housing providers. Housing can be rented at a discount on what the conventional market, which includes commercial financing costs, charges. Housing can also be sold via a shared equity model. The government picked up the plan, with $9.6m in the budget to establish an agency to run a bond aggregator.

Park on a cloud

A seven-member team of University of Adelaide students were in Phoenix last week as finalists in a competition at the (US) Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference. The four teams who made it the conference had to fix a big city information problem using radio frequency ID (“traffic flow, mass transit, infrastructure support, revenue collections.”)  The Uni Adelaide squad proposed a cloud where vehicles talked to parking stations to find spots and to pay for them once there. While they did not win it’s a great idea – but who knew Adelaide has a parking problem.

Mentoring on the money

A  major study of mentoring programmes across all universities has found uniformly “good or exemplary practice against evidence-based benchmarks” in providing for equity groups. A research team led by Curtin University Associate Professor Susan Beltman and funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, found “most” of 200 mentoring programmes identified had “built-in mechanisms” to mentor “equity students in an inclusive way.”  However the report found universities needed to do more to mentor students from equity groups during and near course completion, in addition to the existing focus on entry to study.

Perhaps anticipating the government’s proposal to allocate 7.5 per cent of Commonwealth Grant Scheme funds for performance metrics the report recommends, “examples of programme details where benchmarks, particularly those relating to evaluation, are comprehensively addressed, be made available on websites of funding bodies or other central repositories.”