And hooray for La Trobe for increasing access to information for former students and staff

Making Pyne’s point

There was a tiny increase in the number of full-fee international students in Australia last month, up 0.8 per cent to 462,400. Problem is this compares to an average 5.7 per cent increase per annum over the last decade. The growth, such as it is, was in the ELICOS sector, up by just under 20 per cent. University enrolments were level pegging while the vocational system shrank by 8 per cent. So, it’s clear what Education Minister Christopher Pyne was talking about last Wednesday when he committed to “rebuilding” the sector. But things will pick up, in time for the minister to claim credit. At 238,000, commencements are  7.4 per cent higher, over the ten year 4.9 per cent average. University commencements were up by a little less, 6.9 per cent, although undergraduate starters were down by 2.7 per cent. In contrast, course work postgrad commencers are up 17 per cent. The unavoidable issue is the all but inevitable dependence on the top two markets. After China (134,000 students) and India (42,4000) it is a long way to the next market, the Republic of Korea supplying 23,000 students. With the exception of Vietnam, up 12 per cent growth is in small markets, Spain and Italy both grew by 30 per cent but generated less than 10 000 new students between them.  Mr Pyne sees education as a growth industry, but without major market diversification it looks like a mature one to me.

Or maybe not

In fact big Chinese and Indian communities might attract more students to Australia, according to evidence in a new paper by Michel Beine, Romain Noel and Lionel Ragot for the Centre d’etudes prospectives.  They find big drivers of student migration are the presence of countrymen and women and networks plus university quality. “The presence of country nationals at destination tends to act as a magnet for international students. … The higher the level of education of migrants already present in the host country, the higher the flow of students of the same nationality,” they write.

 Gotta like La Trobe

La Trobe graduates, plus former staff and students now qualify for a digital library card, which gives them access to e-resources, including journals. The free card replaces an arrangement, which cost ex La Trobers $80. Anybody driven nuts (who me?) by the outrageous price charged by the big journal publishers for access to individual articles will recognise this for the boon it is. I’m assuming it does not cost the university more (which is admittedly optimistic, I can imagine publishers recognising La Trobe readership of its journals is increasing marginally and jacking up their prices). But if it doesn’t it is a great way to build loyalty among the most useful university ambassadors, people who studied or worked there. Smart move.

Ballarat begins building a blue ribbon MOOC

If MOOC was a patented brand name it would trade at an Apple-esque premium with investors anxious not to miss the boat. Where the ship is sailing is unknown, but everybody wants to be on board. Yesterday the University of Wollongong launched a couple of subjects through Open Universities Australia’s, Open 2Study. The university describes the first, “Understanding Common Diseases,” as “a taster to tertiary studies,” which makes it an excellent marketing mechanism. Federation University Australia (to be, it’s still Uni Ballarat for the moment) is also announcing a MOOC move this morning, focusing on delivery, rather than once-over repackaging of existent content. According to Marcia Devlin, who is running the project, “we are particularly interested in eLearning, that is very personalised, enabling students to work in ways that suit them, rather than having to work in a one-size-fits all environment.” Professor Devlin told me last night that the university is creating a team to build courses which will launch in 2015. “The core is a pedagogy model rather than a technical focus. Wherever we can we will personalise for students, allowing them to proceed at their own pace.” With bush campuses on both sides of Melbourne, on-line is the optimum opportunity to make the most of the university’s resources. The Gippsland campus newly acquired from Monash, for example, has a long distance education tradition.  Even so, creating online programs across the university will not be cheap. “Yes, it will take a fair bit of time and money  but all universities that want to survive in the 21st century have to be in this space,” Professor Devlin says.

Gifts that keep giving

There is an idea about that without American examples nobody here would have donated any money since the time of the telethon. Not so, demonstrated by a list of the all-time top 50 Australian gifts and bequests as assessed by fund raising professionals. This isn’t a list of the biggest and flashest – the 5 quid a University of Queensland student society gave for a library in memory of a digger whose health never recovered from WWI was no big deal, even in the early 1920s.  Rather, the list does demonstrates the causes Australians valued – in the past primarily health, school education and the environment. But what is most interesting are gifts that did not make the cut. There are increasingly important followers of the Challis Bequest to the University of Sydney in 1880, who are giving money to embrace the ideal of higher education rather than fund specific research. For example, Chau Chak Wing’s $25 million gift to UTS for a new Frank Gehry building and scholarships and the the $50m Graham and Louise Tuckwell scholarship fund at the Australian National University. Last night there was news that miners Andrew and Nicola Forrest intends to give the University of Western Australia $65m, primarily for scholarships. If philanthropy reflects what a nation values higher education is at Australia’s heart.

Whatever the reason, the point is made. Australians are pragmatic philanthropists who like to see their money reach the people and causes they want to help.

Excellent, an economist

Labor beefed up its economic credentials yesterday, with Andrew Leigh making the factional cut for the front bench. What portfolio the ex ANU economist gets is in the gift of new leader Bill Shorten.

Rejecting the REF decision

The National Tertiary Education Union appears pleased indeed with the controversy over the UK Research Excellence Framework which critics claim is narrowly instrumentalist, easily gamed and provides an excuse for universities to sack staff whose work does not readily fit the REF’s rules.  But while the REF is much more precise in the way it measures performance than the local ERA the union see’s similarities for staff in both countries. “There is a similar strength of feeling about what is being lost to the bureaucratic processes of research assessment. For the time and effort that is loaded upon the sector, research assessment is also commonly seen in the UK to distort academic research, to create unreasonable expectations regarding outputs, to exacerbate workload pressures, and discriminate against certain groups inside the larger research workforce,” NTEU chief Jeannie Rea says.

It’s a great argument for those who believe academics should be left alone to get on with whatever they want to get on with. But what if university managements decided that if measuring research is so hard that they should dispense with research for academics without prodigious publications and convert them to teaching only positions. Given last week’s Grattan Institute research, which suggested there is no immutable connection between research and quality teaching it is an idea that might appeal, if not to the union and its less research active members.

Never too early for a tax scare

Is this the first warning against an increase in the GST, even though tax reform is off the agenda until after the next election? Academics from the University  of Queensland yesterday launched a pre-emptive attack on any idea of including fresh fruit and vegetables in the tax base. Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, J Lennert Veerman and Linda Cobiac warn extending the goods and service tax to fruit and veggies would cost Australians “100 000 healthy life-years over the lifetime of the 2003 adult population.” Based on a US fresh food price elasticity model and their project on the cost effectiveness of disease prevention they conclude a GST on fruit and veggies would lead to 90,000 heart disease, stroke and cancer cases over the same period, adding $1bn to health costs. Speculative to be sure but it is never too early in the life of a government for a tax scare. I’m betting this will set a precedent and we will see warnings against imposing the GST on education fees before the end of the year.