Plus Andrew Norton’s explosive argument: Commonwealth Supported Places not under-funded

Keep smiling

After education and Facebooking new nurses and midwives in a University of Queensland survey say they mainly use social media to “look at funny cat pictures.” As opposed to the celebrated grumpy cat, no doubt – they probably get enough of that at work.

ANU Sep 15 5

Norton’s explosive argument

If Andrew Norton was not celebrated for his seriousness you would think his new Grattan Institute paper, The cash nexus: how teaching funds research in Australian universities was motivated by iconoclastic amusement. “There is no crisis in the funding of the teaching of Commonwealth supported places,” he writes.

This is enough to detonate brain explosions among all advocates of more money for universities but once Mr Norton has everybody’s attention he makes his main point, that this only applies if government funding ostensibly intended to pay for teaching is not diverted to research. In 2012, he writes, “the only possible source of $2bn in research funding was money intended for teaching. Conservatively, one dollar in five spent on research comes from surpluses on teaching,” he claims.

There is a great deal in his paper university managements will dislike, the way he estimates the cost of teaching, the size of the sums he calculates is diverted from classroom to lab, the way cross-subsidies work, the inadequacy of management information systems and the size of his sample, for starters. And casual teaching staff, whose appalling conditions and sometime pitiful pay stretch the teaching dollar, will also reject the idea that CSP are adequately funded.

But overall Mr Norton makes his case is clear, money meant for teaching goes to research.

This is serious policy research not polemical analysis. “Australia needs a more transparent system for reporting how universities spend their money,” he writes. Mr Norton is making the case for higher education to adopt activity based costing, which “focuses on why money is spent, rather than what it is spent on. … With an activity-based costing model, the government could make more informed funding decisions about per-student funding rates.”

However his point is as clear as it would be explosive for the deregulation debate, if it was still occurring. If teaching is so underfunded how is it the universities are diverting money from classes to fund ever-more research. And even if there was an increase in funding per student, whether paid for by individual undergraduate or the taxpayer, there is no guarantee that students would derive the full benefit of the extra cash.

“In theory, students could benefit from greater investment in their education. In practice, there is no guarantee that additional funding, whether private or public, would provide direct educational benefits, such as small classes or more personalised help. That’s because universities have powerful incentives to spend extra money on research instead,” he writes.

This does not call into question the Universities Australia push for more research funding, far from it – with more direct research money universities could stop raiding teaching funds. But it does make the case for more transparent allocation of money and perhaps a rebalancing of funds from teaching to research. As UA chief executive Belinda Robinson put it last night, “what this demonstrates is that dedicated funding streams for research are clearly insufficient to fund the real costs of doing world-class research … while the quality of education is enhanced by being research-informed, funding for research must not come at the expense of teaching and learning programs.”

University of Adelaide VC Warren Bebbington agreed, “Mr Norton finds what we all suspected, that some 20 per cent of research expenditure comes from student fee surpluses. He makes a telling point that the common claim that ‘research informs teaching’ is belied by the fact that most of the teaching surplus comes from Commerce courses, where little of the research funds are used.

“There is little doubt that part funding research from course fees makes for a disconnect between the fee a student pays  and the outcomes the student expects. It also conceals the real cost of research, and its systemic underfunding.”

Spectre weather

CMM failed to report yesterday was Cyclone Sunday at James Cook U, which is promoting safety measures for the coming wild weather season. Getting his James confused, he thought it was the name of a character in the new Bond film.

Winter is coming, whenever you want it

From January students in Deakin U’s MBA and business analytics masters will be able to start studying online whenever they chose and proceed at their own pace, independent of the academic calendar. Other courses are to follow. The university suggests that students will be able to “binge learn” in the way they binge on streaming video via Netflix. Perhaps not the most apt comparison – a Deakin business degree will be much more entertaining than Game of Thrones – but then again the university obviously understands that just as digital delivery has transformed TV so it will education.

ANU Sept 15

Brand that grows

CMM is a big fan of the University of South Australia’s Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow, which argues that marketing is a science with laws that apply regardless of how many awards a campaign wins or how often the agency buys lunch. So he is delighted to learn that Sharp and Jenni Romaniuk will release volume II this week, on emerging markets, services, durables and new and luxury brands.

CSU service focus

Charles Sturt U’s new three-faculty structure will not save much money – at this stage fewer than four full time equivalent jobs are expected to go. And there is no plan to cut casual staff numbers Vice Chancellor Andrew Vann says.

It does not seem like much for months of consultations and a degree of staff concern, but Professor Vann is very pleased indeed with the outcome of combining Arts and Education to sit alongside Science and Business, Justice and Behavioral Studies. “It’s about effective services across the university,” he told CMM.

“Even if we were to receive new government money, which I doubt will happen, we still have to apply resource efficiencies.”

Instead of cutting to reduce costs Professor Vann expects benefits to flow to the university by improving student services and thus reducing attrition. Good lord, a customer focus ! Now that will puzzle the competition.

Zebra off the menu

Lovers of deep-fried zebra will be devastated this morning with news from the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture that “zebra chips are still off the menu in Australia.” But not to worry, apparently this is good news concerning an insect, the tomato-potato psyllid, which carries a bacteria that creates dark brown stripes on spuds. The bug has already reached New Zealand from the Americas but an early warning system is in place to detect it if it reaches Australia.

Eight link up

Group of Eight CEO Vicki Thomson made a point of letting the world know that her members had done very well, as usual, in the ARC grants on Friday, especially in the industry connected Linkages grants, where they picked up 80 per cent of funding. But this was more than a reminder of what everybody knows. With industry-connected applied research expected to be a foundation of the government’s imminent innovation strategy other university groups want to position themselves as leading players in the sector. Not if Ms T can help it.

UniMelb water

Outrage inadequate

The prime minister can argue that the VET FEE HELP system is “a shambles” of Labor’s creation all he likes, but after two years it is now the government’s problem and expressions of outrage at shonkery among for-profit providers simply does not cut it. Nor does training minister Luke Hartsuyker calling spivs preying on the disadvantaged “absolutely despicable” and pointing to new laws and the intervention of the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission, as he did in a weekend radio interview.

Perhaps provider prosecutions and the replacement of the Australian Skills Quality Authority with a regulator that regulates might repair the reputation of for-profit training in under a decade. But CMM wonders. Rodd Camm also appears to have doubts. The chief executive of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training has argued all year that the government needs to rid the industry of rorters but private providers have a vital role. He still does, but worries that the whole industry could be crippled by the scandals are starting to show.

“While I will not accept any excuses for the very poor behaviour of some providers and brokers, it is only a small number of providers that have taken advantage of design flaws in the VET FEE-HELP program. Care needs to be taken that the quality training provided by the vast majority of public and private providers is not tarnished. … There is as real risk that the reputation of the whole sector will be tarnished by some of the ill-informed commentary trashing all private providers and calling for an overhaul of the system. Let’s have some balance.”

Good luck with that. The Greens and public education unions who loathe the idea of a private sector presence in education and training are not going to lighten up while the scandals keep coming.

WSU abandons research performance ranking

Western Sydney University has abandoned plans to allocate academic staff to research and teaching and teaching only streams (CMM August 31 and  September 7). CMM suspects this occurred after university management had a close look at the university’s enterprise agreement and decided it could not be done, at least without a big blue with the campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union. The union certainly arced up at the possibility of staff being ranked in a research performance league table but DVC Research Scott “focus” Holmes says this isn’t going to happen. Rather, the Research Effort Framework is all about identifying staff who need help with increasing their research output. The university is expected to issue a reassuring message before Christmas.

Oh that such wickedness could be!

Thanks to the learned reader who pointed CMM to Rittel and Webber’s “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning” which created the idea of the “wicked problem,” one that cannot be formulated in a way that makes a universal solution possible.

“The process of formulating the problem and of conceiving a solution (or re-solution) are identical, since every specification of the problem is a specification of the direction in which a treatment is considered, ” they argued a generation back.

Gosh, now what does that sound like to you – sounds like working out ways to fund teaching and research to CMM. As the reader remarks, “both market solutions and central planning are relatively powerless alone against wicked problems, but these seem to be the two horses that are always given as our only options to punt upon.”

If anybody has a new idea that defeats wickedness now what would be a good time to give Senator Birmingham a call.

Academic leaders

Last week CMM wondered if any Indigenous Australians have ever risen higher up the academic ranks than Uni Sydney DVC (and acting VC) Shane Houston and University of Canberra Chancellor Tom Calma. So thanks to Aspro Gary Thomas from Academic Indigenous Knowledges at QUT for a list of academic firsts for Indigenous Australians.

First Dean: (Indigenous), Emeritus Professor Colin Bourke, University of South Australia (1993)

First Chancellor: Dr Pat O’Shane, University of New England (1994)

First Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Emeritus Professor Colin Bourke, University of South Australia (1998 – Acting)

First Vice-Chancellor: Professor Jeannie Herbert, Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education (2006)

First Dean (Faculty of Education): Professor Paul Chandler, University of Wollongong (2007)

First Head of Campus: Mr Garry Shipp, Charles Sturt University (2007)

First Deputy Vice-Chancellor:  Professor Lynette Henderson-Yates, University of Notre Dame (2009)

First Pro Vice Chancellor (Indigenous): Professor Steve Larkin, Charles Darwin University (2009)

First Pro Vice-Chancellor (Equity and Student Services): Dr Gary Thomas, La Trobe University (2010 – Acting)

First Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous): Professor Shane Houston, University of Sydney (2011)

First Chair of a University Academic Board, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, Central Queensland University (2012)