While Craven explains why universities must have more

That’s a relief

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, asked in Senate estimates what he would do if he had policy responsibility: “I have no plans to take over Australia, just yet.”

Robinson breaks cover

Universities Australia has kept its head down for weeks, what with the various factions that constitute the confederacy being divided over the budget. But now a consensus is emerging among them that, for different reasons, Mr Pyne’s package cannot stand. Which made the timing right for UA chief Belinda Robinson to appear on Lateline last night. She released modelling showing how the changes to student debt and interest owed would blow out  years to payback, particularly for women who take career breaks to have children. She suggested that while the system could improve it was in good shape now. And she warned that if the cost of degrees rose as high as UA’s modelling predicted (60 per cent for science and engineering) “Australian students could vote with their feet” and study overseas. And for what? “It is not clear that this well deliver the best in the world. … It is hard to speculate on the implications of the competitive market.” Ms Robinson did not call on Minister Pyne to abandon his package in what was a polished performance emphasising student interest rather than those of universities. But she did renew UA’s previous call on the government, “to pause and look at what the package of reforms means for students and families – if we get this wrong it will be difficult to turn back … we are in uncharted waters with many moving parts.” But one thing seems certain this morning, – no university leader will speak up for the complete Pyne plan.

In the good books

CMM’s “let them eat cake correspondent” was intrigued by a note in University of Sydney Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson’s new update; “our current financial position is much more stable than five years ago as a result of measures introduced under the strategic plan, which means that we are in a much better position to plan future investment in teaching and research.” An optimist could assume that this means Uni Sydney will not need to slug students if Minister Pyne’s plan gets up. That’s the problem with optimists, they assume things are even better than they look. Then again, VC Michael Spence also provided evidence for UofS people opposed to cost increases to come, pointing to the way a $79m operating deficit in 2009 became a $9.6m surplus last year. “We have achieved an underlying surplus sooner than expected and are well on the path towards genuine financial sustainability,” he told staff.

The yanks are coming

The University of New South Wales reports it has signed a deal that could lead to 1500 US exchange students studying there. The university quotes an already satisfied visitor, “I only have classes Monday to Wednesday, which means that I have long weekends that are perfect for weekend trips and activities.” That must be the academic rigour the Go8 bangs on about.

How we are governed

With the industry and education ministers running different bits of research and having overlapping interests in education and training who does what and who tells everybody about it might be a challenge. But as Senate estimates revealed all is well, apparently chaps (of all genders) talk to other chaps. The education people like to know what industry is up to, and vice versa. Even better an MOU is being drawn up. According to the Department of Industry’s Dr Rob Porteous, this will be especially important for the science and education counsellor networks working overseas. Gosh, I wonder if anybody has suggested this to Austrade and Australian Education International, which some suggest consider each other an affront to efficient government.

All competitors aren’t equal

Greg Craven suggested staff of his Australian Catholic University stay calm about deregulated course costs yesterday. “Postgraduate education in Australia is deregulated, and has managed to operate without extreme blowouts. And luckily, the vast majority of universities have neither the inclination nor the brand to extract bowel-clenching premiums, he wrote. However this does not mean deregulation is risk free. Universities research and provide a “prodigious community contribution” but private providers don’t, meaning there is no case for Canberra funding students at both at the same rate. If this happened, Professor Craven warned, the private sector would be able to undercut universities, which would be forced to shed services to compete on price. “And that may be the end of the ‘mighty middle’ of the university sector as we know it – the ATNS, the great outer suburbans and the quality regionals,” he warned. This will never do, because all university students have a right to be taught by people who also research. “If you want to be taught by the very best person in English literature, or chemical engineering, or law, then you want the person who is absolutely at the cutting edge of the discipline, undertaking research.” Good-oh, except for the employment growth field in all universities is in teaching only positions. So deregulation will work when all competitors aren’t equal and some are funded more equally than others.

System in shape

As universities warn they will not be able to fund a chair of pauper studies under the Pyne plan, expect to see briefs from the minister’s friends (they do so exist, they’re called parliamentary secretaries) explaining that VC’s are rolling in dosh. They will not have far to look in NSW, where the Auditor General reports the states ten universities returned an operating surplus of $638m last year on revenues of $8bn – of which just $3.2bn was from government grants. In general the sector is in solid shape, with nearly all the metros and major regionals meeting Canberra’s current ratio benchmark and all showing ok (UWS’s negative number was due to an assert sale) to excellent (UoSydney at 12.9 per cent) operating margins, with one exception.

Southern Cross will shine soon

And that is Southern Cross University, which is not having a good run. SCU “has recorded a negative operating margin for the last two years. Both revenue and net assets fell in 2013 and it experienced a 24.4 per cent decline in the number of overseas students. The university advises that the fall in overseas students is partly due to the intentional severing of non-strategically aligned partnerships. Despite falling revenues, employee expenses increased 4.9 per cent following pay rises of 4.0 per cent, and one-off redundancy costs,” the Auditor General reports.

To which Vice Chancellor Peter Lee fired back a letter explaining how SCU was investing for the future and expected a much improve 2014 performance, including a 6 per cent margin. But perhaps Professor Lee could have tried a bit harder to disguise his irritation, “Southern Cross University accepts that the Auditor General is developing its understanding of the sector and the nuances of performance reporting … but would encourage broader assessment of financial importance.”

Practical philanthropists

The Country Education Foundation held a fundraiser in Sydney yesterday, addressed by that biggest of bush legends, Tim Fisher, who used many examples to make one point – that education transforms lives. It went down well with an audience of practical philanthropists, focused on ensuring disadvantaged country kids have the cash they need to pay for petrol to get to class, buy the texts they need to study and to move away from home to attend TAFE or university. Practical help for country kids.

Share the intel

The estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research is surveying 150,000 recent students at TAFE and private providers, asking them about their reasons and experience, satisfaction and outcomes. This is a very useful survey indeed, which the NCVER should give to Minister Pyne’s working party, chaired by Griffith VC Ian O’Connor. This group is working on a higher education student information product using the mass of surveys already out there. Given Canberra wants to fund sub-degree programs, which training institutions offer, the days of silos between the sectors are surely over. Just as students move across sectional borders so should information on their experience. Providers need to know what all the potential consumers think.