29 March 2012

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Synchnotron funding deal secures future 

Australia’s synchrotron will be able to continue operating, under a joint funding agreement between the Victorian and Commonwealth governments.  The facility was built after intense lobbying by the previous Victorian Labor government.  The Baillieu Government had been reluctant to allocate funding beyond the middle of this year.  Under a memorandum of understanding  signed 28 March, the Commonwealth government will contribute $69 million towards its operating costs over the next four years.  The State government will provide an additional $26 million. The Australian reports that the vehicle for delivering federal and university funds within the rescue package will be a special fund called the strategic research initiative, which will draw on $25m from the Australian Research Council, $5m from the National Health and Medical Research Council and an estimated $25m in university money.  there is no new Commonwealth funding in the package, meaning agencies will have to fund money from their existing budgets.

Commonwealth Minister for Science and Research Chris Evans says the synchrotron is a vital piece of scientific infrastructure for Australia.


ANU cuts to be “strategic”

Following the announcement that the Australian National University is looking to find $40 million in savings, including cutting 100 to 150 jobs, V-C Ian Young has said that instead of making cuts broadly across the university, areas of underperformance would be targeted.  “We are not proposing to do an across-the-board cut as some institutions have done, because that means everyone has less resources to do their work,” he said.  He also affirmed that “areas of national importance” would be maintained, even if they had low student demand and did not have “cutting-edge performance”.  However, the university’s strategic plan – ANU by 2020 — clearly sets out the parameters which will now come into play:

  • By 2015, 85% academic staff will be in four-digit field of research code areas (discipline areas) rated ERA 4 or 5
  • This will rise to 90% by 2020 (compared with 80% in 2010).

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at theUniversityofMelbourne, suggests that any faculty or division with ERA 3 would have to worry as ANU clearly wants to concentrate in ERA 4 or 5.  Marginson said he expects  to see more universities use the ERA to reshape their research profile.


Poor performance puts “reputation at risk” 

University of Sydney V-C Michael Spence and other senior leaders believe the university faces a “major reputational and budgetary issue” in its “substandard performance in teaching and research”, an internal document obtained by The Australian has revealed.  In a letter to colleagues in August, three months before 100 redundancies were announced, provost Stephen Garton said: “Some other Go8 universities are pulling ahead of us in terms of research performance” as measured by ratings in the Excellence in Research for Australia audit and world rankings. “Similarly . . . in many areas we are consistently below the Go8 average in terms of teaching performance.”  It was also suggested that many of these poor research performers are also not making up teaching hours to compensate, adding unnecessarily to levels of part-time teaching expenditure.  “Given our current budget situation, these are things we can ill afford to ignore”, wrote Garton.


Casual staffers outstrip fulltime

The growth in enrolments in Australia’s largest universities has largely been met with casual academics, whose growth in numbers outstrip permanent staff, according to a new research report for the LH Martin Institute by Frank Larkins.

A separate study has also revealed the rate of academic casualisation varies wildly across the sector, from a high of 36% to as low at 5%, based on 2010 government data.  The average rate was 21%, up from 20% in 2009.  The wide variation, which is partly influenced by the use of industry professionals in some disciplines, is a challenge for the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency in monitoring and interpreting casualisation rates.  TEQSA has said a heavy reliance on casuals could indicate potential risk to student learning.  TEQSA commissioner Michael Beaton-Wells said the watchdog does not oppose casual staffing, but with traditional boundaries on the number of casual academics being “pushed”, the regulator would be alert to any quality implications.

In his paper, Larkins said that between 2000 and 2010, the nine Australian universities with more than 40,000 students increased their casual academic staff by 43.8%, in terms of full-time equivalents. That compared with 16.3% growth in full-time and fractional staff.  Larkins found that among the nine universities,CurtinUniversityandSydneyUniversityhad been, proportionally, the least responsive in terms of increasing staff to meet rising student numbers. However,Sydneystill maintained a low student to staff ratio of 15.7:1, second only toUniversityofNSWwith 14.8:1.

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UK scheme draws job hopefuls

There is strong interest from Australian researchers in UK fellowships which come with a virtual guarantee of a permanent academic position.   TheUniversityofBirminghamreceived nearly 1,400 applications from around the world when it advertised 50 Research Fellowships with a promise of a full time academic post after five years.  Google Analytics reports showed that during the periodBirminghamwas accepting applications, interest from people at major Australian academic centres sat alongside academic centres in theUK.  The level of interest not just fromAustraliabut from other countries even surprised the architect of the Birmingham Fellows scheme, Professor Adam Tickell.


RMIT academics “not happy”

A ”behavioural capability framework” that requires thousands of RMIT staff members to meet a list of expectations, depending on their level of employment, has been approved by the industrial tribunal, Fair Work Australia.  It says some academic and professional staff must ”promote the positive rather than the negative”, be optimistic and display passion for the job.  Staff would be required to achieve ”external benchmarks of performance excellence”.  The National Tertiary Education Union has described the framework as “latest managerial insanity at RMIT” and the expected behaviours as “subjective, vague and in some instances, ludicrous”.   A lot of people agree: the framework has been widely derided as attempting to mandate “being happy” at work.  The FWA decision has been appealed by the NTEU.


Wider entry scores evens the playing field 

If the uncapping of student places has revealed anything, it’s that we can all get a touch hysterical about the sky falling in when course entry scores are lowered to get more students through the door , writes Scott Bowman,V-C of Central Queensland University, a university which has some courses with lower entry scores than just about all its competitors,  He says it is baffling that everyone is looking to universities to open up and become more accessible and to help this country grow its workforce with more tertiary-qualified professionals, yet the sector gets a bashing whenever a university opens its entry levels a little wider to increase participation.  Sure, there is a point where you draw the line, but it isn’t the entry levels we need to be so worried about. It’s the output levels. What we as a sector produce at the end of a student’s studies should be far more important than what we begin with. Absolutely. As one senior university administrator has put it, “people need to realise that ATARs represent only a very rough approximation of student capability… They are used by universities mainly as a filtering mechanism for easily deciding how to cull the pool of applicants for popular courses, rather than for assessing how ‘smart’ you need to be in order to do a particular course.”

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On line study hits the mark

The performance and reputation of the UK’s Open University (OU) shows that teaching and learning online can be done at great depth and breadth and still be informed by research, writes Julie Hare in The Australian.  Coming third in a national survey for student satisfaction last year, OU has 265,000 enrolled fee-paying students and numerous others around the world taking OU units for free and is soon to celebrate its five millionth download, 90% of which are from outside Britain.  OU’s V-C Martin Bean points to an “unexpected thing” about this wholly online university — in research performance, OU makes its mark in the top third of British institutions.


HECS blackhole = $500 mill & growing

Australian university graduates who move overseas have deprived the nation of about $500 million in unpaid HECS dues since the scheme began in 1989, new research estimates. The study by Dr Tim Higgins and HECS architect Professor Bruce Chapman, both of the Australian National University, projects the cumulative figure to rise above $1 billion in the next 10 years.  Higgins told Campus Review that while the amount represented a small portion of the billions total in outstanding HECS debts, it was significant and probably simple to start recovering. The study suggests three methods the Australian government could adopt. The researchers favour the idea that students be required to sign a HECS contract requiring them to repay their minimum annual debt if they live internationally beyond a short period.  Analysing survey data from Graduate Careers Australia, the study finds about 10 per cent of all 2006 graduates with deferred HECS debts worked overseas within three to four years of graduation. The vast majority of the students seemed to stay overseas for more than three years.


International enrolments down but revenue way down 

Experts are struggling to explain why international education is losing money twice as fast as it’s losing students, with the latest data showing the sector’s downturn in revenue is roughly double the downturn in enrolments.  Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show total income from international education fell by 19% last year.  But international student numbers fell just 9.5%, according to the enrolments data compiled by Australian Education International, or 12.5% according to the visa statistics published by the Immigration Department.  Stephen Weller, deputy vice-chancellor at James Cook University, said the discrepancy could reflect the discounting of tuition fees.  “Our understanding is that universities that are out of the Group of Eight, or in a regional situation, are having to resort to discounting to remain competitive,” Dr Weller said.


Sow free IP, reap higher profile

Universities are giving away their intellectual property for free in the face of a growing acceptance that multimillion-dollar commercialisation wins are about as likely as winning the lottery. MacquarieUniversityhas followed the lead of theUniversityofNSWby adopting the Easy Access IP model, under which institutions donate IP to companies that will commercialise it for social or economic benefit.

The model means that inventions that have a low commercial value but are costly to take to market might finally see the light of day. MacquarieUniversitysigned up to the consortium – which now has 11 members including universities inCanada,DenmarkandSweden– in the past few weeks. MacquarieUniversity’s director of commercialisation, Warren Bailey, said few university inventions made it to market. “Certainly we know that one in every thousand inventions may be a real winner,” he said.

See video:

  • Easy access 

Uncertainty on skills reform package

A Commonwealth government threat to redirect up to $9 billion for national skills development away from state and territory coffers has not caused a rush to sign up for the revised agreement.  The states and territories are still poring over the Skills for all Australians statement, the proposed new national partnership on vocational education and training, to which the Commonwealth is seeking agreement at the COAG meeting on 13 April.  After theQueensland election result, however, it is fair to assume that the Gillard government will have few friends at COAG, with that state joining Western Australia,Victoria and NSW on the Liberal-National list.  The result is that the Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills, Senator Chris Evans, will have a hard job persuading them to accept unchanged the skills report recently launched by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, which saw the Commonwealth offering $1.75 billion to support changes needed to implement a $7.2 billion national skills training system over five years.


Trainer provider corners market

A St. Kilda company has become Victoria’s dominant training provider across two industries, after enrolments skyrocketed 9000% and 5000% respectively in one year.  The growth has raised questions over the cost and viability of reforms designed to encourage competition in the training sector.  Origin HR’s financial services enrolments increased from just 42 in 2010 to over 3600 in 2011 — more than three times its nearest competitor — while its business administration enrolments soared from 125 to over 6800.  Origin HR is now the top private college inMelbourne’s south with more than double the enrolments of its nearest rival. It has more Victorian government-funded enrolments than almost half the state’s TAFEs.


Left Right push for industry research vouchers

“Youth-led think tank” Left Right is advocating a radical overhaul of research linkage grants, diverting some of the funding to vouchers for industry to better link research to commercial demand.

Check out Left Right.


US: Cuts to public funding funnel students into “for profits”

As the state’s public institutions come under the knife, California’s for-profit colleges have thrived, enrolling more students and benefiting from lax regulation — a trend that could place more students at financial risk.  Continued cuts in state funding have forced some cash-strapped public schools to reduce class offerings and collapse programs, forcing students to turn to for-profits, a February study by the Centre for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley shows.  This trend may continue, as public universities would struggle to expand accessibility in the face of potential cuts of $200 million to the UC and CSU, should voters reject a proposal to raise taxes.  The CSU announced earlier this week that it will not accept new students at most of its 23 campuses in spring 2013 and may reduce enrolment next fall if the initiative does not pass — cuts that could result in more students enrolling in for-profits.


Headlines from The Australian Financial Review

Seoul’s class act needs paperwork

Five years ago,South Koreamapped out a plan to transform its education system into the world’s definitive digital showcase. Now there is a rethink.

Business schools ‘need fresh focus’

Industry has challenged business schools to become more diverse and to take a broader approach to management development in a bid to raise professional standards and boost innovation.

Campaign for medical school goes public in WA

CurtinUniversityhas kicked its bid for a new medical school up a notch with a public campaign designed to win the hearts and minds of West Australians amid opposition from medical groups.

Policies ignore unis’ vital role

Universities must markedly increase their political capital if they are to avoid a continuation of the serious underfunding that could have dire consequences forAustralia..

 Healthy course demand proves difficult to meet

A study carried out for Health Workforce Australia has revealed the extraordinary growth universities are planning in health-related degrees



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