News & Views - November 2003
Short Term Gain, Long Term Irrevocable Loss. (November 30, 2003)
The most recent amendments to the Minister for Science, Education and Training, Brendan Nelson's Higher Education Support Bill have added $200 million. The HECS repayment threshold would be lifted from $30,000 to $33,150 and in addition new growth places would double to 2800, costing and additional $30 million. An extra 7500 accommodation scholarships for poorer rural students would be made available as well as $66 million to supporting disadvantaged and disabled students. However, as the newly installed Chair of the Group of Eight Universities, ANU's Vice-Chancellor Ian Chubb, has pointed out:
[It is] important that the outcome include only those measures that improve the capacities of the universities to perform their key role in research and education and that disruptive and intrusive measures be eliminated.
It is difficult to see how the workplace conditions, if passed, would add any value at all to the way modern universities actually operate – with a great deal of flexibility. The provision is unnecessary if the goal is flexibility. Worse, the detailed guidelines prevent Universities from making their own judgements on how best to attract and retain ...excellent staff... The linkage should be removed.
One of Dr. Nelson's more base appeals to the Australian population has been his reference to what he choses to call cappuccino courses. "I have said ...that the Australian taxpayer, through the Government of the day and the Minister of the day, reserves the right to decide what will or will not be funded in terms of the courses that are provided. Whilst I have absolutely no intention, at all, of removing public funding from any courses in Australian universities, the average Australian taxpayer would wonder why, at a time when we are bleeding in physics, chemistry, enabling sciences, humanities, literature, philosophy and sociology, why are we also funding courses in scepticism, the paranormal, golf course management, surf board riding, make up application for drag queens and a whole variety of courses which are now coming up in Australian higher education.
Of course we aren't told by the minister just what percentage of the public education budget goes to such courses, and the implication that running them is the cause of the parlous state of the enabling sciences at our universities is appalling. It is political opportunism at its cheapest.
Admittedly, Professor Chubb is far more restrained in is assessment but makes the telling point:
With respect to the so-called “cappuccino courses”, while they might be perceived as froth and bubble today, a more interventionist Minister down the track might not be able to resist the temptation to interfere with perfectly respectable subjects that simply include politically inconvenient content.
The Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee recommended on Friday that the Senate now accept Dr. Nelson's amended HE Support bill. Neither the Group of Eight nor the National Tertiary Education Union agree.
The fact of the matter is that the bill as it stands remains an instrument to allow unnecessary and counterproductive micromanagement by governments and ministers of the day. Once that is put into place it will never be revoked. And there is the prospect of further coercive measures being implemented in future.
EU's Ambition to Up Support for R&D Suffers Setback Because of Weak Economies. (November 27, 2003)
On Tuesday the European Commission issued its latest report on science, technology and innovation. It's not an A+ report card. The 15 European Union (EU) countries have made little progress towards the goal proclaimed by Europe's leaders at the Barcelona EU summit in 2002 of increasing their expenditure on research and development to 3% by 2010. The marked weakening of the economies of the EU nations is perhaps the most significant factor, but in any case the EU spent in 2001 €141 billion (A$233 billion) less on R&D than did the United States – almost twice the gap that existed in 1999.
In a November 27th editorial Nature observes that the upcoming addition of 10 eastern European nations while bringing significant challenges also has the potential to inject considerable vitality into the EU's science, technology and innovation effort. "[T]hese countries have great human potential. Their populations are well educated, particularly in science and mathematics. In the long term, Europe must exploit this talent if it is to be globally competitive in science, technology and innovation. In the medium term, EU policies should change to accommodate the fact that the main strengths of countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary lie not in technology development, where existing policy has its focus, but in basic research. Putting more money into this – through a proposed European Research Council, for example – would help these countries to assert their potential."
The Coalition government prides itself on Australia's vibrant economy and yet has left the nation's support for R&D lagging far behind the EU's current expenditure let alone undertaking substantive measures to overtake it. Surpassing it appears to be far below the government's horizon.
Roll on Rugby World Cup for 2007.
Where the Elite Meet to Eat. (November 27, 2003)
The Melbourne Age's political correspondent Annabel Crabb finds it difficult sometimes to suppress her irreverent side. Today she reports on the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson's struggle with rejigging his higher education reformation.
For weeks... Brendan Nelson, the Braveheart of the education portfolio has been slaving over his university reforms. While other ministers slip out to Canberra restaurants for dinner during sitting weeks, Braveheart does not "do" dinner. Braveheart "does" sandwiches in his office, with orange juice. Like a young Joan of Arc, he spends the long nights fasting and praying.
So it must have been quite a shock for Dr Nelson to have left his office on Tuesday night to dine with the vice-chancellors, in a private room upstairs in Canberra's classy Chairman And Yip restaurant.
Fifty self-lashes and a night with the hairshirt await, no doubt.
Couple of press releases, she'll be right.
Don't the V-Cs, students, and academic staff wish. Of course matters of university research infrastructure decay, urgent upgrades to university staffing, to point out just two minor matters, are yet to be adequately addressed, but don't hold your breath. Dr Nelson's real gaff from Prime Minister, John Howard's and Cabinet's viewpoint is that he did such a crude job in trying to bring the universities to heel and engendered such a dust up it's got splashed all over the media. It's a matter of serious conjecture as to where he'll be deposited following the next election.
The National Tertiary Education Union releases 46 page document of amendments to the Government’s proposed Higher Education Support Bill 2003. (November 25, 2003)
Following the release of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee list of some 45 amendments to the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson's bill (see November 14 N&V item below) the NTEU has published a forty-six page table of meticulously denoted amendments. They include:
The elimination and/or reduction of the powers of the Minister to direct, control or approve the activities of universities, including governance and workplace relations.
Separating the regulatory treatment of universities and publicly established higher education institutions from those of other providers. This includes the establishment of a statement on the objects and purposes of universities, such as recognition of institutional independence and academic freedom.
Ensuring that Commonwealth funding is restricted to universities and other publicly funded higher education institutions.
The establishment of a representative and expert advisory body, the Higher Education Funding Council, to provide advice and recommendations to the Minister on funding and other issues.
Improving equity and access by capping HECS fees at their current levels, applying FEE-HELP only to postgraduate students with no real interest rate, and deleting completely the Student Learning Entitlement.
Changing the indexation mechanism for university funding.
NTEU President, Caroline Allport, says bluntly, "Until such time as the Government gets serious and stops tinkering around the edges of the package, the NTEU believes that the Senate has no choice but to reject the package."
A complete set of the NTEU's amendments together with an accompanying explanatory note as well as additional documentation are available from the NTEU website at http://www.nteu.org.au/campaigns/higheredatrisk/legislation.
Alternatively the two files per se are available here. (NTEU Briefing Paper, NTEU Table of Amendments)
Israeli Academics Fight Back. (November 25, 2003)
The Inter-Senate Committee (ISC) of the seven Israeli research universities has as its mission the active defence of the "Law of the Council for Higher Education (1958), which states: 'A recognized institution is free to manage its academic and administrative affairs, within its budget, as it sees fit'."
A bulletin released yesterday by the ISC summarises recent changes to the law:
According to the government decision there are uniform rules that each university must adopt. These prohibit the appointment of a person to ANY administrative position (from president, down through deans, chairpersons, heads of centers, etc.) that involves consultation with the faculty. Advice regarding such an appointment by a body the majority of whose members are academic faculty, is disallowed. All such appointments are to be made or approved by the Vaad Po'el (or Board of Governors) composed of non-academic outsiders, with a sprinkling of faculty members. Even those faculty members on the Vaad Po'el are appointed from above and NOT elected by the faculty.
In the view of the ISC if these changes proceed, faculty will be "barred from any influence on the way the university is run. ...The government [has] decreed that an institution that does not abide by the new directives will suffer a reduction of 30% of the allocation it would have otherwise received based on academic criteria."
In a call to arms the ISC has called for the government's decision to be reversed and the preservation of "each university to determine which governance structure is the most suitable for its own ...special characteristics." They conclude with directions for a coordinated campaign to achieve their aims.
Recently a member of the ISC when ask how in the current circumstances the Knesset had the time and inclination to "bring the universities to heel" replied, "The government tries to keep things as normal as possible."
When Citing a University, Place it in a Marginal Federal Electorate. (November 24, 2003)
One of the definitions of realpolitik is "politics considered as an end in itself rather than as a means to objectives," which is somewhat less crude than, "the objective of politics is re-election."
The University of Western Sydney is in a distinctly marginal electorate and as a result when its Vice-Chancellor, the quietly spoken Janice Reid, said forcefully and publicly that the reforms to higher education being proposed by the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, would at best, leave USW $10 million worse off in real terms and at worst more than $20 million worse off over three years, the Prime Minister John Howard got the wind up.
The Chancellor of UWS, John Phillips, former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank now a member of the Government's Medical Indemnity Policy Review Panel, got into the act and took pains to explain to the Prime Minister the parlous state in which the university would find itself unless corrective measures were undertaken. Of course it doesn't hurt that various potentially affected parliamentarians leaned on Mr Howard as well.
Meanwhile, other horse trading is being attempted by Dr. Nelson to procure the votes of the all important independent members of the Senate, and we seem to be watching a re-enactment of getting the Senate to pass a bill which the Prime Minister could label a GST, and which in the event resembles nothing so much as a dog's breakfast. There is a serious likelihood that the same will occur to the higher education "reform package", a group of measures which from its inception ignored the disintegration of Australia's university system. Tinkering is not going to change that. Realpolitik to be sure.
Minister's Response to Vice-Chancellors' Request that he "Unshift" the Goalposts. (November 18, 2003)
Last week the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee listed some forty-five amendments they wished introduced into the Higher Education Support Bill (see immediately below). The Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, has now made his offer in reply. "Following discussions with Vice-Chancellors, I have agreed to a series of changes to the higher education reform legislation to significantly reduce the level of ‘red tape’ and simplify the administration of the reform programmes."
The table released by the department is vague in the extreme and it is not clear in what detail the amendments have been given to the AVCC for assessment. But the element of the bill most odious to the universities remains. The Government refuses to break the linkage between hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding and its insistence on workplace relations reform aimed at reducing the power of unions representing university staff. While this element of the proposed legislation has been laid at the feet of Tony Abbott, former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, it is unlikely that it remains in the package without the express wishes of the Prime Minister, John Howard. It is of course a useful stalking-horse. Whether or not introducing the certain-to-be contentious issue of tying significant funding to workplace relations reforms dictated by the Minister was a Machiavellian ploy to obscure the government's disinterest in significantly improving the nation's universities as seats of research and learning, it is doing so and working a treat. Not only the media but also university administrators are preoccupied with the issue.
As one vice-chancellor told the Sydney Morning Herald's Aban Contractor, "Nelson has quite successfully divided the sector whether he intended to or not. We're having to fight for crumbs."
AV-CC to Minister: You've Shifted the Goalposts, Please Put 'em Back. (November 14, 2003)
The Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee today released a 77 page critique, Guarding the goalposts: the AVCC’s proposed amendments to the Higher Education Support Bill 2003.
Immediately following the release of the May budget papers the AV-CC was cautiously complimentary of the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, perhaps feeling that it was unwise to bite a feeding hand, no matter how inadequate the offering, and that a smile advances your cause further than a snarl. However, with the passing months as the clothes of the "Toad Prince" as the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, Gavin Brown, has anointed him, have been seen to be transparently thin, the V-Cs have begun to show some backbone. The following paragraphs from the critique's Foreword set the tone:
The AVCC is most concerned that the subsequent legislation, drafted to give effect to the reform package, in important respects has “moved the goalposts” from the package released in the Commonwealth Budget in May 2003. In particular, some of the provisions of the draft Bill would seriously intrude upon the autonomy of universities and would represent a reversal of the Government's stated commitment to reduce red tape, and to encourage the autonomy, academic freedom, independence and responsibility of universities under new protocols of effective governance.
[They go on to comment] Dr Nelson has said that he is “prepared to remove every unnecessary [our emphasis] intrusive requirement that we feel is being imposed upon [universities]”. We ...look forward to examining his proposed amendments in detail to ensure they resolve our concerns.
Dr Nelson has also stated that no university should be worse off due to his reforms. We are looking to him to honour that commitment.
Of course the minister's understanding of what is unnecessary and what the vice-chancellors, to say nothing of the universities' working academics, consider unnecessary micromanagement are unlikely to coincide.
In the event the AV-CC proposes about 45 amendments to the bill of which 16 the Government has yet to agree to consider while the remainder are currently being considered by Dr Nelson.
Below is a list of the categories of amendments:
The five-page summary of the amendments is available here
Amendments the Government has yet to agree to consider ?
Amendments to implement policy issues identified in Excellence and Equity (some)
Amendment to address policy issues arising from the Bill (some)
Amendments to recognise universities' position as autonomous self-accrediting institutions (some)
Amendments to remove other provisions intrusive into universities' operational decisions
Amendments to ensure ministerial accountability to Parliament (some)
Amendments that the Minister is currently considering ?
Amendments to recognise universities' position as autonomous self-accrediting institutions (some
Amendments to remove other provisions intrusive into universities' operational decisions
Amendments to implement policy issues identified in Excellence and Equity (some)
Amendment to address policy issues arising from the Bill (some)
Amendments to ensure ministerial accountability to Parliament (some)
In the meantime the question of adequate funding for university research and teaching infrastructure remains in limbo along with significant upgrades to the quality and quantity of research/teaching staff. All while the major parties witter on about "what should we do with a budget surplus" as in do we bribe the tax payer or invest the money for his/her future common wealth. No, no – not that. That would be, as Sir Humphrey would say, Courageous, Prime Minister.
The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson MP, the Hon Daryl William AM QC MP and Optical Telecom Networks as Weak Quantum Measurements with Postselection. (November 13, 2003)
The Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, and the former Attorney General, recently installed Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Daryl Williams have a common interest, or ought to have as a recent paper (title above) by Nicolas Brunner, and his colleagues of the Group of Applied Physics, University of Geneva show in Physical Review Letters (Phys. Rev. Lett. 91, 180402 (2003)).
How come? Well the good Dr Nelson was in Hobart yesterday talking up the government's injection of funding for a fibre optic "backbone" to enhance communications for the Tasmanian research community to better interact with colleagues world-wide – surely a cross ministerial matter for the general practitioner and the Queen's Council. As is pointed out below, Dr Nelson decries that "we are bleeding in physics, chemistry, enabling sciences... ."
What makes the work of Brunner and his colleagues relevant is their assertion that optical telecommunications engineers are unwittingly working at the cutting edge of quantum information theory because, they say, standard processes in fibre-optic networks embody fundamental features of quantum logic which could provide engineers with a simple quantum-based formalism for understanding what happens to their light signals.
Philip Ball points out in the November 13th Nature "The polarization-dependent signal losses that occur in optical devices such as amplifiers amount to a 'postselection' of polarization states; in essence, forcing the wavefunction to collapse into a particular state. These processes are often seen as esoteric aspects of quantum theory. Brunner et al., however, point out that they happen all the time in optical networks."
With the continuing decay of research and teaching in our universities of the enabling sciences Dr Nelson's innuendo that it is caused by the introduction of shonky courses is an outrageous and destructive distortion. While it continues there is little likelihood of Australia regaining ground in the enabling sciences. As a consequence we shall lose increasing touch with leading edge technology to say nothing of the nation's research capabilities and standing.
Quantum information theory is but one example of the increasing dependence of the forefront of technology and innovation on a thorough understanding of the fundamental sciences. In a phrase, it usually helps to understand what you're doing. Just an idle thought.
University of Newcastle's Pioneering Initiative to Foster Interest in Engineering and the Enabling Sciences Gets Top Recognition. (November 13, 2003)
In May this year TFW reported, "University of Newcastle Sparks Creative Interest in the Enabling Sciences in Secondary School Students."
Last night Engineers Australia, recognised the contribution made by the University of Newcastle's "Science and Engineering Challenge" by conferring on it the Sir William Hudson Award, the highest of the Australian Engineering Excellence Awards. Aimed at Year 9 and 10 students, the challenge presents engineering, science and technology in an inspirational manner in an effort to redress recent declines in students undertaking senior high school level mathematics and science subjects.
The challenge has grown from 14 participating schools in 2000 to over 120 this year when some 4,000 students took part.
The growing success of the challenge has been attributed by its initiators to the development of the partnership between the University, Rotary groups, representatives of local industry and business, and teachers.
Dr. Nelson Continues Championing the Australian Battler's Battle Against Shonky University Courses. (November 13, 2003)
Yesterday the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, was in Hobart announcing the investment of $7 million "alongside the University of Tasmania, CSIRO and the Tasmanian Government to put a fibre optic backbone between Hobart and Launceston" and across Bass Strait. The last exchange between the media and the minister reported by DEST in its edited transcript of the interview runs as follows:
There were several strong comments in The Australian today from Alan Gilbert, Vice Chancellor of the Melbourne University, about the nature of the reforms to universities. He was comparing them to akin to an authoritarian regime.
The Australian universities are perfectly entitled to develop and offer whatever courses that they think are necessary and appropriate to university education. I have said, however, that the Australian taxpayer, through the Government of the day and the Minister of the day, reserves the right to decide what will or will not be funded in terms of the courses that are provided. Whilst I have absolutely no intention, at all, of removing public funding from any courses in Australian universities, the average Australian taxpayer would wonder why, at a time when we are bleeding in physics, chemistry, enabling sciences, humanities, literature, philosophy and sociology, why are we also funding courses in scepticism, the paranormal, golf course management, surf board riding, make up application for drag queens and a whole variety of courses which are now coming up in Australian higher education. The fact is that into the future it is always possible the university will seek to put public resources into a course that it is perfectly entitled to run, but the Australian taxpayer should always reserve the right to say that, in fact, its priorities may well be in nursing and teaching, or physics and philosophy, rather than make up application for drag queens or surf board riding. And if that’s a necessary intrusion into Australian higher education, I make no apology for it.
Rule 2 in Advice for Minister's: Australian Edition. "Always maintain a stable of straw horses for a quick getaway."
Rule 1? Unless asked a question you specifically want asked, never answer it; rather answer one you would want asked.
Founded in 1898 Beijing University is in the Process of Reinvention. (November 11, 2003)
According to a recent article in Science (October 3, 2003) the most prestigious of China's universities is about to introduce "a package of reforms intended to curb academic nepotism and to bring personnel practices in line with those at top institutions around the world. Its chief features include banning the hiring of [Beijing University] graduates immediately out of school, filling more slots with outside talent, and making tenure and promotion more dependent on research productivity." A proposal to keep academic staff to the mark has sent shockwaves through the university. In part the reform "sets deadlines--6 years for lecturers and 9 to 12 years for associate professors--to be promoted to the next level or face dismissal. And it declared that any faculty member, regardless of seniority, could be cut loose if judged to be lagging far behind his or her peers."
Jiang Feifei, an associate professor of history has reservations. She worries that "people who devote themselves to research but who do not spend time cultivating their superiors ...will be at a disadvantage before tenure committees." Another associate professor claims "In many cases, the candidate's academic performance only counts for 10%, with the rest being seniority and one's personal relationship with officials and appraisal committee members."
Those advocating the reforms agree that any changes will take time but that there is no alternative if China and Chinese academe want to remain competitive globally. "It is essential that we employ the best possible faculty members, who must be creative and innovative," says economist Zang Weiying, the principal behind the reforms, "We can wait no longer."
Currently the university has a total student body of just
over 46,000 consisting of: 15,001
undergraduates, 8,119 master candidates, 3,956 doctoral candidates,
18,998 candidates for a correspondence
courses or study at the night school and 1,776
international students from 62 countries and regions.
Basic Research and a Government Agency. (November 11, 2003)
While the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation forsook basic research some years back and research for the public good per se has become increasingly more alien to it, the US Department of Energy would seem to be moving in the other direction.
A 14-member panel, led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Charles Vest was set up by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham last December to review the DOE. It received an earful of complaints. According to the panel, DOE's science budgets have suffered from "the department's historically poor reputation as badly managed, excessively fragmented, and politically unresponsive. The depth of criticism and concern was shocking." In addition the panel found widespread public ignorance about DOE's science programs, which account for 40% of all federal funding in the physical sciences and nearly 20% in mathematics, computing, engineering, and environmental science. The panel advised that a much stronger effort in advocacy should be undertaken by the department but most important it says, "three major, highly visible research initiatives" should be followed. One to address energy issues, a second to focus on advanced computing, while the third should produce "a frontier research facility for the pursuit of basic science."
Of course what will eventuate remains to be seen.
The Battle of the Media Releases: Kim Carr vs Brendan Nelson. (November 7, 2003)
Today the the four member sub-committee of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee tabled its 187 (+20) page report, Hacking Australia’s Future: Threats to institutional autonomy, academic freedom and student choice in Australian higher education which evoked the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson's predicably reflex ire. For the record members of the sub-committee were Senator Kim Carr ALP, Victoria Chair; Senator Trish Crossin ALP, Northern Territory, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja AD, South Australia, and Senator John Tierney LP, New South Wales.
Dr. Nelson's opening salvo, "SENATE REPORT INTO HIGHER EDUCATION REFORMS A POLITICAL STUNT" sets the tone. "Senator Kim Carr’s report on the Government’s higher education reform package is nothing more than a politically motivated exercise intended to frustrate and delay the Government’s vital higher education reforms. The Government is poised to inject more than $10 billion dollars over ten years in new public investment into Australia’s universities - creating more places, supporting regional universities and lifting standards. ...The Labor Party’s real agenda is to play politics but the cost is to deny universities and students critical support no matter what the long-term cost..." There follows a selected list of the damage the Government sees would be invoked by Labor on the universities and a reiteration of some of the particulars of the Government's package. All quite predicable concluding with, "Australians want their children to be able to attend world-class institutions and obtain a quality education. ...Labor cannot make the hard decisions needed to strengthen Australia’s future. The Government is prepared to make the tough decisions if it means building a quality university system."
And then we have the Shadow Minister for Science and Research, Shadow Minister for Industry and Innovation, Shadow Minister for the Public Service, Kim Carr releasing his statement on tabling the sub-committee's report. "Today we are here to reveal the results of a 4-month investigation into the Government's dangerous and radical higher education package. We heard from 21 university heads, and not one, not a single one – said the package should pass in its current form. ...The Vice-Chancellors of Melbourne and Sydney University Professors Alan Gilbert and Gavin Brown said it was bureaucracy run riot, and that Dr Nelson had turned into the Frog Prince. Professor Gilbert said the Industrial relations provisions were so heavy handed that they probably weren't worth the money the Government had tied to them." There follows list of the ten plagues Labor sees the Government will visit upon the universities through Dr Nelson's reforms. "It will:"
The Senator conclude, "All of this is so unnecessary. Funds for the universities have been appropriated for 2004. The system can function fully without disruption. There is time to get these things right. ...Will the Government's prescription cure the system. We believe it will not. We believe it will poison our great institutions and with them our future and that of our children."
The report (1Mb, pdf format) is available in full or sections (pdf or MS-Word) from http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/eet_ctte/highed2003/report/index.htm. It lists forty recommendations and in addition to the majority report contains a 15 page Government Senators' report (Senator Tierney) and an 11 page supplementary report from the Australian Democrats (Senator Stott Despoja).
Senator Tierney summarises his viewpoint, "The majority report is a document with a short life span, whose findings are of transient relevance, and whose policy ‘directions’ point nowhere. Government senators urge the passage of the Higher Education Support Bill 2003, and accompanying legislation." While Senator Stott Despoja writes, "The Democrats are in agreement with most of the recommendations and observations of the Chair's report. Accordingly, our supplementary comments and recommendations will be confined to additional issues or areas where we have different views to those covered by the Chair."
It is pertinent that Senator Tierney nowhere refers to the forty recommendations of the report nor gives any of his own while Senator Stott Despoja observes, "The focus of the [Government's] package is not on improving educational outcomes, but on a market ideology with proposed changes that would result in increased stratification in the sector and, more broadly, within society. The package fails to address the ‘crisis’ in which our universities have been since the early 1990s, largely as a direct result of poor grant indexation by both Labor and Coalition Governments." She follows with a list of ten recommendations in addition to those laid down in the majority report which include,
That the Government provide HECS-exempt places to be allocated to equity
groups and fields of study deemed to be areas of national priority, or areas where
there is unmet demand for graduates but little private benefit and high public
benefit (eg. Indigenous and low SES students, nursing, science and maths
That the proposed FEE-HELP scheme be withdrawn because of the considerable
evidence pointing to the inequities and hardships it will cause for students.
...that at a minimum, university base grants be increased by 20% over 2 years to take account of unfunded changes in cost structures since 1996.
Michael Murray asks, "What Price The Germination of Research Networks?" (November 7, 2003)
The ARC plan to fund up to 15 Research Networks for about $500,000 a year. Applications are due on 22 March 2004.
To help prepare an application researchers were invited to apply for a maximum of $50,000 in seed funding to be used to survey the field of the network, run a workshop and prepare a web based report due by 9 Feb 2004.
Successful seed funding applications were to be announced by October, but announcements are now delayed until December. However, the 9 Feb deadline has not been moved. This makes the time available to prepare the report rather short, even if one follows the academic tradition of not taking a summer holiday.
The reason for the delay can be guessed from the ARC's announcement:
The ARC received 291 Seed Funding proposals seeking approximately $13.5 million. A sum of $2.5 million is available for Seed Funding. The average requested funding is about $47,000. Over 30 different organisations have submitted applications. The median number of participants listed in the proposals is 27. The median number of different organisations participating in the proposals is 12.
Rumour has it that the ARC will fund half the applications for $17,000 each.
It is interesting to estimate the cost of preparing the applications. At $60 an hour for a Level D and, say, 60 person hours to prepare the application, over $1 million would have been spent just preparing the seed funding applications. The cost of preparing the actual network applications will, of course, be a lot higher than this.
Assoc/Prof Michael Murray, School of Pure Mathematics, University of Adelaide.
Texas Tech University Researcher, Thomas Butler, is on Trial – with the US Department of Justice the Prosecutor. (November 6, 2003)
Butler, an expert on the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, faces 69 criminal charges, including illegally importing bacteria samples into the United States, lying to the FBI about 30 vials of plague that went missing from his laboratory, and mishandling grant funds.
Four Nobel Laureates, Peter Agre, Sidney Altman, Robert Curl, and Torsten Wiesel, Monday, November 3rd issued a statement noting that "a growing number of leading scientists, including ourselves, are acutely worried about the handling of the Thomas Butler case by the Department of Justice. Rather than demonstrating the importance of strict care in the handling of research materials--something that all right-minded scientists appreciate--the determination to convict Dr. Butler and put him in jail sends a strong message to the scientific community that runs counter to the best interests of our country and scientific research. It says: this 62-year-old man, who voluntarily reported missing material and cooperated with federal investigators, is now being repaid with a ruined career and a personal cost from which he and his family will never recover. [We] fear that the message sent by this case will intimidate exactly those most involved in bioterrorism-related research – precisely the scientists we need most in this effort of high national priority. As the counts against Dr. Butler and the penalties for his conviction have risen, so has the level of alarm among scientists witnessing this highly publicized case. The alarm of concerned scientists is independent of the issue of Dr. Butler's guilt or innocence. Their worry is based on the unfair and disproportionate treatment to which he has been subjected by federal authorities."
The journal Science is publishing a daily log of trial events. [Click here]
Is Secondary School Physics in Danger of Dumbing Down? (November 6, 2003)
University physics department heads have formally criticised secondary school physics syllabuses across the country which they believe have become so crammed with history and sociology that the "essential character of physics as an experimental, quantitative discipline is at risk of being lost altogether." A case in point is a question from this years exam: how did Einstein "change the direction of scientific thinking in the 20th century."
A good question perhaps to ask at one of the occasional meetings of the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, or in history courses or the philosophy of science, but is it really an appropriate subject in a course to teach basic physics? Brian James, head of physics at the University of Sydney, made the point that devoting time in physics classes to, "the significance of physics in our modern society" decreases time spent on working problems, thereby trivialising the curriculum. In a phrase, physics like mathematics is a hierarchical subject. If you don't learn and understand the fundamentals you're not going to be able to grasp the next level of complexity. The point being, how then do we produce the students who are to become Australia's next generation of physicists, physical chemists, and biophysicists. Universities are not supposed to be in the business of teaching year 12 physics, or is that going to be part of the Federal Government's higher education reforms we've not yet been informed of?
In fact the problem goes deeper. As one example, part of the new NSW HSC physics syllabus calls for work requiring the use of liquid nitrogen as well as high-temperature superconductors. Few high schools have access to the resources required, and many of the teachers currently employed to teach physics haven't the knowledge to sensibly discuss high-temperature superconductivity. But then it is of course much cheaper and easier to run courses about physics than to give good physics courses.
Leaked Report to the Sydney Morning Herald Concludes Universities Could be Driven "to axe courses and close campuses by forcing them to rely on increased student fees for funding." (November 6, 2003)
The SMH's Aban Contractor has become something of a confidant and conduit for the higher education sector and those of its allies with access to confidential governmental information. She reports in today's Herald that months before the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, released his higher education reform package claiming that no institution would be worse off as a result of its changes, Cabinet was advised of the potential dangers. The particular document obtained by Contractor "analysed the impact of the Government package on so-called 'cluster two' courses - including business studies such as accounting, economics and commerce - across Australia's 38 publicly funded universities." The document specifically states that, "Student contributions would need to increase by 19 per cent in order for institutions to maintain funding for those disciplines at current levels." No mention is made by Contractor of any analyses of "course clusters" other than category two.
Dr. Nelson's department was not prepared to comment on the leaked material.
AVCC Suggests Amendments to the Commonwealth's National Governance Protocols. (November 4, 2003)
Part of the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson's package of reforms for higher education was a group of remarkably prescriptive protocols for university governance. The Chancellors of Australia's universities together with the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee yesterday released a statement on university governance, and proposed amendments to the National Governance Protocols for Public Higher Education Institutions. The Chancellors and AVCC add the specific caveat that the protocols being put forward, "should not, however, be construed in any way as conceding that the Commonwealth Government can or should tie access to needed funding with compliance to protocols whether on governance or workplace relations..."
Following a three page preamble the group lays down its own eleven protocols for the "National Governance for Public Higher Education Institutions". First on the list? "The university must have its objectives specified in the enabling legislation" which throws up a challenge not only to Dr Nelson, and the Coalition cabinet but to all political parties. In addition the point is made that, "Other than the Vice-Chancellor and the Presiding Member of Academic Board each member [of the governing council] should be appointed or elected ad personam," and "the functions of a member [should be] with the interests of the university as a whole paramount rather than simply as a delegate or representative of a particular constituency." Furthermore, the governing body should have the right by 2/3 majority to to remove any member of the governing body for breaches of duty.
The Chancellors and the AVCC do agree that the size of governing bodies should be limited, suggesting 22, that at least two should have financial expertise, and at least one commercial expertise. A majority of the body should be external to the university. They make the final point that a university's ventures should be subject to specific external audit where they "are not subject to audit by a State, Territory or Commonwealth Auditor-General".
Taken as a whole, the document is a strong bid by the Chancellors and the AVCC to maintain university autonomy in determining its reason for existence while showing public responsibility for how it goes about discharging its duty to the community. Whether or not it will help to persuade to Federal Government to stay out of micromanagement