Higher Education Policy Reforms

As you may well have read or heard in the media, the Federal Government has released its long-awaited proposed higher education policy. While we are still analysing the package to determine what it means for CSU, I wanted to share some initial thoughts with you.

As Minister Birmingham indicated, this package has been designed to “spread the pain,” with students set to pay more, universities to receive less funding and the Government achieving smaller savings than it originally intended.  I think it has been quite cleverly constructed to do this, to address some long-standing issues as well as provide some sweeteners to go with the cuts.

One significant part of the package is the impact on students and graduates.  The ratio of student to Commonwealth payments for degrees will shift, with students to pay on average 46% (up from 42%) of the cost of their degree. This is probably not as bad as we had feared.  In addition, HECS-HELP repayment will now begin at $42,000 at 1% repayments which on the other hand is lower than we had expected.  Acknowledging these, I believe investment in higher education represents good value, particularly for a university like CSU which has very strong graduate employment outcomes.

Another significant part is the imposition of two 2.5% efficiency dividends on Commonwealth Supported Place (CSP) funding to the sector in 2018 and 2019 which the Department of Education estimates will overall have a 2.8% impact on CSU teaching and learning funding.

On the Minister’s figures, combining both measures, the Federal Government will achieve a cumulative saving of approximately 10% in expenditure which is less than their original intention of saving 20% of Commonwealth expenditure.

You will see the Government justifying these cuts by stating that universities have more money than they need to deliver teaching and learning.  This is based on a report commissioned from Deloitte which shows that Universities only spend about 85% of their funding on teaching and learning.  Previously, there has been an acceptance that teaching money supports somewhere between 15-30% research and community engagement.  If we accept this metric, universities are at best close to breakeven or actually underfunded by about 15% which is consistent with previous studies.

The Government also claims that the Deloitte study shows that university funding has risen faster than costs based when compared to previous findings of the Lomax-Smith Review (2011).  In my view, these two studies can’t be directly compared.  They were conducted using different samples and methodology so you can’t draw clear conclusions by comparing the two.

Overall, while the package is less severe than we feared, I of course do not welcome yet another round of cuts to university funding.  I am very concerned that these cuts will again challenge our mission of extending a university education to Australians who have previously been excluded from higher education.

Over recent years, we rightly sought to improve our efficiency, and best use the public money provided to us.  University staff have worked hard for this and should be proud of their achievements.

We will therefore be strongly communicating that further squeezing budgets can only have a negative impact on our ability to serve our regions.  As we all acknowledge, universities are a critical part of driving innovation and we need to help rural and regional Australia expand and grow our economy.

A portion of our funding, 7.5%, will now be contingent on reaching performance measures. In 2018 these relate to providing teaching and research data, as well as compliance with the new admissions transparency requirements. In 2019 however, we understand these measures may reference retention and employment outcomes amongst others. This will require extensive discussion with the Government to ensure it really does support universities to do better work.  I also note that one of the cuts that has already been applied to the sector is the removal of additional performance funding.

In positive news for the University, the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) will now be moved into the Higher Education Support Act (HESA) legislation, guaranteeing the fund moving forward. As we all know, HEPPP has played an important role assisting us to extend a university education across our communities, and I am pleased this wonderful work by many dedicated CSU staff may continue and have certainty.

Sub-bachelor degrees will now be part of the demand-driven system, as long as they meet industry needs, which is a great outcome. Likewise, the current clinical loading for medicine will be extended to dentistry and veterinary science programs. This will provide an additional $1394 per student. CSU has advocated strongly for this outcome, and we are pleased to see it included in the policy package.

Finally, we are still working to understand how a number of other measures will impact universities and CSU in particular. Postgraduate Commonwealth Supported Places will initially be cut and then be moved to be student-centred on merit, with the scholarship tied to the individual student and applicable at any institution. We will need to understand how ‘merit’ is defined to appreciate what this will mean for students – for example teachers in regional NSW studying Masters degrees.

The Federal Government is also to provide seed funding for eight new regional study hubs, based on the Geraldton and Cooma models where they support many students.  We have had experience with both of these so look forward to getting more details on this.

Lastly, a new Work Integrated Learning program is to be developed, with work experience able to be counted towards degree programs and with better support from Commonwealth funds.  CSU has a strong track record in work integrated learning, and if this helps to better support students on placement that would be a really good thing.

Obviously this is a significant package of policy measures and changes. We are committed to considering each fully, and advocating strongly to ensure the best results for our institution, staff and students.

You can see our initial media release and response here:

20170502 Higher Education Policy Media Release

As always, if you have any thoughts I am happy to hear from you.  I look forward to providing more detail and analysis as it becomes available.

2016 Close

The main graduation week is now done with only Port Macquarie to go, and that means it’s very close to the end of the year.  This has been a very big year for us and now we’re at the end of it, I think it’s important to reflect on the achievements of staff and students and their contributions to our communities.
I know that the transition to three faculties and the common support model has been challenging and that we are still bedding down some of the processes and practices.  I met with the Heads of School a few weeks back and they commented that having helped others through the change process they were now feeling it themselves.  As we have mentioned before, this has been one of the biggest change processes the university has done and I am very proud of the effort and commitment that staff have put into making it successful.  I do appreciate we still have a way to go on this.
Hopefully, staff have seen the videos and information to promote the revised values framework.  Built from our ethos of yindyamarra winhanganha, “the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to live well in a world worth living in”, the four values of insightful, inclusive, impactful and inspiring seem to have resonated very well.  Given that they were created from consultative workshops with staff this is not surprising, but I have been pleased to see how people are using them to guide the thinking within the various areas of the university.  Many staff have been taking part in the Values Ambassador programs to help continue to spread them and I look forward to the continuation of that work in 2017.

As I mentioned, it has been a year of great achievement and perhaps sometimes it can be hard to see the big picture across the University from our individual areas. This year, we have put together just a small selection of statistics and facts about exactly what we have acheived this year. I would urge you all to take a look – it is a snapshot so it doesn’t have everything in there, but it is a very impressive reminder of the scale and achievements of staff and students in a very busy year:  2016 Achievements

At the last meeting of Council, the new Strategic Direction document for 2017-2022 was approved.  This has been built on the back of the strategic foresight exercise that was carried out, and the four possible scenarios for 2030 created as part of this were posted on Yammer.  The new strategy will be worked through, planned and explained in more detail next year, but the three big areas are engaging with our communities to help them build their future, transforming our learning and teaching and finally to underpin all of this, building our internal capability.

There is no doubt that the higher education sector is increasingly competitive and we can’t stand still.  Some of the new strategy will be a continuation of work done on the existing plan and some will be new.  I am ever mindful of the complaint that there are too many things happening and we have tried to make the new strategy structure as simple as possible while still hitting the major initiatives we need to pursue.  There will be devil in the detail as we work through it and we will have to make sure that we can resource and deliver the changes we are looking for.  There is significant budget protected for strategy and we have learned a lot through the Program Logic model being used for the current plans so I am confident that we can do this.  We expect that the strategy will be split into three two-year phases so that we have some shorter chunks of work to concentrate on.  I have just signed a renewed contract with the University Council for another five years and, given I don’t think you ought to keep a Vice-Chancellor for very much longer than 10 years, that should allow some transition time for the next incumbent.  But there’s a long way to go until we get to that.
Aside from beginning on the new strategy next year, we will also negotiate a new Enterprise Agreement, undertake an independent review of the three faculty common support model implementation, and will once again ask our staff how they are tracking in the Your Voice Survey.  Given the comments in the last Voice Survey around communication, we have tried some different approaches to communication this year.  I have done smaller more conversational roadshows focussed on particular work areas across the campuses (although the Faculty of Science ones  ended up being pretty big).  Toni Downes has done her regular communication around the Faculty changes.  We had the multi-media rollout of the new Values framework.  There have also been changes to the Staff web page in line with the overall revamp of the website.  The Staff Hub has been delayed a little because priority was put on the Online Course Brochures to assist with student recruitment.  The planning and pilot work has informed the Staff web page refresh and the new version is currently planned to go live in May.  Communication is something you can never do enough of, so we are always interested to hear ideas or feedback on what does and does not work.
As I mentioned at the start, we now have only Port Macquarie graduations to go to.  This year I wasn’t able to get to all campuses, sadly missing Dubbo and Orange, but in the last week I did officiate at ten ceremonies from Parramatta to Melbourne, Albury, Wagga Wagga and Bathurst.  It’s a huge week, but it is just wonderful to meet the graduating students and their families and be able to celebrate their success.  We had some amazing graduation (and graduate) speakers, and in a very emotional moment, Cheryl Honey accepted a posthumous Honorary Doctorate for her husband Geoff Honey who we tragically lost this year.  Geoff’s parents were also in attendance and it was fitting to be able to pay tribute to his work and life – he will continue to be greatly missed.
I want to thank you all for the work you have completed throughout 2016 and I wish you all a safe, happy and restful Christmas and New Year break.
See you in 2017!

Final Post for 2015

I’m writing this as graduations for 2015 draw to a close. It has been a big year in which a lot has happened, including a lot of change. I am very proud of the achievements of staff and students throughout this year and in particular of our staff for maintaining their focus on students while we have been going through the change process.

Graduations have been, once again, a wonderful occasion. I aim to get to at least one graduation from each Faculty and at least one at each campus and by the end will have been to every campus except Canberra. It is a very special day for the students and their families and, when there is the opportunity, it is great to hear a little of their story as they walk across the stage. I wanted to thank all the staff from across the University who have been involved in the graduations process and a particular thank you to academic staff for processing and being there for the students. For the first time we held a graduation ceremony in Port Macquarie where we congratulated about 130 graduates, some from Port but some who had also studied via distance and online education.

In research, on the last set of audited figures, which are for 2014, we increased both income and publications significantly against 2013. The Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) results, which were released earlier this month, also show that we have grown the number of areas of research rated at world class or above significantly from the previous round in 2012. We now have 16 compared to 9 in 2010. This is a testament to the great work produced by our researchers, the vast majority of it addressing issues in our communities. We also have our first ‘5’ rating, or well above world standard, for Horticulture which includes wine production.

I am looking forward to 2016. We are now almost at the end of appointing people to the new Common Support Model structures in the Faculties. Once again, I acknowledge that this has been a disruptive process for staff and I know that some staff members are still waiting on the outcomes of appointment processes. However, my sense from the staff roadshows conducted over the last couple of weeks is that people are turning their minds to the new structures and want to be sure that we get the best out of them. I would like to thank all staff involved in this as it has been a significant effort both for applicants and those making the selections.  As advised last week, we will cut over to the new structures in the middle of next year in between the two major sessions. Planning is underway at present for the training development to support staff moving into their new roles and details of this will be advised in the first few months of next year.

The Engineering and Law programs will commence at the start of next year, and student numbers for these programs are looking healthy. The new Port Macquarie Campus build will also be complete in February and is a great building which will be an excellent home for the students and staff there.

We have increased our marketing activity this year and while it is early days, this is showing promising signs for 2016 with numbers forecast to increase from 2015. It is clear that the whole sector has become a lot more competitive. Applications and offers are strongly up but we still need to be attentive to conversion to encourage students to choose us – this will, I think, be the new reality. However, at least on the current figures we appear to be adapting well.

I have mentioned in the staff roadshows that CSU has achieved some amazing things:

  • During 2013 we had the largest number of Indigenous students and completions in Australia. The 2014 figures have now been released and University of Newcastle have overtaken us again – we have 908 and they have 914 so it’s still pretty close.
  • We are the largest provider of postgraduate IT education in Australia.
  • We are the world’s largest provider of university education in law enforcement, counter-terrorism, emergency management, customs and border security studies.
  • Our 15 year partnerships with four Chinese universities are among some of the longest of any Australian university.
  • Our graduates continue to enjoy some of the highest employment rates in Australia.
  • The Veterinary Science School had commented that with a 97.1% teaching satisfaction rating in the UES survey (and an approximate 3% error bound), no-one in the country could be shown to have a better teaching rating in the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) indicators. This is indeed good and prompted us to go looking where the raw number placed overall. Vet Science is in the top 6% on this basis, but it turns out that CSU Occupational Therapy had the fourth highest ranking in the country out of 1000 university/subject area combinations. Unfortunately, the Occupational Therapy subject area has been removed from QILT so this isn’t easily visible, but it does show that we have some terrific ratings for our teaching.

Being Vice-Chancellor of CSU is an amazing and privileged role to have. To close off, I wanted to let people know that I am in the process of finalising a new contract with the University Council to extend for a further five years beyond the end of my current contract period, which runs to the end of 2016. I do hope and intend to be here until the end of 2021. CSU is making a real and positive difference in people’s lives and for its communities. To my mind, there is no better contribution to make than that.

I wish everyone a peaceful and safe Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

 

PS: At the end of February, we have entered a CSU team in the Royal Far West Ride fundraising ride for Country Kids.  Royal Far West have provided health services to rural and remote children for nearly 100 years.  We have been finding ways to collaborate with them as our missions are strongly aligned and we have had dental students placed at their Manly site.  The ride is 380km over three days from Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour. I will be taking part along with Dr Tracey Green, Greg Linsdell and Johnathan Hewis from the Port Macquarie Campus (pictures taken at the graduation this week).  They are all very much fitter than me and what seemed like a good idea a few months back is now coming round at a rapid pace.  If anyone would be generous enough to support the team, the fundraising page is at http://rideforcountrykids2016.gofundraise.com.au/page/CSU-Ride4CountryKids

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May Update

Now at the end of May and way past time for another blog post. There has been a lot happening over the last couple of months.

What Are Universities For?

There were two events in Canberra in the same week at the beginning of March. The first was a British Council Global Education Dialogue on ‘Catapults to Commercialisation – How Can Universities Use Their Research More Effectively’. At this, UK universities shared their experience of research commercialisation and engagement. It was interesting to me to see how far university thinking in the UK has come. From memory, universities had to be steered and bribed by the government into taking industry engagement seriously but have now embraced it as well as the benefits. One comment, in relation to managing the academic enterprise as being like herding cats, was that you need to move the food bowl. This is on the basis that academia is a prestige, rather than a financial, economy and academics respond strongly to prestige indicators.

The second event was the Universities Australia conference. The conference was interesting in that there were much stronger themes around industry engagement and social outcomes and less discussion on how we push Australian universities up the global research rankings. To my mind, all of this was good.

The opening address of the conference was from Michael Crow who is the President of Arizona State University (ASU). A charismatic and compelling speaker, he spoke about the approach they have taken at ASU to the ‘New American University’. He had a nice metaphor of conventional notions of university esteem being based on a “metal railroad of status” which require universities in front of you to pull over into a siding before you can improve your own position. From his standpoint this means defining universities in terms of who they keep out rather than who they include. He argues that for ASU it was much better to take a different route and they have sought to increase access and define themselves by who they include and by how well they work with industry. They have carved a distinctive niche for themselves and have made significant improvements in retention.

ASU’s approach to strategic planning and student focus were influential when we reviewed the CSU strategy in 2012. I visited ASU last January and know that using residences and socialising students well was a key part of their strategy. They also have an excellent at-risk monitoring system for their students which allows them to target support quite carefully. I know that Michael’s talk resonated with a lot of people, and many regional universities in particular felt that he spoke to the sense of mission that they share. I think it struck a chord generally with the concerns that universities may have begun to lose sight of their purpose and I suspect that we will see a lot more debate about if not a ‘New Australian University’, at least a renewed idea of the Australian university. Not before time in my view and I have already heard a number of Vice-Chancellors referring to Michael Crow’s vision in describing their own institutions.

Also at the conference, the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, spoke and amongst his observations pointed out that there is a significant mismatch between the profile of the research done in Australian universities and that of the economy. Going back to the issue of higher education being a prestige economy, we do need to find ways to celebrate success in more than just international journal publications. Last year, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) proposed an Impact and Engagement for Australia index to complement the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) exercise and the Australian Technology Network of universities also commissioned research on the impact trial in the ERA in 2011 as well as a report on how to improve the relationship between universities and industry which encourages current government initiatives like the Industry Growth Centres.

Talloires Network, Engagement and Global Rankings

Thanks to a suggestion from Jan Reid AC, formerly Vice-Chancellor at University of Western Sydney, I have been elected to the Steering Committee of the Talloires Network of universities dedicated to Civic Engagement. CSU has not previously been a member of this but we are in the process of joining. The Leaders Conference held in December 2014 in South Africa noted the tension between community engagement and the agenda that is being driven by research-focussed global rankings schemes.

I have noted in some of my commentary on the fee deregulation issue that I do not know what tangible outcomes arise from having a certain number of universities in the Top 100 or Top 50 of any of the rankings schemes. I also think that we seem to be placing far too much reliance on rankings, both in terms of their accuracy and in terms of what they represent. For example, in the Time Higher Education (THE) Rankings, University of Melbourne has been the top ranked University appearing between 2011 to 2015 at 45, 43, 39, 43 and 41. Now, universities are reasonably slow to change and the THE rankings are based significantly on reputation surveys so it’s not as if we are dealing with a precise scientific measurement. However, in some of the press commentary there was a bemoaning of the drop of Australian universities from 2013-14 and a celebration of the increase from 2014-15. It would seem much more likely to me that the rankings are only accurate to +/- 10% and we probably should be thinking about much longer-term trends. On top of that, in the particular case of the THE Rankings, the assessment of teaching quality is based on staff-student ratios. This is a meaningless and unhelpful measure of teaching quality in my view. For all of these reasons, we have decided not take part in the THE Rankings for now at least.

Federal Reforms and Federal Budget

In March we also saw Minister Pyne’s deregulation reforms defeated for a second time in the Senate. It is really not clear where the government will go from here although the Minister has said he will re-introduce the reform package again. The Government is sticking to the line that the reforms will pass, although I can find few people who believe this. Of course, keeping the reforms as proposed legislation allows the Government to count the savings they have proposed which includes the 20% cut to Commonwealth Support for Universities and this is part of their explanation as to how they will reduce the size of the deficit.

We have just had the 2015 Budget announcements and one of them is that the money to pay for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme will come from the Sustainable Research Excellence Fund (SRE). This is in fact a cut of future increased funds so the SRE money will not reduce, but it will not increase as fast as was planned. The SRE funds were to help support the indirect costs of research based on the Bradley and Lomax-Smith reviews which identified that universities were underfunded. Once again, when budgets get tight, government have little compunction about raiding university funding.

The Government also announced that the Office for Learning and Teaching would be abolished and its functions put out for tender to universities. I think this is a shame. The Australian Learning and Teaching Council was an independent national body through which academics could demonstrate that their work in teaching and learning was achieving national and international prominence. Moving this under the wing of the Department of Education as the Office for Learning and Teaching diminished this and spreading it across universities will diminish it further. Going back to the idea of higher education being a prestige economy, it is important that academics are able to claim appropriate kudos for their work.  I think the sector will need to ensure that we create structures which achieve the equivalent effect.

Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors Visit to Wagga Wagga

On 18th and 19th May we welcomed the Universities Australia Plenary meeting of Vice-Chancellors and the University Chancellors’ Committee meetings to the Wagga Wagga campus.  The Mayor, Rod Kendall, hosted a civic welcome at the Wagga Art Gallery.  Since Rod didn’t use it, I pinched one of his lines to say that Wagga is the centre of the universe because it’s halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, halfway between Auckland and Perth, and halfway between New York and London – if you fly the right way. I also reminded visitors that Wagga can also claim a critical cultural contribution as the (admittedly fictional) birthplace of Dame Edna Everage and the little known fact that the Eurythmics started in a Wagga hotel.

The visit was a great opportunity to showcase the facilities at Wagga including the National Life Sciences Hub, the Veterinary Clinic and Equine Facilities and the Animation Laboratories.  From the feedback we got people really enjoyed it.  For the visitors, the end was marred slightly by an enormous thunderstorm but the locals were just glad of the rain.

February Update

So, getting towards the end of February and time for another blog update.

Welcome to New Students

This week we have ‘O’ week and get to welcome a new crop of students to the University.  I met the new students in residences at a welcome ceremony on Saturday.  One particularly nice aspect was to meet a pair of our alumni who are Mitchell College graduates and married after meeting here.  Their daughter is now starting to study with us so we hope it continues on through the generations.

Federal Reform Process

I thought I’d start with where the Government’s higher education reform proposals are up to.  It is a little hard to tell but, despite Minister Pyne’s dedication, it looks pretty unlikely that the reform package will get through in anything like its current form.  I’m basing this on what I can tell coming out of Canberra and the public statements of cross-benchers.  Many people will heave a sigh of relief about this, but I seriously doubt that it means we will simply continue with the status quo.  The Minister has indicated that funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme and Future Fellows is in doubt and it is not clear whether the government has a Plan B.  It is also not clear what policies the Labor party is intending to advance.  I hope that we will get some clarity about this in the not too distant future so that we can plan with some certainty and provide advice to students.

Service Improvement Project

We have been looking at ways of finding efficiency within our operations and this has been split into two streams.  One of these is looking at how we organise administrative support across the Faculties and the Divisions.  In this, we really need structures which allow us to concentrate on improving our service to students and academics.  This work will continue through the year.  The second stream looked at a number of services which other universities have outsourced and has tested whether external providers could deliver them more cost-effectively.  Staff were advised on Friday about the outcomes of this.  I am pleased that, for the most part, we are delivering services at a cost that matches or betters external providers.  I also want to thank staff who identified additional efficiencies through the process that will provide significant savings, all of which help to balance the budget and reinvest in academic outcomes.

Strategy Reload

As mentioned in the last post, we are finalising the sub-plans in the 2015-16 Strategy document.  Members of the Senior Executive are working to ensure that we understand all the cross-linkages between the plans.  These documents will be the structure in which our activities are conducted, and budget is allocated over the next two years.  These are the critical priorities we need to attend to if we are to be successful.  Once the plans are completed, we will move on to look at critical measures associated with the plans so we can monitor our success.

Wellness and Wellbeing Expo

Coming up over the next month or so is the Charles Sturt University Wellness and Wellbeing Expo.  The health of staff and students is really important to us and there is lots of information and stalls to help people think about how to pursue a healthy lifestyle.  I attended the Bathurst expo last year and met a range of really interesting people – I would encourage everyone to go along.

Welcome to 2015

Welcome Back

This is the first blog post for 2015 and a very warm welcome back to the New Year. Of course, the first month of 2015 is nearly over and it already feels like a lot has happened. With graduation week, the end of 2014 got very busy and I didn’t manage to get a blog post up so I wanted to begin by closing off a few 2014 issues and celebrating some aspects of that.

2014 Retrospective

First, in December we appointed our new Chancellor Dr Michele Allan. Michele has a significant background in agribusiness, rural and regional industry and engagement with Indigenous issues all of which are an excellent fit for the interests of Charles Sturt University. She also has extensive board and governance experience which will be of enormous benefit to the University given the changeable external environment, on which more later. We also farewelled the outgoing Chancellor Dr Lawrie Willett, AO in December after 12 years service. During Lawrie’s tenure the university grew substantially and he was a tireless advocate for CSU’s interests. I owe a particular debt to Lawrie, first for chairing the selection panel that appointed me but also for mentoring me through my first three years as Vice-Chancellor. I will really miss Lawrie, but equally am very much looking forward to working with Michele. Michele chaired her first University Council meeting in December at which we reviewed performance for the year. We have achieved a lot. Particular highlights that I raised were:

  • We turned 25 years old as a university.
  • Figures released in 2014 showed that in 2013 CSU had the largest number of Indigenous higher education enrolments in Australia and also the largest number of completions, overtaking the University of Newcastle which has traditionally held this spot.
  • The Kajulu advertising students team won the national competition for the sixth straight year.
  • The Centre for Customs and Excise Studies came on board which means that CSU is apparently now the largest provider of policing and security higher education in the world.
  • Chris Blanchard gained $2.15M in funding for the Industrial Transformation Training Centre on Functional Grains.
  • The Institute for Land, Water and Society was successful in winning $6.9M of funding over five years to monitor water flows in the Murray-Darling.
  • We won four Office of Learning and Teaching Citations and an OLT Program award for the School of Community Health Overseas Workplace Learning Program.
  • Thanks to the success of the NSW Country Eagles Rugby team which we sponsored, and the sporting nature of my fellow Vice-Chancellors, the CSU flag flew over the University of Sydney, Bond University, Southern Cross and Macquarie. We were lucky only to be beaten by Melbourne’s team and (oddly) Melbourne doesn’t have a university flag.

A very significant achievement is that we controlled costs really well in 2014 – not without pain – and actually underspent the budget slightly for the year. This is a terrific result and the University Council specifically asked me to thank everyone for the effort that went into this.

Graduation week was very enjoyable – when I officiate I really enjoy meeting the students as they cross the stage and the families afterwards.  Someone floated the idea of ‘Gumption Awards’ for students and alumni who have created significant change and I wanted to give a couple of special mentions on this from last year. The first was to Daniella Greenwood who spoke at our Bathurst Arts graduation. She has made some real innovations in Aged Care and my favourite quote from Daniella “I’m still waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing?’” The second was to our Veterinary Science student Cassandra MacDonald who helped to bring Coles to account on milk pricing.

Strategy Reload

(External readers, please note that some of these documents are behind the CSU firewall).
You will recall that we reworked the Strategy in 2012 when I took on the Vice-Chancellor’s role.  Last year we recognised that the external situation was becoming very unpredictable with the political impasse over the Federal Government’s higher education reforms.  We also recognised that competition in the higher education sector has increased dramatically and that we still had a sense that we were trying to do to much.
At the Senior Executive Committee level we agreed that we should go through a process to distil the Strategy further.  With a nod to The Matrix series of movies, I suggested that we call this Strategy Reloaded and it has become known as the ‘Strategy Reload’ – an overhaul focusing on page 3 of the existing Strategy document. The reload content and the process is based on a Program Logic Model approach.  We have also decided that given the unpredictability in the funding environment, we need to shorten our timelines to a two-year cycle. The page at this link below shows the University Council approved outcomes across 8 refined themes for the period 2015-2016.
While still settling the final versions, draft subplans including outputs and activities for each of the eight themes are provided in the relevant links from that page.  Each plan still has a Senior Executive Committee owner who will be tasked with implementation and delivery of the outputs and outcomes.  Our efforts in the first quarter of 2015 will be to ‘fettle’ these plans, work through integration and dependencies, detail delivery dates and responsibilities and make it happen.

2015 Admissions Numbers

One of the critical issues of course is what this year’s student load will be.  We anticipated that there might be some effect from the uncertainty around student fees and federal funding – certainly this is a question that was asked by the media in relation to the offer rounds.  It is always uncertain at this point of the year because as the sector has become more competitive, the ratios between applications, offers and acceptances have changed.  We have also made various changes to our practice along with other universities including everyone making earlier offers.
We were hoping to lift student numbers in 2015 but at this stage that looks unlikely.  We appear to be somewhat down on direct undergraduate DE offers (these are the students we would expect to be most worried about increased fees), up on direct internal offers, down on offers through the NSW and Victorian admission centres, down on Commonwealth-supported postgraduate offers (which we have deliberately restricted due to caps on funding), up on full fee paying postgraduate (which we have moved students to because of the previous category), down on international students on regional campuses (although numbers at our Study Centres in Melbourne and Sydney have been growing strongly), and up on higher degree by research students.  All in all, we expect to come in somewhat below our target but there is a lot of work going on before term starts to contact potential students so we will have to wait and see.  I would like to thank the many staff involved in the admissions process, not least the Course Directors, who have been working very hard on this over the last couple of months.
I hope everyone is enjoying the start to the year, if things become clearer on the Federal Government reforms I will publish a further blog post in the next week or two.

More Thoughts on the Federal Budget

I started writing this blog post a couple of weeks ago whilst on leave. I was reading the Australian news while overseas and saw that Minister Pyne, in introducing the Higher Education Reform legislation into Parliament, described it as “some of the greatest higher education and research reforms of our time”. I would agree that the proposals are the most significant, whether they are the greatest or not remains to be seen.

The proposals are now in Senate Committee and I thought it was worth setting out a few thoughts as the process of putting these proposals through the Parliament begins, as well as giving my view on what should happen.

If you read the history of Higher Education, one almost constant theme is that of a sense of crisis so I don’t want to overuse that word. However, we really do have a fork in the road in front of us with the proposal to deregulate fees. I would like to highlight a number of themes from the proposals and work through each of them:

  • Cost sharing between government and students
  • Fee deregulation and price competition
  • HELP Interest Rates
  • The Commonwealth Scholarships fund proposals
  • Market imperfections and how to address them

Cost sharing between government and students

I commented in a previous post on whether the proposed level of cost sharing was fair and I won’t rehash that again. A major point of debate has been whether increasing student fees is likely to deter people from Higher Education. The Minister has referred to the UK experience to suggest that it will not. The European Commission recently released a report on cost sharing:

http://ec.europa.eu/education/news/2014/20140623-cost-sharing_en.htm

I would recommend everyone to read this because it is a very thoughtful analysis of long-run responses to cost shifting to students. It does suggest that in the long run, it’s difficult to put students off higher education and that a well targeted loan scheme takes a lot of the sting out of it. However, the UK experience is still very fresh – graduates, with their larger debts, are only just emerging. I understand from UK sources that the impact on graduates’ ability to borrow is already being felt and that will feed back into student decision making. Also, there has been a large drop-off in part-time and mature age students (around 50%). There may be more than one explanation for this but we know in Australia that these students are more cost conscious than school leavers. This has not been talked about very much, but for graduates the effect of these changes will be tantamount to a significant tax slug until they pay off the additional costs of their study. For students already working they may well feel it immediately. We might expect that this will affect CSU more than others as we have a high proportion of mature age students. Given the importance of these students to maintaining viability for regional institutions, this could be a very big problem indeed.

Having said all that, it is very plain from talking to people in Canberra that if we do not have students accepting a greater share of the cost burden, the only politically realistic alternative is ongoing cuts and/or putting caps back on the sector. I don’t think either of those is a good solution. That is why I grudgingly accept that some modified form of this package is probably the most sensible way forward.

Fee deregulation and price competition

You only need to read the media, and see which Vice-Chancellors are pushing hardest for this, to understand who are going to be the big winners. It will undoubtedly be the Group of Eight universities because they on average have the wealthiest students and the most elite brand value based (wrongly in my view) on research intensivity. The Minister has asserted that price competition will keep fees down. For most products, given equal quality, consumers will choose the cheaper option. So far, I have been able to find zero instances in the literature where students choose a higher educational option because it’s cheaper. They may choose less expensive options because that’s all they can afford but this is not the same thing. As far as I can tell, education is a Veblen good where the more expensive it is, the more attractive it is. You only have to look at the behaviour around chasing ATAR scores to see the truth of this – this is the biggest price that school students pay in terms of their time and a very real one at that. We know that students ‘ATAR shop’ for courses based on the most prestigious course they can get into, not necessarily what they really want to do. I think it is unfortunate that in higher education we have created a lot of this ourselves through our obsession with research esteem. I think it is up to universities such as ours to make a different case around educational value-add. I think this is one of the potential benefits of fee deregulation – we can stop talking about why everything is the same and start to celebrate difference.

The opportunity to think about something other than equivalence may be particularly useful in relation to blended and distance learning. Most of the discussion we have had up to now has been about whether distance education is as good as face-to-face teaching. We have also tended to see any increase in staff-student ratio as a bad thing. It seems to me this has unnecessarily restricted our thinking and has made it difficult to talk about innovation. Most other industries have used technology to improve the customer experience whilst reducing the human labour required. We have in fact used technology to increase work for staff whilst delivering a better service for students. Noting the point above that society is not willing to fund ever-increasing costs for higher education, this is not sustainable. Therefore I believe we have to start examining how we can use technology to improve outcomes for students whilst reducing the amount of effort required from university staff. Universities have done this brilliantly in research where we doubled productivity over about 15 years and I believe this was largely due to effective use of technology for literature searching, data analysis and publishing. We have not bemoaned this as a loss of quality and we have to get into the same mindset around teaching.

HELP Interest Rates

The proposal to impose real interest rates on HELP debt seems to be the one that has the psychologically biggest impact because of the idea of debt that just keeps getting bigger. I think there is general acceptance that we need compromise on this, and I don’t think we should accept the reform package unless we get it. As noted above, I am concerned that education markets do not work like other markets, particularly where there are loan schemes to support the costs. I believe a progressive interest rate above a threshold provides the best mechanism to retain pressure on costs whilst also being equitable for lower income graduates.

Commonwealth Scholarships

Again, I covered my objections to this scheme in an earlier post. I can see the political necessity for this fund because the selective research-intensive institutions are often accused of social as well as educational elitism and there need to be mechanisms to address this. However, I do believe that if the scheme is implemented as proposed it will impose an immediate market distortion by forcing the most selective urban institutions to chase students they would not otherwise try to recruit. On modelling we have done, and using low SES as a proxy, on quite modest fee increases the Group of Eight could end up with at least 10 times as much money per equity students as regional institutions. I believe it would be more appropriate to make the proportion of money that institutions have to set aside proportional to the number of equity students they currently recruit with perhaps a cap and a floor. This would avoid any immediate market distortions but still provide a mechanism by which institutions can support equity students as they grow their numbers, if that is what they choose to do.

Market Imperfections

Overall, as the Minister has pointed out, this scheme shifts costs to students and the Minister has linked this to the ability of universities to compete in the global research rankings. Clearly then, universities’ ability to compete is going to have far more to do with the ability of their students to pay than the relevance of their mission to their communities or even their competence in research. Given the spread of wealth across the regions, this is likely to undermine the ability of regionally based institutions to support their communities. This is a perverse outcome and I think it is essential that there is a source of funds which redresses this imbalance.

We will continue to work with the Government, Universities Australia, the opposition parties and the independents to get appropriate modifications to the Government’s proposals. I think it is essential that we develop policy settings which are reasonable and which can last into the longer term. In our strategic risk assessment last year we identified government policy change as our most significant risk which we could not mitigate effectively and so it has proved. We have a clear plan for how we would like to develop the university and we know what we want to achieve for our communities and our students. I would love to have a period of policy stability when we could actually get on and do the work we want to do. This in fact is the ‘masterly inactivity’ that Tony Abbott suggested would be the best approach when he spoke to the Universities Australia conference in 2013. Clearly, we have not had that but even so we must push on with trying to do the best job for our communities and our students irrespective of government policy.