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Shining knight saves higher ed exports

The Knight report on the student visa program - and the acceptance “in principle”of
its 41 recommendations by government – has been warmly welcomed by the
university sector and most commentators. Implementation of the recommendations
over the next year will see Onerous visa requirements for overseas higher education
students will be lifted, and a two- to four-year post-study work visa will be introduced for
foreign university graduates. The government proposes to treat student visa applicants
with a Confirmation of Enrolment (CoE) from a participating Australian university at
Bachelor, Masters or postgraduate by research degree as though they were a lower
migration risk, regardless of their country of origin. Universities Australia summed up
the general mood:

The changes proposed to visa requirements for students enrolled at Australian
universities will help to maintain an internationally competitive international education
sector that confirms Australia as an attractive higher education destination over the long
term.

With the competiveness of Australian universities in the international market ravaged by
recent changes to visa requirements and the high value of the A$, the choices facing Knight
and the government were stark, given that international revenue is critical to the financial
sustainability of the sector. As Knight summed them up, without the prop of international
revenue, universities” would have to either reduce their level of research or reduce their
level of services to Australian students, most likely both. The only way to avoid such
reductions would be for Australian taxpayers to "makeup the shortfall".

Chinese education agents reacted positively, saying the changes would help limit
the damage in the face of fierce competition from North America.

There are, nevertheless, voices of dissonance. The TAFE sector – the publicly owned part
of the VET system – feels much put upon by its exclusion from streamlining
arrangements. TAFE Directors Australia describes it as a “disappointingly one-sided
report favouring universities”, with TDA’s Peter Holden arguing that the nine
factorsused by Knight to justify special treatment for universities equally apply to all
TAFE institutes. But Knight is unapologetic about this preferential treatment of
universities. Regrettably, he says, the most likely places for systemic rorts [such as the
cookery and hairdressing route to skilled migration] continue to be in the VET sector.
While the majority of providers in VET may well be straight up, with 533 registered




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providers offering VET courses to international students in 2010 it is, he says, far too risky
to extend the benefits beyond the current arrangements. Nevertheless TAFE will benefit
from the reduction in financial requirements for prospective students, the opportunity for
TAFE institutes to package courses with universities to achieve a lower assessment level for
students and the removal of the English language threshold requirement.

Peter van Onselen writes that while the changes contained in the Knight review are
generally a positive - for universities needing money and a nation needing population
growth --they must happen in the context of a wider sharpening up of quality among
graduates. Just as the decision to enact the recommendations of the Knight review has
been driven by funding needs, so too has the informal approach of soft marking, which has
afflicted many university courses like a plague.

Bob Birrell warns that the removal of the financial requirement for universities is
“significant and troubling”. This going to lead to a very significant influx of people,
who don’t have the financial means to support themselves, seeking via university
education, access to the Australian labour market.

Equity targets still a long way off

While there has been some progress in improving university participation by
students of low SES background, analysis of DEERW data by The Australian reveals it to
be painfully slow, suggesting the Bradley equity target of 20% participation by 2002 is not
a “gimme”. Overall domestic student enrolments increased by nearly 5% last year but only
by 0.17% in the low SES group. At 13 universities, enrolments of low SES students actually
dropped proportionally., with CQU, RMIT, VU and ACU all registering falls of 0.5
percentage points. ACU V-C Greg Craven said the analysis was “misconceived” pointing to
the fact that ACU has grown by $% in the past three years and that the number of low SES
students has actually increased substantially. System equity may well be improving overall
anyway could it be that enrolments of students from third quartile have ticked up, which,
of itself, would also be welcome.

Invest in science and research, warns Cory

In a speech to the National Press Club, Australian Academy of Science president
Suzanne Cory has warned the federal government it must invest more in science education
and research at all levels, urging the establishment of a Sovereign Fund for Science "to
secure the future prosperity of the nation''. The goal should be to increase Australia's
research and development expenditure to at least 3% of gross domestic product by 2020
from the current spend on R&D of about 2.2 % . She warns that lack of investment is one
of "four things that threaten our ongoing R&D performance and as a consequence our
economic security and ongoing prosperity.'' The others are : poor engagement with the
global science effort, poor science literacy in the workforce and the community and the
decline of interest in science education in schools.

Procurement of research grants a costly, time-consuming lottery




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In a paper published in the British Medical Journal, QUT professor of health economics
Nicholas Graves writes that one in three health research applications could just as well be
chosen for funding by a random lottery as it is by peer review. He says one-third of
applications stand out as excellent, one-third are easily dismissed as below par and the
remaining third are almost totally random in whether they get selected or not. "The fairest
thing to do would be to allocate one-third of grants randomly." He estimates that the 2983
research applications that were submitted to the National Health and Medical Research
Council in 2009 cost a total of $47.9 million - or $17,744 each - to prepare. Earlier this
year, Research Australia released a report providing comprehensive data about the
current status, future opportunities and challenges facing Australia’s health and medical
research sector. It shows that the only category of applications to grow from 2004 to 2009
were those deemed "fundable, but not funded" -- indicating they were rejected despite
having been assessed by experts as worthwhile. In 2009, this group moved to claim more
than half of all grant bids for the first time, accounting for 58% of all applications lodged
with the National Health and Medical Research Council.

CRCs seek additional funding

In a submission to the Treasurer, Wayne Swan and Innovation Minister Kim Carr for the
2012 budget, the Cooperative Research Centre Association is lobbying for extra funding of
$250 million over five years, following a cut of $33.4 million to the CRC program over the
four years to June 2015 in this year’s Budget. According to the CRCA, funding for the
program has declined substantially since 2007, with the number of centres dropping from
72 in 2007 to 44 this year and to 35 next year.

University Discipline Diversity Matters for Research Excellence

Balancing the need to work towards excellence in all universities while selectively funding
a handful to be world class is the challenge the federal government must address after its
first sector-wide research audit, according emeritus Professor Frank Larkins. In
aresearch note for the LH Martin Institute, Professor Larkins says the ERA exercise
has provided valuable information on the diversity and quality of research being
undertaken in various disciplines at Australia universities. While there is considerable
breadth in activities the quality standard varies significantly between universities.
Australia has only around three in every ten of its universities that are delivering research
outputs at a high level for more than 75 percent of the disciplines researched. The size of
an institution’s overall research effort does influence the quality of the discipline outcomes.
More system-wide discussion is required on whether there should be further concentration
and selectively in the higher education research profile. If this is to be an outcome, then the
mechanisms by which it can be achieved require extensive consultation with the sector and
other interested parties. These consultations cannot occur until greater transparency in the
ERA evaluation processes is achieved.

Campus learning 'a cost' to students

Rather than justifying their online programs, universities could be at the point where they
need to justify dragging students onto campus, online education expert Shirley Alexander,
deputy vice-chancellor at University of Technology Sydney has suggested. Shirley Leitch,
deputy vice-chancellor at Swinburne University, said online education was often more




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effective – as well as more convenient – than face-to-face. She said that even when
students came on campus, they now expected e-resources – such as videotaped lectures
and online lecture slides – as a matter of course. Professor Leitch said people tended to
choose learning to suit their circumstances. But she said increasing uptake of online
learning, particularly with the advent of demand-driven funding, made program design
more important than ever. The latest DEEWR student statistics show a 35 per cent
increase in study through Open Universities Australia in 2010 with 45 per cent of that
growth among students aged 30 and over.

NSW looks to move down market-based training path

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has released a consultation paper that outlines
moving to a student-entitlement, market-based model. The reform process is being
pitched as a bid to increase the productivity, skill sets, workplace participation and high-
level skills of the NSW population. The reforms under consideration allow private training
companies to pitch for government training funding on the same footing as the massive
public TAFE system, which taught over 500,000 students last year. The paper says NSW
has agreed to the Coalition of Australian Government's framework for revitalising
vocational education, which includes "a more flexible and demand-driven system'' and
"greater contestability of funding'' between public and private training providers.

UC sends list of merger demands to government

University of Canberra V-C Stephen Parker has told the ACT government his list of
demands over a proposed merger with the local TAFE must be agreed to by the end of
November or all bets are off. High on his list is that the university maintains its name,
that all functions of Canberra Institute of Technology are transferred to UC, that there will
be no forced redundancies during an 18-month transitional phase and the costs of an
amalgamation be borne by the territory or federal government, or both. In a submission to
the ACT government, Professor Parker says if a definitive answer has not been given by the
November 30 deadline, he will move ahead in recruiting international students, preparing
for a demand-driven system and "generally charting the university's own destiny". He said
if the merger does not go ahead, he is willing to continue negotiations with CIT over the
joint establishment of a polytechnic. But CIT chief executive Adrian Marron says CIT is
interested in pursuing a new type of institution that follows the recommendations
contained in Denise Bradley's report. It is not interested in being taken over. "If a
takeover is the bottom line, then we won't be merging."




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