How many pages does a Christmas card have?

According to a recent Senate estimates hearing, the government is seeking legal advice on how many pages a Christmas card has. The trigger for this seemingly absurd inquiry comes from the government’s new rules on how MPs can spend their printing and communication entitlements. Every page of material MPs distribute has to have on it:

This material has been produced at Australian Government expense by [insert name of member].

But the Department doesn’t know how to interpret the every page requirement for communications that are folded paper or card. Does folding turn one page into two? Wouldn’t stating the funding source once for each document be (more than) enough?

Other aspects of this regulation turn it from being merely ridiculous into something more sinister. MPs aren’t allowed to use their allowance at all for ‘electioneering’: Continue reading “How many pages does a Christmas card have?”

A chance to get student amenities financing right

The government’s student amenities fee legislation has been rejected by the Senate.

While I did not support the original VSU bill, and am unpersuaded by the reasons given for rejecting the government’s legislation, I am pleased that it has been defeated.

Even by the low standards of Australian higher education policymaking, Kate Ellis’s student amenities financing plan was a shocker.

As I noted when it was introduced, it sought to impose new unfunded service obligations on universities – and this despite Labor cutting recurrent university funding in real terms in every year of its first term. While they have thrown money at capital projects, their policies on recurrent funding have been worse than the Coalition’s.

The bill would have required universities to make complex distinctions between similar services funded from their Commonwealth subsidies and from the new amenities fee.

The bill would have required universities to create an entirely new and completely unnecessary new student loan scheme, SA-HELP. Anyone who needs to borrow $250 for amenities will also need to borrow for tuition under HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP, and so these should be used for all loans. The SA-HELP alternative would have imposed bureaucratic costs on universities and created confusion for students.

In short, it is a relief that this bureaucratic monster has been strangled at birth.

While the government will probaby reintroduce the bill and hope that an Opposition terrified of an early election will pass it, the more sensible thing from them to do would be to refer it to the review they have promised on base funding levels for universities. Amenities fees are just one component of a much larger funding and pricing issue, and it would be sensible to deal with it all in a coherent fashion.
Continue reading “A chance to get student amenities financing right”

Words Julia Gillard may regret

After more than a decade of the Howard Government [universities] felt neglected, and they had been neglected because there hadn’t been the proper investments into our universities. But they also felt under siege. They were rolled up in red tape, they could hardly scratch themselves without having to send a piece of paper to Canberra and wait for it to come back out. They weren’t able to see what the Government’s vision for universities was for the next five or 10 or 15 years, other than more neglect and more micromanagement. (italics added)

– Julia Gillard speaking yesterday to Alan Jones.

Let’s be clear on Labor’s record so far. Though as part of its stimulus measures it has given universities some capital hand-outs, its 2008-09 budget imposed real cuts on recurrent university income for teaching Commonwealth-supported students, and its phasing out of domestic full-fee students further reduced recurrent university teaching income. By contrast, Coalition budgets delivered real increases in 2005, 2006, and 2007 for all disciplines, and in 2008 for some disciplines.

The Coalition’s higher education policy was a shambles. But at least over the last few years there was some recognition that it was irrational to cut annually in real terms government teaching subsidies and to regulate student contributions so that these were also cut in real terms. The lead story in today’s Australian about the razor gang getting to Gillard’s higher education spending looks like part of an on-going downgrading of expectations for the higher education sector. It is possible that on the key issue of recurrent funding this year’s budget may confirm Labor’s record as worse than the Coalition’s. Unfortunately, universities cannot spend education revolution rhetoric.
Continue reading “Words Julia Gillard may regret”

From one Soviet-style policy to another

In a particularly bad day for long-suffering university administrators, Julia Gillard yesterday joined Kim Carr in piling on the bureaucracy. Though she did not say so directly in her speech to the AFR higher education conference, she clearly intends to follow the Bradley report recommendation to impose institutional enrolment targets for low SES students, which will cumulatively meet a national target.

By 2020, 20% of university undergraduate enrolments are to be of low SES students. She says the current figure is ‘around 16%’. Though it sounds about right, I can’t verify this because this number is not currently reported (it is for all students, but not for undergraduates only).

This is, however, the least of the statistical problems with this target. As I argued in December, even if targets are adopted the denominator should not be total university enrolments. This is a shifting target, in which the most important factor is not low SES enrolments but enrolments of other SES groups. In order for low SES to increase their share of total enrolments their enrolments need to grow more quickly than that of other groups. Substantial improvements in low SES enrolments are not in themselves enough.

Short of engaging in class discrimination against applicants from middle and high SES groups, substantially increasing low SES as a share of total enrolments is going to be very difficult to achieve. Gillard herself notes that the school completion rate for high SES students has room to increase, but to the extent that it does reaching the low SES target would become more difficult.
Continue reading “From one Soviet-style policy to another”

Kim Carr suppresses cognitive dissonance

In a speech to the AFR‘s higher education conference today, Science and Research Minister Kim Carr, showing Nelsonesque levels of capacity to suppress cognitive dissonance, said that:

the Government will expect universities to provide better, more meaningful data on research costs through activity-based reporting, and to meet specific performance targets to be developed in consultation with the sector. …

The Government will use any additional funding as a lever to:

* drive structural reform within institutions and across the sector,
* increase transparency and accountability,
* ensure that resources are allocated rationally and used efficiently,
* make universities responsible for their decisions, and
* improve the way universities manage their estate.
These are precisely the same ends we will expect to achieve through mission-based funding compacts.

but at the same time…

Compacts will increase institutional autonomy …

So unprecedented interference in how universities run their business increases their autonomy?

I know Orwell is overused, but how can I resist?:

War is Peace.
Freedom is Slavery.
Ignorance is Strength.

Kate Ellis’s red tape machine

For some reason, Julia Gillard let junior minister Kate Ellis run with student amenities policy, cutting across Gillard’s own broader policy review under Denise Bradley.

Last week Ellis introduced complex legislation to regulate and finance student amenities, when for much of Australia prior to 2006 it had operated without any government regulation at all. Now she has released guidelines that provide more detail on how the legislation would operate.

Student unions are unhappy that the guidelines don’t force universities to give them money. But that they are not forced to do so is perhaps the only thing that can be said in favour of the guidelines.

The guidelines do require higher education institutions receiving tuition subsidies to provide democratic opportunities for students to participate in decision-making, and to provide ‘adequate and reasonable support resources and infrastructure’ for elected students to carry out their functions. They also require students to be given access to independent advocacy services for academic matters, for higher education providers to make available information on and access to health services, accommodation services, legal matters, and employment services.
Continue reading “Kate Ellis’s red tape machine”

VSU repeal bill introduced

Today Kate Ellis introduced the VSU repeal bill. Her second reading speech is here.

There are no surprises from last year’s in-principle announcement, though a little more detail. Spending the money on political parties or election campaigns for Australian parliaments or local governments is specifically prohibited in the legislation, but clearly wider spending controls are envisaged via guidelines.

However the larger red tape extravaganza will be created by requiring students to apply for a separate SA-HELP loan scheme, to add to HECS-HELP, FEE-HELP, OS-HELP and VET-HELP. Since my original post last year I have thought of a reason why they want to do this, which is avoid paying the upfront discount for those students who do not take out loans (under the current system, students get 20% off the student contribution amount for paying direct to the university, with the government paying the discount to the universities so they are neutral between payment options).

However, there must be a simpler way. Given the costs to taxpayers of the loan scheme, I would recommend a 25% surcharge for those who do not pay up-front.

The return of the amenities fee

The VSU debate is back on. Youth Minister Kate Ellis has announced that from mid-2009 universities will again – subject to Senate approval – be able to charge students for non-academic amenities. There are, however several significant differences from the pre-VSU situation:

* the amenities fee will be price capped, at $250
* there will be a new income-contingent loan scheme, SA-HELP, to help students pay for it
* what universities provide students will be regulated for the first time, with ‘national benchmarks relating to the provision of student support services’ and ‘new representation and advocacy protocols’
* actual membership of student assocations will continue to be voluntary

The Coalition is already brawling over it, with the Liberal students running a Save VSU Facebook group, Barnaby Joyce threatening to again cross the floor on the issue, and Shadow Minister Chris Pyne opposing money going to political activities, but leaving open the possibility of supporting a proposal that funded amenities only.

The government’s position is no more coherent. Continue reading “The return of the amenities fee”