Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What's happening in the Higher Education sector?

Any views expressed in this post are entirely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Western Australia or the UWA Student Guild.

Image Credit: alesia17,
Postgrads, there has been a lot of coverage recently on a number of developments in higher education. This post is not to tell you want to think, but to give you quick and easy access to some relevant materials on these issues, so that you can make up your own minds!

I do think it is important that we are aware and properly informed about wide-ranging issues in higher education, becuase they affect us as postgraduate students but they also affect the sector more broadly - including our opportunities as early career researchers and teachers!

Funding of the sector

So what on earth is happening here? Late last week we heard that there was a freeze on research grants (the Australian Research Council grants did not open as expected), and there was speculation that these grants would not be available. This development was very vocally criticised.

The Federal government released their Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook for 2012-13 on the 22nd of October. You can have a look at the official documents here.

First of all, the ARC and NHMRC funding was not reduced - the ARC linkage grants opened on Monday and there was $652 million distributed from the NHMRC. (citation)

This mini-budget did include significant cuts to the higher education sector, especially to the "abolition of University Facilitation funding (saving $270m) and reductions to the Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE) ($499m) as well as savings in relation to student income support and scholarships ($250m)." (S. Creagh, "Mid-Year budget slashes $499m from research support"). Specifically around student support, the Government has delayed making all Masters by Coursework students eligible for student payments and delaying any increase in the rate of Student Start-Up Scholarships. (citation)

The SRE funds exist to "support the 'indirect' costs of research such as administrative, equipment and staffing costs bit covered by research grants." (B. Hall and B. Preiss, "$1b cuts tipped to hit jobs, overseas students")

So far, commentary has pointed to potential job losses, the potential reduction in the quality of research space, a possible slippage in ranking, and the destablising effect on Australian researchers and their desire to work here (and a possible brain drain).

CAPA President Meghan Hopper pointed out that "These cuts may help the government achieve surplus in the short-term but they dismiss the long-term benefits of higher education to our economy and research output." (citation)

This budget is concerning to many in our sector, but especially for UWA with the new Cycle Two courses (the new Masters by Coursework), this is of great concern to the PSA.

Future of the sector

The other significant discussion happening at the moment is around what the Higher Education sector will look like, in a rapidly changing external environment. There are two important resources I would direct interested people to look at:
First, The Conversation have been running some incredibly interesting articles about the future of the sector, which culminated in a panel discussion last week. You can access it here.
Second, Ernst & Young released an interesting report today advocating radical change within univeristies. You can find and read that report here.

The Ernst & Young report highlights some of the drivers of change within the sector and The Conversation discussion focused on the developments around online teaching, Massive Open Online Courses, and the effect on learning.

I really want to highlight that these are developments we, as postgraduates, need to be thinking about. The way that the sector changes in line with a new digital economy will have long-term impacts on us - whether we want to be researchers or teachers.
Will the kind of jobs we see now still exist? Are we being properly trained in new resources so that we are competitive in an increasingly international environment? Are the same standards of teaching and learning being maintained in an online environment? What are student-teacher ratios going to look like in 5 years?

Have a read of some of the commentary for yourself! Think about how you want our future to look.

How can we influence or respond to this?

So now you're informed and have an opinion - what can you do with it? Can you influence the process or the future at all?

Yes, you can.
  • Talk to your supervisors and your research group, and raise their awareness too.
  • Express your opinion to the PSA!
    • The PSA has access to both the UWA administration and can lobby for you there
    • The PSA is also a member of CAPA, and will help formulate CAPA policy and priorities in our Annual Council Meeting at the end of November.
  • Interact with the conversations going on online, write to the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research (Chris Evans, who happens to be a Senator from WA), or write to your local Federal Member of Parliament.
Thanks for taking the time to read through this post, I hope that the collection of resources is useful to you!

2012 PSA President

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