Wednesday 16 October

HECS debt

The West Australian newspaper has reported that the government’s Commission of Audit is considering securitising up to $23 million in HECS debt by selling it off to the private sector for further on-selling to investors as a financial product. The move would shift billions to the government’s bottom line, but the Greens and the National Union of Students have slammed the plan, stating that it creates a "perverse incentive" for greater student debt and moves Australia closer to a US-style model. The reports have not yet been substantiated by any comments from the government.

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Philanthropy in Higher Education

Following mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s record-breaking $65 million gift to West Australian universities, commentators have predicted that philanthropy will play an increased role in the higher education landscape as government funding decreases. The trend of universities importing fundraising experts from the US and UK was also noted, as was the fact that the growth in philanthropy especially favours universities with long histories and large medical research faculties.

However, Grattan Institute director Andrew Norton has suggested that such gifts make little overall difference to university funding, but that gifts focused on research could deliver the most benefits. Forrest’s $65 million donation will fund 25 student scholarships, 6 postdoctoral researchers and a $15 million residential college for the best and brightest at the University of Western Australia. Staff at Australian universities also donate significantly to university foundations, with The Australian reporting that QUT has the largest structured staff giving program of any Australian university through its Learning Potential Fund, to which almost 400 staff donate fortnightly through payroll deductions.

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Medical training news

The Australian Medical Students Association has called for greater rural intakes into existing medical school cohorts to address the rural doctor shortage, pushing for universities to ensure that at least one-third of their student intake comes from a rural background (compared to the current threshold of 25%). The call has been backed by the chair of the Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand, although some Deans have stressed the need to increase good-quality medical training experiences in rural settings rather than targeting students from rural backgrounds.

In other medical training news, the Universities of NSW, Melbourne and Queensland – along with James Cook University and professional peak bodies in medicine and nursing – have launched the $4.5 million Biomedical Education Skills and Training Network to offer "pooled digital education" to members through next-generation digital tools and resources through an extensive medical image bank, interactive virtual laboratories, virtual patients, online scenario-based training modules and new digital tools to annotate medical images for teaching.

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International education news

The Australian reports that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is midway through securing the formal agreement of four destinations to take part in a trial of the New Colombo Plan in early 2014, with Indonesia and Singapore confirmed and Japan and Hong Kong expected to sign up soon. The form and structure of the plan has yet to be determined, although Minister Bishop has indicated that an "elite" tier of scholarships would be offered for 12-month study experiences and internships, along with a range of shorter study options.

On the other side of the international mobility spectrum, Australia’s streamlined visa processing system has been criticised for creating an increasingly "convoluted" system for student applications, with multiple standards being applied in different institutions. The burden would fall mostly on institutions rather than students, according to international education consultant Mark Pettitt, who has suggested that institutions may go from having one test for high-risk students to having an additional test for "super high-risk" students, or for different countries.

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TEQSA update

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has declined to renew the contract of one of TEQSA’s five commissioners, lawyer Eric Mayne, with a spokesman indicating that the Minister would "announce any further changes to TEQSA in due course". The change comes as the regulator is under increasing pressure to reduce red tape and unnecessary regulatory burden, ahead of the final report of the review into university red tape currently being conducted by Kwong Lee Dow and Valerie Braithwaite.

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Rankings debate

Higher education expert Simon Marginson has slammed reputation-based rankings systems such as the Times Higher Education (THE) and QS World Rankings, labelling them "bad social science" that was open to manipulation and had little relevance to the real world. Marginson, who sits on the THE advisory board, stated that rankings shift unpredictably from year to year due to a methodology that includes a mix of survey and objective data, and the adjustment of “arbitrary” weightings.

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