Monday 21 October

Kim Carr Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Industry

New Labor leader Bill Shorten has announced his Shadow Ministry, with former tertiary education minister Kim Carr reprising his old portfolio as Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Industry. Carr has also been named as the Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science, with Shorten (in what some commentators have interpreted as a riposte to the government’s much-criticised lack of a Minister for Science) personally taking the lead role in the Science portfolio. Other relevant appointments for higher education include Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development; Sharon Bird, Shadow Minister for Vocational Education; Gary Grey, Shadow Minister for Resources; and Catherine King, Shadow Minister for Health.

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Privatisation of HECS debt

Following media reports last week, the government has stated that privatising HECS debt is “not current Coalition policy”. However, some experts have suggested that the proposed move – which is particularly controversial among students and university staff unions - would provide a stable source of revenue for the higher education sector into the future. Former head of Universities Australia Professor Glenn Withers, who is a long-term advocate of securitising HECS debt, has suggested that “PR difficulties” could be resolved if the ATO continued to administer HECS repayments on privatised debt. Meanwhile, The Australian has reported that federal ministers have been told that all discretionary grants would now need to be approved by Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. Senator Cormann has denied that this represents a “freeze” on grants, stating that his department was “applying additional scrutiny to uncommitted discretionary spending” to reduce waste and ensure that spending aligns with Coalition policy priorities.

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New Colombo Plan

Hong Kong has become the latest destination to sign up to the 2014 trial of the government’s New Colombo Plan, joining Singapore, Indonesia and Japan as the pilot countries for Australian undergraduates to undertake study and internships. However, there are some concerns about whether Singapore will fully embrace the plan, with strict restrictions on international student numbers and a government focus on ensuring there are enough internships for local students presenting some challenges to the scheme.

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AWPA and demand driven system

Ahead of a planned evaluation of the demand-driven system of higher education, the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency has reported that preliminary analysis indicates that the demand-driven system of allocating places was working better in terms of meeting industry needs than previous "central planning" approaches. The final report of the review is expected by mid-2014. In the Conversation, Victoria University academic Claire Brown argues that the ATAR is a poor mechanism for "sifting and sorting" students into university degrees, suggesting that universities need to focus on the potential and calibre of graduating students rather than "exempting themselves" from addressing their own institutional quality issues, effective teaching and student support.

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Philanthropy and universities

Philanthropy to universities is expected to rise by 50% in 2013, spurred by large donations such as the $65 million gifted to WA universities by mining magnate Andrew Forrest and $50 million to ANU by commodities trader Graham Tuckwell. Universities who have been highly successful in raising funds, such as Group of Eight member the University of Sydney, have attributed their $80 million per year in donations not only to changing attitudes among donors but also a "very systematic and planned approach to fund-raising by universities", including a phone bank of students calling alumni and friends and university staff phoning likely donors. Noting the intense concentration of philanthropic giving in more prestigious universities, the Australian Financial Review has suggested that philanthropy needs to move beyond the Group of Eight and help to build universities that serve students from less privileged backgrounds.

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UNE VC and MOOCs

In a long piece for the ABC, University of New England VC Jim Barber suggests that the rising phenomenon of MOOCs is pushing universities toward the development of off-campus experiences and an understanding of students as "prosumers" – both producers and consumers of knowledge. He suggests that once the acknowledged "tough nuts" of credentialing and financing are resolved, the universities that will prosper will be those which "appropriate free content from the web, unbundle their unitary product offerings and collaborate with other universities around the world". UNE is trialling a "freemium" model for MOOCs which involves giving away courseware and charging students only for the support services they want or need. In a market that has become fiercely competitive, UK MOOC venture FutureLearn has also gone live with its first course – The Secret Power of Brands – and a consortium of Chinese universities has launched XuetangX, a new Chinese online learning portal using the edX open source platform.

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