Wednesday 25 September

Changes to Higher Education Policy

New Education Minister Christopher Pyne has signalled a major shake-up of the higher education system, with top priorities to include scrapping the Student Services and Amenities Fee, overhauling international education and reducing regulatory red tape. Mr Pyne has also flagged a review of the demand-driven system of student places to ensure that quality is not compromised, and has stated that the government will step away from Labor's targets for participation, including the goal of having 20% of university enrolments from those with low socio-economic backgrounds by 2020 and 40% of all 25-34 year olds holding a bachelors degree or higher by 2025.

This will likely have major funding ramifications for universities, particularly as indications are that the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Scheme, which provides funds to universities to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed at university, will also be scrapped. The move to scrap the Student Services and Amenities Fee has caused consternation among student unions and regional universities, and may also cause ructions with the National Party, which has publicly supported the fees in the past as a way to ensure appropriate student services. However, increases to HECS fees "were not being considered" at this time, and the Australian reports that Pyne has backed away from previous Coalition plans to reintroduce full-fee courses for domestic undergraduates.

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Location of research portfolio

In other federal news, the government has confirmed that research policy will sit within Minister Pyne's Education portfolio, following initial reports that it would lie within Industry Minister Ian McFarlane's department. The shift includes the Australian Research Council, as well as research policy, infrastructure and funding. Universities Australia has welcomed the re-formation of education and research into a single portfolio, but the Australian Technology Network has voiced concerns about "siloing" research away from engagement with industry.

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Enterprise bargaining and higher education funding

With enterprise bargaining deals now concluded at a number of universities in Australia, the previous government's efficiency dividend has been highlighted as the primary reason why unions have failed to secure higher pay rises for members. The Coalition government has indicated it will not reverse the cuts, which will see billions stripped from the higher education system in 2014 and 2015. Unions have pointed to the large increase in students in the system and increased staff workloads as reasons to increase remuneration for staff, while universities have labelled the claims "unaffordable" in the current financial climate. La Trobe University, which has flagged broad-ranging cuts to make up the almost $65 million deficit it will face in 2014 and 2015, has indicated that it will be rethinking delivery at its regional campuses, incorporating more blended learning and developing stronger alliances with local TAFEs.

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International and student mobility

Visa issues - particularly in close neighbour Indonesia - are looming as one of the major impediments to the government's flagship New Colombo Plan, which will send up to 300 Australian students to study and undertake work placements in the Asia-Pacific region. The Australian reports that only a handful of young Australians have taken up work-and-holiday visas to Indonesia since their introductions in 2009, with issues including consular staff being unaware of the visas and immigration staff in Indonesia refusing to recognise it as a valid visa type.

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Online learning and MOOCs

A new report released in the UK has suggested that while MOOCs will likely not threaten traditional forms of university teaching in the short term, they will offer institutions a lever for restructured and transition. The report, "The Maturing of the MOOC", reviewed the available literature about the MOOC phenomenon, including evaluating commercial risks and benefits, the creation of a new class of employees as corporate "course assistants", and the likely impact on academic workloads, suggesting that while a viable business model for MOOCs is not proven, the better bet might be innovations in blended learning and the flipped classroom. Relatedly, the new UK MOOC consortium, FutureLearn, will utilise social media features to make its platform more interactive and engaging for students.

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