News & Views item - July 2006



Ms Bishop Drops in on the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia's Annual Conference. (July 15, 2006)


Julie Bishop gives notice to CSIRO. The overall objective of the RQF is to develop a broad assessment mechanism of research quality and impact that will be relevant across the full breadth of research organisations in receipt of public funding.

This year's conference of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) was held from Monday through Thursday July 10-13 at the University of Western Australia, Perth.


On Monday morning the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Julie Bishop, gave the opening address. Of passing interest -- her department didn't release the text on their website until late Friday afternoon July 14.


She told her audience that she had just attended the meeting of OECD Education Ministers in Athens but gave no details of what was discussed.


However, she cautioned them, "We must continue to strive for a world class higher education system where our students are educated to the highest levels - equipped with those workplace skills which employers seek in this fast moving world. Our universities must create new knowledge, support innovation and become more competitive. Our universities must be accountable for their performance and transparent and efficient in their operations. And for our universities to remain competitive and attract students from both Australia and overseas they must embrace greater diversity."


It doesn't have quite the same ring as the sentiments expressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her July 14 Science editorial.


Ms Bishop then delivered up a series of mantra as to why Australia's universities must diversify:

It appears that these are self evident and not to be questioned, and just because Richard Feynman once described science as "what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves," well he's dead?


I'm reminded of a riddle my father asked me when I was small and impressionable:


     What's green, hangs on the wall and whistles?

        I don't know.

    A herring.

        It's not green!

    Paint it.

        It doesn't hang on the wall.

    Get a nail.

        It can't whistle.

    Well, two out of three.. what do you want?


The University of Melbourne got a tick for beginning to put into practice the "Melbourne Model" which is in essence a partial emulation of the US system exemplified by state universities such as Indiana University, Bloomington, or the University of Wisconsin, Madison just to name two. One intended difference seems to be that Melbourne will have a significantly smaller undergraduate student body than any of the US state universities and less flexibility in its undergraduate offerings.

Other universities got a slap across the wrist from Ms Bishop, "Universities are yet to respond to the need for greater diversity and are still, more or less, the same traditional comprehensive teaching and research universities, we see it all over the country.

"I do want to see higher education institutions carefully considering where their energy and resources could be best directed – for some universities this may mean they have to make the difficult decision to leave some things behind and concentrate their efforts on their strengths rather than trying to be all things to all students."

And in case these 37 recalcitrant public institutions hadn't got the message, "I am strongly committed to furthering diversification through all instruments of Australian Government funding."


Does Ms Bishop really know what she wants?


It doesn't sound that way -- more like a Biblical exhortation, "Go forth and diversify."


Ms Bishop then turned attention to what has now become that venerable (ethereal) chestnut, the Research Quality Framework (RQF).


Ethereal because it remains unclear just what it is or will be.


No matter the minister tells us, "I believe that a Research Quality Framework (RQF) is vital for Australia. We need it to lift our overall level of research quality, and to shift our focus towards research which really does have an impact on day to day life. We must use the RQF as a tool for greater diversity in the higher education sector, focussing universities’ attention on their strengths, and moving away from the “one-size-fits-all” mould of universities. The overall objective of the RQF is to develop a broad assessment mechanism of research quality and impact that will be relevant across the full breadth of research organisations in receipt of public funding. The RQF will recognise and reward high quality and high impact research wherever and whenever it occurs."


Clearly the minister is serving notice that CSIRO research will be subject to the RQF whether or not ANSTO will be put through an RQF assessment is more problematic.


Currently the best kept governmental secret is just how it's going to do all that. AND all without any significant increase in resources to redress the collapse of infrastructure and staffing to which our public universities have been treated over the past decade and more.


Keeping in mind that no one knows the form Ms Bishop's RQF will take, that the UK's university system is in the throes of undoing its 20 year Research Assessment Exercise on which the preferred model of the RQF was based by the previous minister's Expert Advisory Group, the call that "2007 will be a year for universities to refine the processes and finalise the detail of the data gathering [though agreed] that this time is also necessary to do more of the hard work required this year in developing and testing models for an RQF," is ludicrous and destructive.


Of course that assumes that the object of an RQF is really "to lift our overall level of research quality" a debatable proposition considering the government's obsession to micromanage the universities and its constant bleat "to shift our focus towards research which really does have an impact on day to day life," and by which is clearly meant immediate impact.


At this point it's worthwhile having a glance at a comment Dr Merkel makes in her Science editorial:

"People love chopping wood," Albert Einstein once said. "In this activity one immediately sees results." Science policy, by contrast--like science itself--demands staying power. It requires cooperation between many different actors, the investment of considerable resources, and the courage to strike out in new directions.

But Ms Bishop tells us, "By highlighting the very best research and its broader impact, through the RQF, universities will be encouraged to take a rigorous approach to developing and implementing their own research strategies that build on their identified strengths.

"This process will diversify purpose and content as institutions shift their research focus to those disciplines in which they are at the forefront nationally and internationally and for which they extract significant benefit for their communities."

What a load of meaningless verbiage.

On the other hand what might we expect of a carefully designed, executed and administered system of peer review for research proposals.

No, no, my son, you just don't understand the purpose and real meaning of existence.