October 2014

Hello, and welcome to what will be a regular monthly message from me.

With so much going on at the moment, both within the sector and at La Trobe University itself, I feel it is important to make the time to stop and reflect on some of the issues and challenges we face, as well as sharing and celebrating our successes.

The Government's Higher Education Reform package in the Senate

The deregulation debate is in full swing in Canberra with most lobby groups actively pushing their perspective to all sides of Parliament, particularly the Senate cross bench. The Senate Enquiry into the draft legislation will swing into hearing mode next week.

I have been limited in what I have been able to say in relation to La Trobe's position on these proposals given my role in the Federal Minister's Legislation and Financing Working Group, but that time has now passed.

In summary, like all Vice-Chancellors, I am broadly supportive of the policy reform, but I do have some concerns around some details of the package, which I will outline below.

The reason that I, and the rest of the sector, have reached the conclusion that reform is now necessary is quite simple – it is that successive governments of both persuasions have steadily reduced the government funding per student since 1989. Normalised to 2009 dollars, the average amount we receive per student has declined over that time from about $11,000 to about $9,000. The 'efficiency dividend' announced by the previous Labor Government, if implemented, would have driven that figure to its lowest level ever.

Last Tuesday I spoke at a CEDA Vice-Chancellors' Panel discussion in which I detailed these arguments. The text of the address can be found on our news website.

It is clear, sadly, that we cannot look to government to assure sustainable funding for the sector. This means that fee deregulation must play a part in a sustainable funding mix. I believe that the sector can be trusted to price sensibly in a deregulated environment – our own Aspire Fee Guarantee is a good example of that - but I am also convinced that there must be some controls to ensure that price gouging does not occur.

Having said that, there are some aspects of the reform package that we do not support.

For example, I am concerned about the negative impact of linking HELP student loans indexation to the bond rate. There are other less regressive options that will not act as a disincentive to study which should be explored. I am also convinced that the proposed cuts to RTS funding are a mistake, and should be reversed.

While some in the sector argue for a cap on fees in the belief that it will limit price increases, I hold a different view. History has shown, both here and in the UK, that Universities will increase prices to any maximum ceiling. The better option is to let market forces and competition regulate the price students will pay, with a strong regulator providing additional scrutiny to ensure fairness.

There is also vigorous debate on the structure of scholarships generated from additional student charges, and whether they should be fully or partially pooled across the sector or retained at an institutional level. My view is that they should be pooled nationally and allocated to those institutions, such as La Trobe, that have an excellent track record of addressing disadvantage amongst its student population. At the same time, government funding for disadvantaged students through existing schemes (such as the Commonwealth Scholarships Scheme and the Higher Education Participation Program) should be focused on where support is most needed.

Like you, I will be watching the legislative process over coming months with interest.

Welcome aboard 

As I have previously informed you, Professor Graham Schaffer officially started with us yesterday as the inaugural Pro Vice-Chancellor for the College of Science, Health and Engineering (SHE). Graham joins us from the University of Queensland, where he was a highly respected Dean of Engineering and Architecture. It is great to have senior leaders of such calibre make the move to La Trobe.

Graham will take some time no doubt in coming weeks to meet with and talk to as many staff as possible, so please make him feel welcome.

Professor Tony McGrew will join us in January as the Pro Vice-Chancellor for the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce.

I have also previously shared with you appointments of another two senior University leaders. On Monday 6 October our new Chief Finance Officer (CFO) Gary Seach and our new Chief Information Officer (CIO) Peter Nikoletatos will come on board. Both Gary and Peter bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to La Trobe. Again please make them feel welcome to the La Trobe community.

Launch of La Trobe Asia

La Trobe Asia launch

Recently, we were fortunate to have Andrew Robb - Minister for Trade and Investment and La Trobe Alumnus – to launch La Trobe Asia.

This new body will become a hub, a resource and a source of leadership for the rest of the University in all things Asian.

La Trobe Asia will:

  • help the rest of the University in the crucial task of updating our curriculum to reflect contemporary realities in Asia
  • expose more students to direct study of Asian countries and their languages
  • assist students and staff to access Asian-focused research grants and scholarships
  • deepen relationships with the region's universities, governments and NGO's and, crucially
  • lead and inform public debate in Australia about Asia and inform public debate in Asia about Australia

The new body has an ambitious agenda, but will be ably led by Executive Director Professor Nick Bisley and supported by Asian experts from across the University.

Indeed La Trobe Asia will continue to build on the already strong commitment we have in Asia. For example, every year students and academics from our School of Dentistry provide a dental hygienist education program to communities in Nepal, spreading knowledge and training about the importance of basic oral health.

Similarly our Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre is working with health authorities in the Chinese City of Tianjin to improve the early detection of Autism- a condition of growing interest to the health systems of developing nations.

Inspiring students aspire for study at La Trobe
As many of you may have seen earlier this month, La Trobe was the first out of the blocks with an innovative recruitment scheme to attract inspiring Year 12 students to study with us from next year.

Our new Aspire early entry program is designed to attract students who share the same passions as us for leadership, academic excellence and community contribution.

It attracted strong interest with students and their parents, particularly those from regional Victoria.

I am glad to share with you the news that last month we made offers to 1070 students to study at La Trobe next year under the Aspire program. Almost half of them were from regional Australia. As an added incentive, we also offered a guarantee to these students that in the event of deregulation the cost of their normal study will not be more than 10 percent above the regulated cost in any given year.

We were the first University in Australia to offer a fee guarantee for a group of students for 2015 study. It has generated huge additional interest in La Trobe from others students who are also considering study here, has created some student load earlier than in previous years and hopefully sets us up for a strong 2015 recruitment cycle.

New Cancer research partner

Olivia Newton John Cancer Research Institute launch

Last month, I was proud to be part of an exciting event launching a new research partnership between La Trobe and the former Ludwig Institute. We have joined forces to establish the Olivia Newton John Cancer Research Institute.

The Institute will be located at the Austin Hospital, alongside the Olivia Newton John Cancer Wellness Centre created there several years ago, and strengthens relationships with scientists based there and at La Trobe's Institute for Molecular Sciences.

This is truly a wonderful initiative, and creates exciting opportunities for collaboration and the translation of cancer science from the 'bench top to bedside'.

Thanks for reading.