Thursday, February 03, 2011

Research achievements among Australian universities

Detailed ratings here. As a graduate of the University of Qld., I was pleased to see it ranked third. All three of the universities where I have studied made it into the top 10, in fact. The big surprise was a former technical college (QUT) squeaking into the top 10

Note, however, that there is a large element of subjectivity in the whole exercise

JANUARY 31 was a landmark day for Australian universities. With the release of the first national report of the Excellence in Research for Australia initiative, we have, for the first time, a comprehensive evaluation of our research achievements against those of our global peers.

The picture is impressive. In total, 65 per cent of units were assessed as performing at world standard, including 21 per cent above and 13 per cent well above the rest of the world.

ERA draws together rich information about discipline-specific research activity at each institution, as well as information about each discipline's contribution to the national landscape. It was a huge exercise. ERA took into account the work of 55,000 individuals, collecting data on 333,000 publications and research outputs across 157 disciplines. In all, 2435 areas in 40 institutions were assessed by committees comprised of distinguished Australian and international researchers: that is, those who know the field interpreted the data. The committees had access to detailed metrics and a range of other indicators (including results of more detailed peer review of individual works held in online repositories).

Australia has lagged behind its international counterparts in the implementation of a research evaluation system. South Africa has been evaluating researchers for more than 20 years, the British exercise was first introduced in 1986 and the New Zealand exercise in 2003. Because of a long gestation, we have been able to use an Australian Bureau of Statistics classification system designed for Australasia and learn from problems elsewhere, consulting the best available expertise to assist in the design of the initiative, as well as using the latest advances in information tools and technology.

This has enabled us to deliver the exercise in a cost-effective manner. Compared with international equivalents, ERA should be seen in the context of an annual investment in research in universities of more than $2.5 billion.

So, what does it mean for government? ERA enables the government to assure the public its investment in our universities is producing quality outcomes. Planning for future investment to build on strengths or develop new areas, encourage collaboration and allocate critical research infrastructure will now have a much stronger basis.

For universities? Leaders can also use ERA outcomes for planning and to guide investment. Potential research students and staff will be able to make informed choices about the best places to go, with the strength of the area, not just reputation or geography in mind. Business will also be able to find the universities with the best of the expertise they need.

ERA 2010 shows the strong research areas in Australian universities include astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, electrical engineering, history, and health and medical science (including cardiovascular medicine, human movement and sports science, immunology, oncology and pharmacology). These complement areas such as marine and climate science, food science and agriculture, where the lead is taken by our science agencies such as the CSIRO.

There is a strong correlation between excellence and areas that have won competitive research funding. The strength of medical science is not surprising, given these areas have had a separate funding council, a history of strong leadership and many successes (including most of our Nobel laureates). Other areas such as geology, plant biology and electrical engineering have support from the Australian Research Council, other government programs and from industry.

The picture for the humanities, arts and social sciences is more complex. ERA has recognised in a formal way for the first time the work of the many talented creative and performing artists doing research in our universities. Traditional disciplines such as history have both depth and breadth. In others (such as psychology, cultural studies, banking, accounting and business) the excellence is concentrated within a smaller number of institutions. The Australian National University aside, there have been fewer opportunities for scholars in these areas to devote themselves substantially to research in the way that has been possible for some areas of science, medicine and engineering. The drive to collaborate to access infrastructure (and the necessary government funding) has also helped many of the areas in science and technology develop the necessary concentration and scale needed to sustain world-class research teams.

ERA has had its critics. A view that applied research would not be recognised has not eventuated. Crop and pasture production, materials engineering and resources engineering and nursing all performed well. Similarly, newer interdisciplinary areas such as environmental science, nanotechnology and communication and media studies have demonstrated excellence despite predictions to the contrary.

Finally, the assumption that measuring research quality will improve what we do has often been challenged. This underestimates our competitive culture. On receiving his results, one vice-chancellor reflected that he was reasonably happy with the outcomes for his university but confident they will have improved by 30 per cent in the next one.


Total negligence from yet another public hospital

Mother nearly bleeds to death

REBECCA Cooksey experienced every expectant mother's nightmare on Friday. She was sent home from hospital only to give birth two hours later in a parked ambulance. Ms Cooksey then haemorrhaged after delivering daughter Hayley and lost 3.5 litres of blood.

She and fiance Scott Andrews are demanding answers, claiming a member of hospital staff told them "having a home birth was a nicer experience".

The 22-year-old mum said she had been in "full labour" when she presented at Kaleeya Hospital in East Fremantle at 4pm Friday. But at 6.15pm she was told to return home to Yangebup a 25-minute road trip. "She could barely walk when we arrived at hospital," Mr Andrews, 23, said. "The hospital actually told me that having a home birth was a nicer experience. "They were full, but said Bec's contractions weren't close enough. She was having up to six contractions in 10 minutes. "I was very pissed off. I literally thought I was going to have to deliver this baby."

Mr Andrews said they had made midwives aware of difficulties during the pregnancy and also the fact that his partner had haemorrhaged after the birth of their first child, 22-month-old Bella.

The couple were only home for 20 minutes before Mr Andrews had to call an ambulance because Ms Cooksey was in considerable pain. He had tried, without getting through, to phone Kaleeya Hospital for advice. The ambulance tried to get Ms Cooksey to King Edward Memorial Hospital, but the baby arrived as the vehicle was parked near the Narrows Bridge about 8pm.

Both the Cooksey and Andrews families demand answers to why the hospital failed to properly care for the young mother. "If Scott hadn't called the ambulance when he did, she would have bled out on the couch," Ms Cooksey's mother Deidre Livesey said last night.

Mr Andrews' mother, Robyn, believes hospital staff showed poor judgment.

A Kaleeya Hospital spokeswoman said she was unable to comment on the details of individual patients, but Ms Cooksey's case would be reviewed.


Australian Govt. has power to deport Afghan illegals to Afghanistan

The Federal government insists it does have the power to deport failed asylum seekers from Afghanistan under a new agreement with the Afghan government. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen signed the deal with Afghan Refugee Minister Jamaher Anwary earlier this month.

Mr Bowen hailed the deal as a major breakthrough in border security. But Dr Anwary appeared to back away from the deal in comments aired by the ABC on Tuesday. Dr Anwary says the deal does not allow Australia to involuntary deport failed asylum seekers back to Afghanistan and claims to the contrary are propaganda.

But Mr Bowen on Tuesday insisted otherwise. "Of course, it's the preference of the governments of both Australia and Afghanistan - and the United Nations High Commissioner - that these returns be voluntary wherever possible," Mr Bowen's spokeswoman said. "But the MoU does provide for involuntary returns."

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the agreement appeared to be unravelling after just two weeks. "Just like the never-never East Timor solution this is another foreign affairs mess in asylum policy," he said in a statement. "It remains an open question as to whether the government will now follow through, especially given the confusion surrounding the Afghan agreement."

The agreement, which is not legally binding, has been condemned by rights groups that fear returned Afghans will be put in danger.


Unionist wreckers on the march

THE preoccupation with deficits and monetary policy has drawn attention away from yet another problem area of economic management, this one almost entirely brought on by the federal government's decisions.

The Fair Work Act was the government's response to Work Choices and was built on the premise that the economy had nothing to fear from an activist trade union movement. Giving unions more power in the workplace, it was argued, would not be followed by greater militancy or by an inflationary push for higher wages and better conditions. We may be about to find out just how wrong these assumptions have been.

On behalf of the Australian Mines and Metals Association, I have been analysing the results of a survey of industrial relations personnel within the mining and resources sector.

The resources sector is the one area of the economy that has had more than just a return to normal economic conditions. Looking at the sector allows us to make judgments on the effect of the new IR arrangements on a host of workplace issues in the one growth area of the private sector.

And the reason for choosing a survey instrument was to ensure the results spoke for themselves without the need for high-end interpretation. The questions were designed to find out what was taking place at the workplace and to gauge whether conditions were improving, unchanged or getting worse.

The first question simply asked, "How would you describe your current workplace relations environment?", and in interpreting this result it is important to note that this has been the second survey conducted, not the first. The first was undertaken in April last year just after the Fair Work Act came into effect. At the time the result showed a very encouraging index level of 75.9 out of a possible 100.

There was, thus, before there had been much familiarity with the new system, a general willingness to see the new arrangements in a positive light.

We now find, only six months later, that the index level has fallen to 65.1, a fall of more than 10 points. As more has been discovered, there has been a widespread and unmistakable deterioration in the overall level of satisfaction.

And in looking at the survey results and the comments made by respondents, it is not hard to see why. Start with the "right of entry" provisions. The act allows union officials to enter work sites whether there are members on the premises or not. All that is needed is potential members present. The result is, as was undoubtedly intended by those who framed the act, a far greater presence in the workplace of union officials across the industry.

And the effects of this union presence are showing up in the data. Bargaining has become more difficult. Workplace flexibility is being diminished. Industrial action is harder to deal with. Direct engagement with employees is being restricted.

The survey portrays an industry facing more difficult times in making workplace adjustments just as the demand for the products of our resources sector is picking up. Reducing the industry's ability to respond to increased demands for its products will make a return to high rates of non-inflationary growth an even greater challenge than it already is.

It is possible to argue that the resources sector is exceptional. But what makes this survey particularly important is that the problems being faced in this area are the same kinds of problems that are going to be faced by each and every industry as they begin to pick up momentum.

The AMMA survey results should, therefore, be seen in the context of the results of the January 2011 ACCI survey of investor confidence. What that survey showed was that wage costs were the single greatest constraint on business investment.

These figures dovetail perfectly with the results of this survey of the resources sector, since we are now looking at the consequences of an industrial relations system that, as the AMMA results show, is increasingly unable to hold the line on the growth in wages and other labour costs.

Moreover, the data suggests that the industry may also be increasingly unable to make the workplace changes necessary to respond to the economic adjustments the recovery process will demand.

You can say it is a new system and that things will be fine once everyone gets used to the act and what it requires. That is one possibility.

The other possibility is that the act has opened up the potential for serious industrial relations harm and that the inflationary pressures that have been contained until now are about to undermine the sector before spilling across the entire economy.

A serious review of the act, to ensure this none of this happens, must be an early item on the government's agenda.


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