Thursday, March 12, 2020

Unis must be brought to book on funding

For waste and perverse incentives it’s hard to go past the nation’s 39 universities, which, recent events notwithstanding, wallow in billions­ of taxpayer dollars.

As productivity growth and graduate starting salaries stagnate, it’s time to question whether reforms­ to higher education have worked in the interests of tax­payers and students.

They’ve certainly worked in the interests of universities, whose swol­len bureaucracies have be­come­ ground zero for highly paid BS jobs in “strategy, engagement, culture” et cetera. Almost 60 per cent of the 120,000 staff at our universities are administrators, rather than teachers or researchers.

Direct commonwealth funding for universities has more than doubled since 2009, when the Labor government removed a cap on publicly funded places, to about $9.8bn this financial year.

An even bigger problem is the surging take-up of Higher Educa­tion Loan Program loans, whose number exploded from 308,000 in 2010 to 522,000 in 2015. From 2010 to last year the stock of outstanding HELP loans soared from less than $20bn to more than $62bn.

Taxpayers are making huge losses on these loans — only $75 in every $100 is expected to be repaid. That means many graduates, who have to begin paying loans back when their incomes rise above about $46,000 a year, aren’t earning­ enough to do so.

The Parliamentary Budget Office­ warned in 2016 that the cost to the budget of these loans would rise to about $11bn a year by 2025 — more than double the budget surplus pencilled in for this financial year.

For all the deluge of public funds, little was done to ensure quality control. Many academics concede privately that standards have fallen — grade inflation is rife and there is pressure to pass stud­ents, especially from overseas.

That’s not surprising given more of the population is being pushed into university education, when the students and the economy might be ultimately better served by an alternative vocational career. Economist Andrew Stone offers­ two excellent ideas for improving value for money in his new book Restoring Hope, a must-read for anyone sick of hearing vague calls for “reform” without specifics.

Universities should have more skin in the game, he argues. At the moment they enjoy direct and indirec­t taxpayer funding, via HELP loans and grants to universities, without having to worry too much about whether students and taxpayers benefit.

If universities want to be “businesses”, they should have to accept risks like businesses do.

“The current financing system gives universities a large financial incentive to enrol students who academically ought not to be there, and by failing to impose any accountability for whether or not these students actually receive any benefit from their studies,” Stone writes.

Put unis themselves on the hook, in part, for students debts. HELP loans would become joint loans, under Stone’s plan. Universities would be required to pay an annual interest charge on loans that weren’t being repaid. This would focus the minds of univer­sity administrators on the quality of their courses and the wisdom of enrolling students who are likely to benefit little from them.

Second, the government should oversee a standard set of tests accessible to all that people could use to demonstrate their literac­y and numeracy to employers — and far more cheaply and quickly than slogging through a three-year arts degree.

University is mainly about signal­ling one’s ability to employers compared to others, and too often not about learning anything vocationally useful. Employers can’t simply ask job candidates how good they are.

Sure, students with degrees tend to earn more than those ­without them, but that has little to do with what they have actually been taught at university. Anyone can sit in university lectures, for free, and binge on knowledge for as long as they want. But without the piece of paper at the end, it’s all, vocationally speaking, a waste of time.

“Young people feel the need to obtain tertiary qualifications — potentially spending several years in further study, accruing sizeable debts and forgoing substantial earnings — even though the training they receive is of little or no value, either educationally or in terms of specific job skills ­acquired,” Stone says.

In economic language, a big chunk of university study is consumpt­ion, not investment.

Each year, samples of graduat­ing students from all 39 univer­sities should also be required to sit these new, standard tests, so university grades could be compared consistently. Public and private high schools are already subject to similar quality control through ­national standard tests.

Outside narrow disciplines such as medicine, it’s hard to see how much of what is taught at universi­ty today is useful for any occupation. The vast bulk of graduate jobs, which are typically white-collar, require skills that are learned on the job.

Universities, understandably, will recoil at these two ideas, but they are both very much in the interests of the broader community. Especially as the economy turns down, we can’t afford to keep mindless shovelling scarce resources — both money and people — at universities.


NRL defends divisive new TV ad after fans slammed its 'politically correct' focus on Indigenous issues and gay marriage

The NRL has defended its controversial new TV campaign featuring Tina Turner after fans slammed the ad for its 'political correctness' and embarrassing blunders.

NRL chief commercial officer Andrew Abdo said the commercial is not intended to be political and showcases highlight moments for the game over the past 30 years.

The two minute ad divided rugby league fans and sent social media into meltdown when it aired for the first time on Monday night, 11 days out from the start of the season.

Fans criticised the ad for being too being politicised after scenes of Latrell Mitchell draped in an Aboriginal flag and the famous footage of women's State of Origin couple Karina Brown and Vanessa Foliaki kissing after a match last year.

US rapper Macklemore's pre-match tribute to same-sex marriage at the 2017 Grand Final is also featured - as fans criticised his inclusion given his tenuous association with rugby league.

Mr Abdo stood firm, telling the Sydney Morning Herald the campaign was a showcase of the code's proud history.

'We’re not forcing anyone to believe in one thing or another,' he said. 'Those events have happened. Latrell is a superstar for us, Macklemore performed at the grand final in a moment we were really proud of. That brought our fans together and his performance was great.

'This campaign is not intended to be political. It’s a showcase of our history; our people, our events that shaped where we are today. The intent of the campaign is to embrace what’s happened in the last 30 years, but also to give a nostalgic feeling for people who are new to the game to understand the moments that have mattered so they can feel part of it.'


Hydrogen test at Stanwell

This is a reasonable idea but cost is likely to be the killer

A SMALL-scale hydrogen power test station is on the cards for central Queensland to operate alongside one of the state's biggest existing power plants.

The Morrison Government will today announce $125 million to go towards a feasibility study for cutting edge renewable energy technology. It will go towards seeing if a hydrogen plant can operate alongside the Stanwell power station near Rockhampton and how it can benefit to the existing power grid.

The proposal would be the largest hydrogen electrolysis plant in Australia if it goes ahead.

Being located next to the power plant would allow it to  be ramped up to generate hydrogen at peak times when there's an excess of solar power being generated. It could then be used to pump power back into the tern when needed.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor said hydrogen production could be a job creator as well as helping with the power supply.

Australian Renewable Energy Agency CEO Darren Miller said if it was feasible it could lead to more hydrogen plants across the country. "This will create opportunities across the domestic economy and help to position Australia to become a major renewable energy exporter!"

From the Brisbane "Courier Mail" of 11/3/20

Should the ABC sell news?

A digital news report last month by Brisbane-based ABC journalists Kate McKenna and George Roberts was disturbing reading.

It was also insightful, arguably a case of the national broadcaster working at its best, serving its audience just two days after deranged former rugby league player Rowan Baxter had murdered his family by dousing them with ­petrol and setting them alight.

With the nation still coming to terms with the horror of the crime, McKenna and Roberts pieced together Baxter’s abusive tactics leading up to the tragedy, based on witness accounts, and showed how a domestic violence order did not work.

Yet there was something seemingly unusual with this ABC story if readers stumbled across its ­publication on a news website called InQueensland.

At the top, next to the ABC’s story headline “Stalked and controlled: Hannah Clarke’s terrifying final days”, was a BMW advertisement. The sassy ad for the latest “Ultimate Driving Machine” urged readers to “Register your interest”. Immediately below was another ad for Griffith University, “rated in the top 2 per cent of universities worldwide”.

A quick scroll down revealed a third ad for Gadens law firm. Underneath the story appeared an ad for Q Super: “Welcome to Super without surprises.”

Could this be content from our taxpayer-funded, ad-free ABC? Is the public broadcaster’s news and current affairs up for sale — with advertisements? Apparently so.

This is not light infotainment, where it’s often hard to distinguish reportage from product placement, but the journalistic core of the ABC. And if this is creeping commercialism, it couldn’t come at a worse time.

Last week brought news of the closure of Australian Associated Press, the 85-year-old syndicated national newswire service that has been a staple back-up for media organisations around the country.

Its demise leaves a potentially huge gap in the impartial reporting of political, legal, sporting and other cultural life, and is a symptom of a wider problem for public interest journalism.

The rise of digital platforms such as Google and Facebook, enriched from exploitation of journalism painstakingly created by others, is destroying the commercial incentive to do the news and current affairs reporting vital for democracy.

The ABC’s recipient of its brand content, InQueensland, is a commercial website that offers free reader subscriptions while running paid ads. It was started on February 10 by media entrepreneur Eric Beecher and his business partner at Solstice Media, Paul Hamra, to cash in on a lucrative, untapped media market in the sunshine state.

As InQueensland’s publisher Peter Atkinson explains, there was room in Queensland’s market to appeal to the “AB demographic” of professionals, business leaders, public servants and other media consumers wanting “journalism with insights”.

Atkinson says the objective is not to compete directly with Brisbane’s The Courier-Mail — owned by News Corp Australia, publisher of this newspaper — but to fill a commercial niche. There are plans to sell off more than half of the Solstice-owned publication within 12 months.

On the same day InQueensland published the McKenna and Roberts bylined “Stalked and controlled” report, the ABC ran the same story by the same reporters in the same media market on its own domestic digital platform.

Atkinson says no extra taxpayer dollars were expended for InQueensland’s use of the ABC-branded content because it was pre-created. The McKenna-Roberts story led the homepage because it was “breaking news” while other recent ABC reports on cyclone threats or a youth crime wave in far north Queensland had not featured so prominently, he said.

Loophole for ads

This duplication or multi-purposing of news is undeniably lawful under the ABC Act that regulates the national public broadcaster. It bans ads on the ABC (a taboo) but allows content sales with the loophole that ads can be wrapped around content originating from the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster, once it is sold to private interests. The ABC says it uses revenue generated from such sales — received outside its triennial $3.2bn budget allocation from the federal government — to “fund the production and promotion of ABC content”.

ABC chair Ita Buttrose told an annual “ABC Friends” dinner audience in September that she got angry at commercial colleagues sometimes claiming “the ABC has it easy — that we have guaranteed funding” when budget cuts meant that funding levels were not assured.

While accepting the ABC needed to meet its “charter” responsibilities, Buttrose said the organisation had to operate differently. “Things are evolving too quickly and, when faced with evolution, those who adapt survive,” she said.

Solstice’s Paul Hamra — who personally negotiated the InQueensland commercial agreement with Scott Kimpton, the ABC’s sales manager, current ­affairs, ABC content sales — told The Australian the arrangement was “transparent” and he understood it was one of many instances of the ABC syndicating news and other content to commercial third-party platforms over the past 15 years.

According to Hamra, he settled on a standard contract late last year with a monthly fee payable to the ABC for InQueensland to receive a “news feed” of approved content. The deal reached with Kimpton had to go “higher up” in the ABC organisation (it is not clear where) to gain a final sign-off.

Hamra takes the view that the ABC should broadcast or publish its content in as many places as possible.

With six permanent staff at InQueensland, including former News Corp journalists Sean Parnell, Dennis Atkins and Christine Jackman, he regards the ABC’s coverage, republished on his company’s site, as valuable in freeing up limited resources available so staff can focus on investigative and other reporting for the intended niche market.

“As a small operator, in addition to our reporting staff, we need syndication services that can contribute to resources. We are contracted out to AAP — and the ABC,” Hamra says.

Kimpton, the ABC’s content sales negotiator, declined to speak to The Australian, instead deferring to the broadcaster’s media team, which requested a list of questions.

An ABC spokeswoman said she could not comment on syndication matters that were “commercial in confidence” and reiterated, without going into any detail, that the ABC had provided syndicated content to commercial third parties for many years.

Can’t say too much

The ABC spokeswoman refused to answer some questions that did not seem to touch on commercial-in-confidence issues. They included basic detail of Hamra’s approach to Kimpton last year that Hamra was happy to confirm, and which ABC executive higher up the management chain (managing director David Anderson?) was responsible for final approval of the InQueensland syndication agreement and others.

The Australian asked for notable examples of agreements that were similar to InQueensland’s if, as the ABC claimed, syndication of news content was historical and commonplace. The ABC refused to provide any. Perhaps there is nothing directly comparable.

Much of what the ABC sells is not news but post-produced, post-aired drama and documentaries to overseas buyers.

One local news and current affairs example often quoted is the ABC deal struck with Yahoo7 in 2013. Yet this agreement, as a ­“content sharing” agreement for a joint online news operation, is not similar to InQueensland’s.

Several joint exercises in journalism between the ABC and the former Fairfax Media group, before the latter’s sale to Nine Entertainment, are also not comparable, although the ABC’s content engagement with a newspaper group that ran ads did raise some eyebrows. Advertising has also popped up next to the public broadcaster’s content on YouTube channels.

The New Daily, an online news site for which Hamra company Motion Publishing (owned by Solstice Media) is contracted to provide content, pays for video services from the ABC. It runs a special ABC-provided feed called “The News in 90 seconds” but has no agreement in place to run ABC-­syndicated content, as InQueensland does.

What will be made of the opportunity opened up by media outlets no longer having recourse to the quick, politically straight and plentiful news reports from the AAP wire?

It has already been suggested by Kevin Rudd, among others, that the ABC should fill the void. Yet to do so could impinge further on the ABC’s original non-commercial purpose and contradict its charter.

The ABC declined to comment on whether it was contemplating a future role in offering syndicated news content services to commercial media across the board. One senior source said it was “too early to say”.

With AAP’s pending closure, Hamra argues “someone” should keep funding this historically important wire service.

Guardian Australia editor Lenore Taylor, whose publication has used AAP to cover courts and events her publication cannot, was noncommittal when asked if she would consider approaching the ABC for a news syndication agreement to replace the closing wire service, but it appears options are under consideration.

“Some of the smaller media organisations are in discussions about how they might fill the gap,” Taylor told The Australian.

Beecher, a former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald in its 1980s heyday with a track record since as a successful media business entrepreneur, has been a fierce defender of independent media throughout his career.

As proprietor of his company, Private Media, which owns Crikey and The Mandarin, and as chairman of Solstice with a small shareholding, Beecher has also been a noted past critic of the ABC, even challenging its right to exist in 2014 for trying to compete against commercial media in areas “that are already well served”.

Beecher’s main beef, then, was that the ABC’s charter was a “fuzzy motherhood manifesto” unclear about priorities and open to interpretation by the managing ­director. He spoke at the time, with more than a hint of bitterness, about the ABC spending its vast budget regardless of the “commercial impact on independent media”.

Beecher also gave the ABC a big serve in 2010 about its venturing into commentary with The Drum. “Operating in the commercial space, we expect vigorous competition from other commercial publishers,” he told The Australian then.

“But to see the ABC roll up on our lawn was bewildering.”

The media businessman does not resile from these views, regardless of his company’s pragmatic decision to deal with the ABC now. But he says he supports the sale of ABC content and believes the broadcaster should do more in the area of selling news and current affairs, once created, to defray costs and help finance production.

Beecher sees no conflict between what is happening in news syndication and the ABC’s charter. Nor does he see a difference between ABC third-party sales to overseas markets of programs such as Four Corners or Foreign Correspondent, and the sale of ABC news stories into the home market where the ABC publishes the same material, even on the same day.

“As one of its 25 million owners, I’m a huge advocate of the ABC selling the content it has already created to generate revenue to improve its budget,” Beecher told The Australian.

“If that content appears on websites or screens that also, ­separately, carry ads — which are clearly not on the ABC’s own platforms — there’s no issue.

“I’d be fairly sure that my co-owners (of InQueensland) would agree with anything that enhances the ABC’s bottom line and retains the full integrity of the content.”

Don’t flog the news

A former senior ABC executive says he has no problems with the broadcaster’s sale of drama series and documentaries, or with foreign co-productions. But he draws the line at selling news and current affairs. “When I was there, I said ‘we’re not doing that’. He sees a risk to the ABC as an independent broadcaster from a blurring of the lines with the sale of news content.

“I thought there were problems with the ABC teaming up on stories with The Sydney Morning Herald, as a commercial operation.

“The ABC has always had syndication around the world, but it’s not with ads all around them.”

Former ABC TV news and current affairs host Quentin Dempster, also formerly a staff-elected ABC board member, says he accepts the ABC has sold news content lawfully for many years in return for a service fee, and websites do “wrap ads” around some ABC-supplied content. Nonetheless, ads wrapped around ABC content bother him. “It’s a worry,” Dempster says.

His main concern, he says, would be if news syndication deals enable the ABC to collect a proportion of the advertising revenue generated, saying it would be a “distortion” of the ABC charter’s clear non-commercial purpose and an entree to “dangerous commerciality”.

“Public broadcasting exists to treat its audiences as citizens in a democracy, and not as consumers to be aggregated and offered up to advertisers,” Dempster says.

“That’s for the private sector. Good luck to ’em.”


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

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