Dan O'Heirity

Australian Universities Are Out of Step With the Times

I have written on a number of occasions that I have become increasingly irritated on two counts by reporting on what is happening with universities in Australia. First, there has been far too much of a focus on bringing international students back to Australia when Australia’s ridiculous exposure to the international student market has landed Australia’s universities in the financial troubles that they are now experiencing. Reporting in this respect has continued with plans for South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory to be the first states to participate in a trial program to allow international students to return to Australia. The international students will pay for their flights to Australia and they will transit through Singapore. On reaching Australia the students will stay at hotels paid for by Universities and conditions will be strict with students having to undergo a fourteen day quarantine before they are allowed to return to their studies.

The two universities involved in the trial will be the Australian National University and the the University of Canberra. Great, Australia can begin to return to the scenario of relying far too heavily on international students with Education Minister Dan Tehan saying, “International students brought in $40 billion of export revenue so we need to get this right.” My God. Can we stop talking for just one minute about the billions of dollars contributed to Australian universities and to the broader Australian economy by international students because if we don’t stop talking in that way we will see universities in the post Covid-19 world continuing the same tired discourse after they have “welcomed” international students back to their campuses. At least, “the Federal Government has made it clear that if borders are to be opened to international students, campuses must be open to domestic students first.” Yes, that’s right. Just in case people had forgotten, Australia does have domestic students.

I want to put the remainder of this this post into context with a sobering story from the Australian Higher Education Sector. Macrobusiness has reported that, “The University of Wollongong has warned staff that unless they accept large salary cuts and agree to significant job losses, it will only be able to operate for four to six more weeks.” I am taking this story with a “pinch of salt” because universities cannot “just go bankrupt”. The fallout would be too massive. The point here is that Wollongong has made a lot of money from international student fees and that, “the bounty from international students has been wasted on non-academic (administrative) staff, executive pay, property investment and consultants.” I have reported before that universities tend to have more administrative staff than general staff, with Deakin University proudly announcing this fact in their 2020 edition of “Deakin at a Glance“. Seriously, how can Deakin need around 660 more professional staff than academic staff. What on earth do they all do?

The sheer volume of professional staff in comparison to academic staff is just one flaw in their business model. The fact that universities have shown themselves unable to survive without international students is a much more serious flaw and vice chancellors are responsible for this over reliance on international students. I have made this point many times before but there is a new slant this time round. If you can stick with the post you will see that the Australian government is proposing huge changes for the education sector in Australia and prior to Covid-19 vice chancellors would have fought back with all their might. Now, in my view, vice chancellor simply have no real authority to do so because they have so fundamentally mismanaged Australia’s’ universities. It’s not as if they can say, “Hey we’ve been doing an awesome job. How dare you try to re-configure the sector” because, basically, they have not been doing an awesome job. They have done a shocking job and it is university staff are suffering as a result of their ineptitude.

The Times They Are a Changing for Australian Education

Much more fundamental changes are in the wind for the Australian Education sector. First there is a story about Australia’s Technical and Further Education Sector (TAFE) that has surfaced on previous occasions. Basically the Australian government is looking to renew and revitalize this sector. The story also makes mention of the Government putting an emphasis on short courses at Universities, a fact that I have also reported on in previous posts. Crikey Inq – which is a much more reputable source than the name might suggest – writes that “Beyond the pandemic, the government is gearing up for a focus on “skills” in education, appeasing employer groups’ calls to match graduate attributes to their needs. The immediate focus will be on reforming the TAFE system and online university short courses.” From my perspective the government focus on University short courses never really looked like it was going to change universities to any great extent. However, the government’s latest announcement about the university sector may forever change the face of Australian university education.

To say that the face of Australian university education may change for ever is a big claim to make. However, “The Conversation” today reported on government plans that will create a massive shake up in Australia’s Higher Education Sector. I might go as far as saying that the role, purpose and identity of Australia’s universities is about to go through a wholesale change. The nature of this change is astonishing. The TAFE sector trains people for jobs but this is not the primary mission of a university. Rather a university has a larger remit with teaching students knowledge and skills required for employment being only part of that remit. For example, every university has a set of graduate learning outcomes that speak to developing students critical thinking skills, their problem solving abilities, their communication skills, their digital literacy and their awareness of themselves as responsible global citizens. Discipline knowledge and capabilities is but one amongst these graduate learning outcomes.

The most straightforward way to explain what the Australian government intends to do Australian universities would be to say that there will be fee cuts for units of study in subject areas that are positively correlated with employment outcomes and there will be fee increases for those areas of study that are not so strongly correlated with employment outcomes. This is an important point. The government is not changing fees at a course or a degree level. Rather the cuts will be applied at a unit level. Thus when we read that, “those opting for teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages would pay 46% less for their degree” we should interpret this figure as meaning that students who take all of their units from these fields of study will pay 46% less for their degree. The same point would hold true when we read that a “student contribution for the humanities would soar by 113%, and the costs for law and commerce would jump by 28%.”

In other words, a humanities student who only studied humanity units would see the cost of their degree increasing by 113%. However, if the student decided to take electives from psychology or English or from one of the languages, then the increase in the cost of the humanities units would be offset to some extent by the lower cost of the units that have had fee reductions. In providing a rationale for these changes, The Education Minister has said that, “Universities must teach Australians the skills needed to succeed in the jobs of the future.” This idea will be anathema to universities, not because those universities are averse to graduating students who are employable but because universities are not vocational training grounds. As I said earlier, universities are places where students develop a range of different capabilities in addition to gaining the knowledge and skills of their discipline.

Universities Will Become Employment Training Grounds

In Australia, Commonwealth Supported Students pay a part of the cost of their education and the government pays a part of the cost of the student’s education directly to the University. You can check out this information on The University of South Australia Website. The governments new initiative is recommending changes to the “bands” or educational subject areas that define the student contribution to a unit of study and to the bands or educational subject areas that define the government’s contribution to a unit of study. Before we take a look at those bands we need to understand what is meant by a student’s Equivalent Full Time Student Load (EFTSL). EFTSL is a measure of the study load for one year for a student undertaking a course on a full-time basis. Most undergraduate courses have a full time load of 48 credit points per semester – typically 4 units, as each unit is usually 12 credit points.

I’ve located the government web page that details the the changes to Commonwealth funding and to student contributions for students enrolled in courses prior to 2021 and for students who enrol from 2021 onwards. If we take the humanities, a student enrolled prior to 2021 is paying  $6,804. Students enrolled from 2021 onwards will pay  $14,500. That’s an increase of 113%. The Commonwealth contribution to the humanities has dropped from $6,226 to $1,100. If we take mathematics, a student enrolled prior to 2021 is paying  $9,698. Students enrolled from 2021 onwards will pay  $3,950. That’s a decrease of 59%. The Commonwealth contribution to mathematics has increased from $11,015 to $13,250. If we take science, a student enrolled prior to 2021 is paying  $9,698. Students enrolled from 2021 onwards will pay  $7,950. That’s a decrease of 18%. The Commonwealth contribution to science has decreased from $19,260 to $16,250. If we take nursing, a student enrolled prior to 2021 is paying  $6,804. Students enrolled from 2021 onwards will pay  $3,950. That’s a decrease of 41%. The Commonwealth contribution to nursing has increased from $15,125 to $16,250.

I’m not going to provide figures for other disciplines because these examples should make the point. Basically, on a first reading of the data in the previous paragraph, if the government conceives that a discipline does not lead to employment outcomes in growth employment sectors then there’s an increase in the cost to the student and a decreased contribution from the government. If the discipline is perceived to lead to employment outcomes in growth employment sectors then there’s a decrease in the cost to the student and, in some cases, an increase of government funding. Again, based on the data above, it might be tempting to conclude that government has basically got it right. Of course we need nurses and so reducing the cost of nursing courses makes complete sense. And surely science and mathematics graduates would have better employment outcomes than humanities students. After all, aren’t humanities students the ones who don’t really know what they want to do when they grow up. However, all is not as it might seem so let’s take a look at some graduate employment data.

Hang on a Minute, Humanity Graduates Do Get Employed

The Conversation“, draws on Australia’s 2019 Graduate Outcomes Survey, to review graduate employment outcomes across various disciplines. However, as far as I can see The Conversation has misreported the data and so best if you draw on the data from the Graduate Outcomes Survey, something I mention in terms of always fact checking stories. In particular, take a look at page 8 of the Graduate Outcomes Survey which details the short and medium term full-time employment outcomes across the various disciplines. In the short term, which means 2016, 62.5% of science and mathematics graduates were in full time employment. At the same time, 63.1% of humanities, culture and social sciences graduates were in full time employment. Again, in 2016 83.2% of nursing students were in full time employment. If we move to the longer term, 2019, then 87.8% of science and mathematics graduates were in full time employment. 93% of nursing graduates were in full time employment and 86.2% of humanities, culture and social sciences graduates were in full time employment.

The point I am making is that the government strategy is premised on a rationale, “to encourage students to select courses with the best employment outcomes” and this being the case it seems odd to increase fees for the humanities so substantially when the long term employment figures for humanities students are virtually identical to those for science and mathematics graduates. I would be the first to admit that data can be “cut” a lot of different ways. However, the governments own Graduate Outcomes Survey states on page 7 that, “while undergraduates from some fields of education, in particular those with generalist degrees, have weaker employment outcomes soon after completing their course, the gap in employment outcomes across fields of education tends to narrow over time“. If anything that is an understatement. Not only does the gap narrow. In some cases the gap between graduates with a generalist degree and graduates with a specialist degree are almost non-existent.

Can Australian Universities End Their Reliance on Chinese Students?

There is a further point from The Conversation namely that the Education Minister is expecting a lot more students to go to university as a result of the CCP virus. This makes sense as students who might have taken a gap year to study abroad will likely no longer do so. Also people in the workforce may return to University to re-skill for a a new role, likely one in a subject where fees have been reduced to encourages students to take those courses. However, “In 2017 the Australian government effectively put a cap on university places, after five years of “demand driven” funding (where government essentially funded the amount of places students were enrolled in).” In practice this means that the number of government funded places at Australian universities is limited. This begs the obvious question of whether caps should be removed so that more Australian domestic students can go to university. If the government is to be believed then this would seem to be a sensible course of action particularly if students really do choose the low cost units that the government wants them to choose.

In what may be a piece of utter naivety on my part, there may be an argument to be made that significantly increasing the number of places at Australian universities for domestic students would help to overcome the reliance of Australian universities on international students. Someone with a data analysis mind would have to do the sums but there is surely a prima facie case to be made for driving towards a very significant increase in the domestic student market. Beyond the argument itself, I make this point in the context of the Chinese student market. If you check figures for the two main countries of origin for international students in Australia, then you will see that those countries are China and India. Ending our reliance on Chinese students would send a strong message to Beijing that Australia cannot be bullied by threats from Beijing that it will advise its students not to study in Australia. Let’s just tell them we don’t care and move on.

First Published June 20th, 2020

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