The sad state of public universities in Australia


Four articles in last week’s Australian Higher Education section caught my attention. And, in different ways, they all point out the issues that are undermining the public university sector in Australia. 

First, a study out of the University of Melbourne formally analyses what I have pointed out before (here and here) – that overseas students are cross subsidising domestic students. The headline:

Australian universities are so chronically under-funded in their teaching activities that every domestic undergraduate is effectively subsidised to the tune of $1200 by international student fees.

The only surprise in the study is that the subsidy is so low.

Second, there is a story looking at the federal government’s target for universities to increase domestic student numbers. The government wants more young Australians to complete tertiary education. Sounds good, except that these are the same domestic students who are being subsidised by international students. And last time I looked, the federal government was not planning to either increase the payment per domestic student to universities or to free up the student contribution so that universities could directly charge students the actual cost of their education. So while the story in the Australian asks where all the domestic students will come from, I ask a bit of a different question: Where are all the international students who are going to pay for all the domestic students going to come from? Because at current funding levels, the federal government’s target will just send universities into deficit.

The third story talks about the education and research outcomes that industry wants from tertiary education. It talks about:

An active vibrant and mutually respectful – for want of a better word – relationship between business and higher education …

The one thing it doesn’t talk about is where the funding for these education and research outcomes that will be so beneficial to industry and Australia will come from.

So the three articles leave us with the sad situation facing higher education in Australia. Industry and the federal government want more out of the tertiary education system. but neither appears willing to pay for it. Unfortunately, as a Professor of the Dismal Science I have the sad task of telling both government and industry that they get what they pay for. If they want a world leading tertiary education sector then stop running it on the basis of cross subsidies from overseas students and start paying for it yourselves.

And the final article? Well my colleague Tim Brailsford has been appointed as Vice Chancellor of Bond University, one of Australia’s private universities (there are only two). This is a fantastic appointment, so can I congratulate both Tim and Bond University.

As a private university, most of the issues mentioned above have less effect on Bond. So one sentence in the article caught my eye:

Bond has … a student-staff ratio of 10:1.

Ten-to-one! No it is not a typo. It is Bond University policy. In our public universities we could only dream of that sort of student-staff ratio. Standard ratios are in the high teens or low twenties. It is not uncommon to have student-staff ratios in the high twenties or worse in some parts of our underfunded public universities.

So four stories:

  • what is happening (underfunding and dependence on foreign students for financial survival);
  • what government wants (more domestic students – just don’t ask them to pay);
  • what industry wants (better education and research – just don’t ask them to pay); and
  • what is possible – when someone pays.
4 Responses to "The sad state of public universities in Australia"
  1. I’ve always found it interesting how “Industry” constantly complains about how universities aren’t meeting their needs.  Yet they have no particular inclination to either pay for it or to recruit high school graduates and then train them with useful skills internally.  We have companies big enough to do that me-thinks.

    If you want research done they should just pay underpaid academics rather than the current approach of using overpaid consultants (like me).

  2. Both sides of politics cynically play the race or immigration card to curry favour with “Australians” through making study in (& immigration to) Australia a lot less attractive.
    Meanwhile policy of increasing numbers of Australian students, articulating neither particular courses, nor funding sources, something will need to give in universities, but what?
    No one in government seems able to explain their policy e.g. which courses or occupations should be targetted e.g. maths/science high teachers, engineers etc. while outcomes may be exemplified by less students and less income for universities?
    In general, a professional run private university, college or institution without state subsidies, can professionally market, recruit fee paying students, provide a quality learning experience and service.
    What is public university leadership doing to ensure their survival and providing the same?

  3. M, the real reason why industry doesn’t want to train as what you are suggesting is that the trainee is free to leave whenever they like.  Imagine that you are a boss and you train someone for 4 years after they leave high school only to have them run off at the end of their training just when they are about to make you a profit.  How would you feel?  Therefore, it will always be up to the individual to train themselves.

  4. James’s uncertainty argument used to be used to keep female employees in lowly positions and sack them as soon as they got married: sooner or later they would run off to have a baby. Incompetent managers are right to fear that employees will leave at the first attractive opportunity. Competent managers are not.

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