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.
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.