Higher fees, lower growth: how elite US and UK universities prosper

Affirmative ageism

On Friday CMM reported Michael Crichton’s observation of an Australian Research Council selection panel at work, which he concluded worked hard to be fair. But this does not resolve the problem for young scholars in a system dominated by old fogeys. UNSW physicist Adam Micolic crunched the grant data to conclude; “younger researchers, both male and female, are actually suffering a lower success rate, in real terms, than older researchers, and the real winners out of this are late career males.”

If the ARC ever factors in fitness for funding Dr Micolic will clean up against all age groups. CMM hears he completed Sunday’s Sydney-Wollongong cycling classic in a very respectable under three hours.

ANU Sept 15

Students don’t get what they pay for

There was a mixed response to Andrew Norton’s new paper demonstrating how Commonwealth funding for university teaching is stripped to pay for research (CMM yesterday). Student recruiters hoped nobody outside the higher education community notices, banging on about commitment to teaching is less convincing when funding for it is spent elsewhere. But research policy people are pleased that the issue is now on the broader agenda. As Universities Australia’s 2016 policy statement puts it;

“In 2012, universities sourced 56 per cent of their research expenditure from general university funds, including revenue from domestic and international students. While the quality of education is enhanced by being research-informed, funding for research must not come at the expense of teaching and learning programs.”

One obvious solution is to increase contestable research funding so that universities need not subsidise it from money intending for teaching. But while obvious, this will not appeal to Treasury and Finance, already wondering how to pay for spending in the imminent innovation statement.

Another is to deregulate student fees so that universities can collect more of their own income or for the feds to hike HECs on institutions’ behalf. And won’t that go down well with the “100k degree” lobby!

A third is for universities that are not research-strong to spend all the government income they receive for teaching on precisely that. This would not be popular at institutions which believe research matters most, even if there is not much going on there. But it might appeal to Labor’s Kim Carr, who argues that universities should be accountable to the taxpayer for grants and must concentrate on student and community need.

Just fund everything

Think Mr Norton’s paper is too pointy-headed for politics? The National Tertiary Education Union doesn’t and its response yesterday demonstrates just how many arguments Mr Norton’s evidence , could, more likely will, generate. For a start, the union says students should not have to subsidise research. Neither should casual staff whose “long unpaid hours” free up teaching money. And other academics “have little time for research.”

“University teaching must be funded adequately, as must research. Universities should not be quietly reallocating student funded income away from students, but they should not be forced into this position either,” the union argues. Ticks just about all the boxes with everybody – except Finance and Treasury.

ANU Sep 15 4

Short and to the point

Thanks to the reader who points out that the names of the three new Charles Sturt U faculties (Arts and Education, Justice, Business, Behavioural Science plus straight Science) all abbreviate to a statement by “someone unhappy with a quick trip to hospital” – “A+E? JABS? SoB!”

ASQA easy target

TAFE Directors Australia sailed into the Australian Skills Quality Authority yesterday, on the not unreasonable grounds that the training regulator appears inert in the face of for-profit providers exploiting students and extracting cash from the Commonwealth.

TDA has been urging action on this front in submissions going back as far as 2011. We have made a number of suggestions and submissions to ASQA, and remain surprised by the response to date. The current situation is unacceptable for the Australian tertiary education system, and TDA is especially concerned about the effectiveness of the regulator” CEO Martin Riordan says.

This is a gift for the public sector training lobby, which loathes the idea of competition in the system and it will keep giving until the federal government demonstrates it has eradicated the rorters and then makes the case that for-profits provide training cheaper and more flexibly than the public system. It’s a case the private sector can make, As Rod Camm from the Australian Council for Private Education and Training put it yesterday;

“allowing students and industry choice seems common sense – it will encourage innovation and responsiveness. Providers should be able to position themselves with a point of difference – be that price, student support, on-line or a range of other factors, and surely it is best that the student chooses who they wish to train with.

The labour market changes quickly and so must our training outputs. A competitive market is far more likely to do so.”

Fair enough, but no one will listen until the funding model is fixed and the spivs that exploit the existing one are gone. For the moment the mess is all people are paying attention to.

So what does ASQA say?

Not much. Here’s the key bit from its November update, yesterday. “While ASQA does not manage or administer the VET FEE-HELP program we are concerned with any risks which have the potential to negatively impact on the delivery of high quality training and assessment in Australian’s vocational education and training (VET) sector.

Following in increase in complaints about these providers, ASQA identified a potential systemic issue in 2014, and has since undertaken 21 targeted audits and interviewed more than 400 students. We also worked closely with Australia’s consumer law agencies.” Not good enough.

HES HECQN electronic banner 01-10-15

Not the same

The University of Western Australia wants to develop land which is a foraging site for the Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo. But not to worry; “acknowledging the importance of sustainable bio-diversity, the university will provide direct conservation measures in the local area,” as part of its “commitment to sound conservation management.” Even better; the university has also committed to contribute funding to allow for the rehabilitation of part of the Gnangara Pine Plantation, or other areas that have a similar value for Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo.

So that’s all right then. Not quite, as Professor Richard Holmes explained in a 2012 UWA media release; “replacing a good quality intact piece of bush with an equivalent restored area somewhere else is likely to result in a net loss of overall conservation value.” Do the university’s media people not read their own statements, a reader asks.

Usher explains elite outcomes

The learned Alex Usher has crunched the numbers on university funding in nations with institutions in the ARWU top 100, comparing those that make the elite list and the rest in the various national markets (the US, UK, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Germany). He presented his findings at a Shanghai conference yesterday.

Mr Usher is a tiger for work but even by his prodigious standards this is a huge project for a conference paper, especially given the inevitable anomalies in national funding systems ensures critics will find fault.

However the overall patterns he finds are fascinating, indicating that elite universities in all the countries represented have done ok, receiving more or much the same money since the GFC, with one exception – Australia. Here the four in the ARWU, (Melbourne, ANU, UoQ and UWA) have had a 15 per cent fall in funding per student since 2008, after accounting for the overall increase in numbers. Mr Usher acknowledges that this could be due in part to an inflated 2008 baseline because of asset write-offs at Monash and ANU. And he does not appear to include research income, where three of the four ARWU institutions clean up compared to just about all others.

However, Mr Usher argues that overall, “they have only barely recovered that baseline, and their overall income is growing less quickly than that of other universities.” As to alternative explanations CMM is all ears

Not that this signals strife for the local ARWU elite; “while money is an important ingredient, the success of universities does not rest solely upon it. Certainly, money does not seem to have much of a material short-run effect on ARWU rankings: if they did, Australia’s universities would be doing much worse than they are. Clearly, institutional strategy, hiring practices, and the quality of university management matter as well,” he writes.

CMM suspects the four will accept the compliment but tell anybody who will listen that they can’t keep performing with inadequate funding. Nor can any of their ARWU peers, Mr Usher is careful with his conclusions, but it seems two factors apply universally; enrolling up does not deliver but charging up does.

“Policy conditions (particularly the rate of increase of student intake) play a large role: in general, institutions in counties where student numbers are growing substantially are at best breaking even. But policy choices matter, too. Certainly, the ability of American and British universities to raise tuition fees in response to a cut in government funding appears to have done an enormous amount to allow them maintain their path of financial growth.”