Claire Field on hard choices for regional unis


without significant additional funding, or university mergers, some regional universities may have to change what they teach and how

Last week the Tokyo Institute of Technology and the Tokyo Medical and Dental University announced they will merge into a new national university with the explicit aim of increasing their research performance.

It was suggested to me recently that Australia could be looking at mergers of regional universities due to:

* the explicit requirement for research excellence in the new Higher Education Provider Category Standards (for universities to retain their status as a university)

* Jobs Ready Graduates changes to remove the unfunded research component of the Commonwealth Grants Scheme and the lack of any progress on a mechanism to separately allocate that research funding (beyond the one-off investment in 2021 and specific targeted funding in the coalition’s 2022 Budget)

* declining international student revenues during COVID (which money helped fund research)

* the focus on increased diversity set out in the new International Education Strategy (with increased costs for universities in recruiting from new markets and in delivering more offshore), and

* potential changes to raise the standard of excellence in ERA assessments.

Five regional universities appear to be facing significant challenges to retain their status as a comprehensive university, even before any changes are potentially made to the ERA:

* Central Queensland University

* Charles Darwin University

* Charles Sturt University

* Federation University, and

*Southern Cross University.

While no two universities are the same, typically these institutions enrolled a high proportion of international students or had generated a significant increase in international students prior to 2019. They experienced a very significant reduction in income during the pandemic and received only modest additional government revenues (except CDU although most of its additional income cannot be spent on research), and their ERA rankings pre-pandemic were below or only just above the benchmark 50 per cent across all fields of education.

Merlin Crossley argued recently in CMM that “I don’t think you’ll see (large digital repositories and platforms with millions of users) in conventional universities that focus on undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.”

The reality is that without significant additional funding, or university mergers, some regional universities may be faced with choices,

* no longer delivering all of their current courses

* sharing courses in an approach being used by smaller US universities as student numbers decline)

* taking out a subscription to Coursera for Campus (as 4,000 universities have globally) or similar platform to ensure they can retain their students.

Detailed analysis is available on my website.

 Claire Field is an adviser to the tertiary education sector