I had the privilege of attending the recent Universities Australia (UA) conference in Canberra.

Here I summarise a few things.

First, the history of the conference. When I began in academic management there were many higher education conferences run by major newspapers. UA decided to start its own conference and to make it the leader. I think it’s worked. It is an important annual conference where people from the sector reconnect, and engage with government and companies that support higher education.

If you attend you receive a showbag with a pen, a notebook, some advertising material, and a little book called Data Snapshot. I love the data. Here are some key points.

Australia has about 40 universities that contribute around $40bn to the economy and employ 260 000 people. The exact dollar amount is contestable, of course, but in general I think we can agree that over time knowledge adds value.

How many students are there?

Well, in 2020 there were 1.6m. When you add together staff and students more than 5 per cent of our population is directly connected to a university – more if you add family members and recent alumni etc. We are big and well-positioned to make a major contribution to the intellectual and innovative culture in Australia.

How many undergraduates?

About a 1.1m, and there are 430 000 post-graduate coursework students. I was surprised how many post-graduate coursework students there are now. One thinks back to when the sector was mostly about undergraduates, but those days are fading as the educational tide rises. There are also 70 000 post-graduate research (Masters/PhD) students. I think I would have guessed that about right. Another interesting statistic is that 40 per cent of students are “commencing students.” We all need to work hard on ‘welcome’ events each year!

When one considers just the domestic students about 70 per cent are studying bachelors degrees, 60 per cent are women, about 40 per cent are part-time, and only half study “on-campus.” It is remarkable how many part-time and “off-campus” students there are nowadays, although I expect many of these will be post-graduate masters students but those details are not in the snapshot.

Now let’s look at graduate attainment: in 2008 32 per cent of Australians between 25-34 years old had a bachelors degree or higher, but now it is 44 per cent. In the cities it is around 50 per cent. It is only 25 per cent elsewhere. Since 2008 enrolments in equity groups (disability, Indigenous, low SES, remote) have all increased between 40 and 170 per cent (although off low bases). A lot still to do but thanks to everyone who has been working hard in space – it is helping.

In terms of international students, we have nearly 500 ooo, mostly from Asia. Geographically and in terms of time zones we are part of Asia, so I think that makes sense. The international students study predominantly business and engineering/IT, and some do health. International student fees represent about a quarter of university revenues (but precisely how much varies a lot between institutions).

The staffing figures are also interesting: there are slightly more professional than academic staff; we have about 27 000 teaching and research academics, 18 000 research only staff, and 16 000 teaching focussed – this latter category has shot up from 9000 in 2008. These are full-time equivalent numbers so they don’t add up to the 260 000 employees figure quoted above as we have a lot of part-time, casual and sessional academic and professional staff.

What else did I learn from the conference?

Everyone is striving to optimise online and face-to-face learning, service delivery, and in short balancing working from home and getting back to campus. People are also focussing on tackling the arms race between cheating and cheating prevention that can affect assessment, especially when exams are on-line. We want to get these things right.

In more general terms I noted that there are more companies than ever providing data management, educational delivery, and support services to big universities.

And I was happy to see that The Conversation that enables academics to promote their knowledge has now signed up every university in Australia and New Zealand, and continues to grow across the globe.

Finally, I heard loud and clear the message that there is much to be proud of in higher education – of what we do in both teaching and research, and I noted that the government minister seemed proud of us, just as his school teachers were proud of his achievements.

We have a lot to do as we move forward and prioritise the most important things for support. We can also look out across the world and adopt the best ideas and reject some of the divisive views that are holding back some of our peers abroad. We can look forward to the Jobs and Skills Summit where our voice will be important and we can also plan for the universities accord which is an opportunity to establish plans for supporting the sector stably into the future.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life

UNSW Sydney


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