by MERLIN CROSSLEY
There have always been gaps between what academics and university managements want. For example, academics tend to want student numbers to remain stable, whereas many managers long for growth.
Why is this?
Well, academics want to take care of their students. If numbers increase rapidly, it is harder to look after every student. In theory it should be possible if the number of academics increases in line with increased student numbers, and fee revenues. But in practice, there are usually lags and other constraints. If you double class sizes then you can employ two teachers, but what if the class increases by 30 per cent. And what if some subjects decline temporarily, while others boom. Over time things settle out, but rapid growth is challenging at the ‘coal-face’.
Why do managers want growth?
It’s because they want to pay for important university activities that don’t pay for themselves, and to cover increasing costs.
Why are costs increasing?
The increasing costs are often related to “sophistication” – needing the Hubble Space telescope rather than a handheld telescope, paying for learning management systems rather than just chalk, meeting increasing expectations as the world moves forward, and covering increasing compliance costs as more activities are regulated.
So, it’s not surprising that managers want to make sure the educational plane is always full.
And they want to schedule more of those flights that deliver a financial margin. On top of this they hope growth will provide economies of scale. Such economies are not guaranteed, but in simple terms if you include a few extra students in a class, you may collect fees that exceed your extra costs.
Finally, managers and academics often agree that extending educational opportunities to more people is a good thing. Accordingly, universities grow.
In Australia the growth has been extraordinary. Our universities are among the largest in the world.
One reason for all this growth is that Australia has, to my mind, uniquely handled the “sophistication costs” issue, particularly when it comes to research, by relying on income from ever more students – or specifically from more international students since we are capped on price and volume for domestic students.
Other countries addressed this problem in a different way – in the UK Gordon Brown covered full research costs after the first Research Assessment Exercises, and the US has always included research on-costs in government grants, and private funders have followed suit. But we have gone for more students.
Over recent years Australians have woken up to the fact that over-reliance on ever more international students is a risk. People have pointed out the financial risk, and have also asked whether this approach might end up affecting educational quality, not to mention geopolitics.
People also ask if the emphasis on international recruitment has led universities to fixating on marketing and league tables, rather than just focussing on teaching and research.
So why were universities putting all their eggs in the international student basket? The answer was simple – we weren’t, it was just the basket worked best.
There were other baskets. Industry support, commercialisation, and philanthropy are working too but the results are lumpy – some institutions hit jackpots, whereas others have periods of drought. And critics point out the risks of a narrowing of research focus if support is privatised.
What about new student markets? Post-graduate coursework has emerged as a huge new activity. Similarly, lifelong learning will have a place.
But there are those who question whether it is right that students pay for that new space telescope? Students do accept higher fees if the research adds to prestige, as happens with first and second degrees, but are less likely to pay a premium for skills-based certification courses. Given these natural limits, societal support as well as student fees should have a role.
I think the public does appreciate that human progress over the last 100 years has been underpinned by advances in knowledge. People value research in health, renewable energy, the environment etc. Australians accept that we should keep pushing ahead, for the good of humanity, and for the sake of our own national sovereignty.
So, why not set aside stable funding for research costs, now and into the future? Why not resurrect policies from two very different prime ministers, Keven Rudd and John Howard. Why not fund the full costs of research, as proposed in Rudd’s Cutler Review of 2008? Why not cover the costs of erecting modern university buildings, via something like Howard’s Higher Education Endowment Fund?
Expanding educational access and connecting with the world will remain important. But rather than hungrily seizing every apparent opportunity for growth, each university should be smart, and consider which market demands they are uniquely positioned to meet, and plan according to realistic estimates around the scale of those opportunities. This would provide more manageable growth that would be good for our students, our staff, and for society.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic