We need to have a national system to help us to optimally plan, deliver, fund, and assure quality higher education, both now and well into the future.

The long-awaited release of the 2021 Higher Education Staff Statistics by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) is a useful reminder of the importance of having sound, robust and timely information to assist decision makers in making informed decisions.

The significance of this release is that it contains the actual number of staff employed in universities in 2020, which reflects staff losses due to the first year of the pandemic.

Australia’s higher education statistical data collections have well served the interests of policy makers and the university community. The systematic provision of statistical information on Australia’s higher education institutions began in the 1970s. However, the roots of the current higher education statistical data collections can largely be attributed to the Dawkins education reforms of 1987-89.

Under the impetus of these reforms, Australian universities were forced to become more effective managers of their resources whilst improving their systems for administering load plans, meeting targets, and monitoring organisational performance.

Australian universities are mandated to provide such information under the Higher Education Support Act (HESA) 2003 (Section 19-70). Prior to this, institution officials performed checks to ensure data validity and reliability.

There are established protocols that guide the data collection process which institutions are required to meet. Non-compliance may constitute a breach of the quality and accountability requirements of the legislation. In this situation, the federal government may opt to withhold institutional grants.

Australia’s model of its higher education data collections has been embraced in other parts of the world (e.g., Colombia). It has enabled us to benchmark our institutions on a number of dimensions. It has also enabled us to undertake comparative studies, and develop tools to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of universities’ learning and teaching, research and research training and operations.

The coverage of the statistical collections is comprehensive and includes: courses delivered by providers, number and characteristics of students, student load, students completing courses and units of study, students’ liabilities under HECS, number and characteristics of staff, income and expenditure, research activity, and the educational profiles of institutions (see Borden, et al 2013)

Time to rethink data collections

However, Australia’s data collection system is no longer fit for purpose, as the public release of information is considerably lagging. It has not been reviewed for some time and needs urgent revision. We need to have a national system to help us to optimally plan, deliver, fund, and assure quality higher education, both now and well into the future.

Let us briefly consider the staff data collection. The data elements collected have not been revised since it was introduced in the late 1980s. There are dimensions such as citizenship, country/ies of nationality, country of birth, country of highest qualification, and staff commencement date (to the institution or the sector) which can be included in the collection.

Furthermore, year on year data on staff who have converted from casual to permanent or ongoing staff and staff engaged in offshore operations would be useful. They would help universities to plan, build and strengthen workforces and ensure Australia is globally competitive in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment. It will also help institutions benchmark (both domestically and internationally), assure educational quality and cross reference against other data sources (e.g., co-publications and citations data by country).

One other aspect that is often discussed is the average annual salary information for university leaders and academics in general. Including this would not only help universities to regain taxpayers trust but also monitor progress towards achieving gender pay equity, including variations across disciplines. It would be highly desirable if such information was also included in the national statistical publication in table format and added to the national data file available to institutional researchers and planners across all universities.

The release of this statistical information needs to occur a lot sooner. Ideally, the national statistics would be released within 90 days from the date institutions submit their statistical information. Universities submit their data collection on June 30 every year. Ministerial approval for the release of this information also needs to be reviewed to ensure national data is released in a timely fashion. There may be inter-university agencies which rely on the timely availability of information to sign off contracts. Any delays in release could incur penalties or higher costs.

The staff data collection significantly reflects what is considered the ongoing or establishment staff employed by institutions. However, about 15-18 per cent of universities actual staff is “casual.” Over the past few years there has been extensive debate on the true number of casual staff employed by universities. No one is satisfied with what is reported because it is expressed as a full time equivalent (FTE). One casual FTE may mean hundreds of individuals.

In the absence of meaningful and reliable numbers of university staff (by this I mean head count and not expressed as FTE) we tend to scout for information which is in the public domain, such as universities annual reports, or data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).

An improved data collection, cognisant of the needs of the sector’s stakeholders together with the complexities of the current workforce, is needed to help Australia steer its course into the future. It may also be useful to untangle submission of the actual casual staff for the previous reporting period from the main staff data collection, so that the national staff statistics can be released earlier.

A failure by policymakers to act promptly may be costly. Technology has assisted us to progress thus far, but there is a significant risk that knowledge and statistical expertise will be lost as we continue to undergo renewal in our staff capabilities across the sector. We also need to modernise our data collections and have these aligned for comparison and benchmarking purposes across borders and other industry sectors. The sum of all these efforts will help to deliver efficiency and effectiveness in educational outcomes and help to monitor progress towards achieving national and institutional goals.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT


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