Australia has 37 public universities; Victoria has eight of these. A range of insights about our universities come from recently released statistics.

In 2019, before the impact of Covid, Australia’s public universities enrolled 1.04m equivalent full-time students. This EFTSL number fell by approximately 150 000 students in 2020, the latest official data. This net decline involved increased domestic enrolments but lower overseas student numbers. In Victoria, the net numbers for 2019 and 2020 are 312 690 and 303 662 students respectively.

There are certain intriguing differences between Victoria and elsewhere in the country. Perhaps it is a surprise to some, but the scale of university enrolments in Victoria surpasses the equivalent number in other jurisdictions. Despite its larger population, NSW enrolments are marginally smaller than Victoria at 307 559 and 302 660 in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

In 2019, the average university enrolment in Victorian universities was just over 39,000 students, declining to around 38 000 in 2020. Elsewhere in Australia, the average was much smaller at approximately 25 000 students and varied little between the two years. The universities in NSW averaged approximately 30 500 students in both years. Interestingly, three of the four largest Australian universities in 2020 (greater than 50 000 students) are Victorian: Monash (68 000), Melbourne and RMIT (around 52 000 each). Size matters in higher education because of the inefficiencies of small scale. Economies of scale depend on a range of factors, including whether a university is specialised (teaching and research in a narrow range of fields) or comprehensive. While more common in the UK and US, specialist institutions are now rare in Australia.

There are other differences. In 2019, 41.2 per cent of students in Victorian universities were from overseas, declining to 38.4 per cent in 2020. For the other 29 universities, those numbers are 28.8 per cent and 26.4 per cent respectively; for NSW, it is 31.8 per cent and 28.9 per cent. International students can provide a richness in culture and diversity on our campuses, and added tuition income is linked to these student populations.

In respect of research intensity, Victorian universities show some similarities to the rest of the nation. Research intensity can be calibrated in many ways. One simple way compares the number of publications authored by researchers affiliated with a university with the number of student EFTS taught by that university.

Using this rudimentary measure, the four most research-intensive universities in Australia are ANU, University of Western Australia, University of Queensland  and University of Melbourne. Close behind is a second group; the Universities of Sydney, NSW, Adelaide, and Monash University.

The first four universities had a student-to-research publication ratio of between two and four. That is to say, the universities taught somewhere between two and four students per research publication. The ratio for the second group is between four and six students per publication.

The Research and Education Efficiency Frontier (REEF) Index is a data-based benchmarking tool specifically created for the university sector. The REEF methodology, developed by the Higher Education and Research Group, provides an integrated measure of productivity because it captures outcomes for both major activities of universities – education and research – in a single measure. For all 37 universities, the REEF Index for 2020 reveals an overall 86.3 per cent efficiency level. Put another way, the average university achieves an efficiency score of 86 per cent relative to the strongest outcomes in the sector – an impressive outcome. REEF is agnostic as to the teaching/research intensity mix, so research or teaching intensity does not explain the differences in efficiency achieved.

There is variability in average efficiency between the states and territories as well as considerable variability between individual universities. Those achieving 100 per cent in 2020 are UWA, University of Wollongong and Victoria University, with several others reaching scores above 90 per cent. The lowest level was under 65%.

Regarding outcomes for states and territories, they vary from a high of 96.1 per cent to a low of around 70 per cent. The eight Victorian universities averaged 86.1 per cent, around the national average and a few points greater than the NSW average.

While the great majority of government funding to our public universities comes from federal sources, it would be a mistake to think that state and territory governments are idle bystanders.

As just one example of many, the 2015 Victorian government Future Industries Fund, which made available $100m in special funding, expressly listed international education as one of six priority industries. Average levels of international education in Victoria are noticeably different to other states.

Will Victoria’s position, relative to others, change? The rivalry between states in any industry is an ongoing “arms race”. The Victorian government has been conspicuous in supporting international education. The South Australian government has recently proposed a review of its university sector. Perhaps change is afoot.

Major structural change is rare in higher education, but its effects can be significant and long-lasting.

Keith Houghton is the Chief Academic Strategist of the Higher Education and Research Group



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