Australia's Universities: Can They Reform?
Spoiler alert: the answer is "no"
Australia’s universities are in crisis—and this time it’s real.
The Salvatore Babones Newsletter returns with news indeed — the publication of my new book, Australia’s Universities: Can They Reform. Struck by simultaneous financial, pedagogical, and ideological challenges, Australia’s entire university system stands in desperate need of reform. But good reform requires good data, and each of the major players in Australia’s university debate has strong incentives to warp the data in its own favor. This book offers a sneak-peek into the inner workings of the university system, with a view to helping Australia achieve meaningful reform. If universities are the conscience of a nation, Australia needs all the help it can get.
You can find launch coverage of the book in today’s issues of:
The Australian — op-ed on China’s ‘Thousand Talents’ programs
Walk the World — full forty-minute YouTube interview!
The book will soon be available at all the usual places (in print and digital), but for now you can buy the book from:
The headline finding from the book is that Australian universities have consistently undercharged international students over the last two decades (that’s right: “undercharged”). Universities have historically been paid more per student to educate domestic students than they have charged international students for the same courses. They have, in effect, used Commonwealth support to indirectly subsidize the education of international students. Why would they do that? Because international students generate free cash flow that can be used for any purpose, while most domestic student funding is earmarked for … well, education.
Other provocative findings include:
Australian university research funding meets or exceeds US, UK, EU, and OECD norms
Roughly 20% of Australia's population between the ages of 18-30 consists of international students
Fewer than half of all undergraduate students are satisfied with their university's level of engagement
Each Australian university offers on average 90 different Bachelor degree courses (!)
The book concludes with four key recommendations:
Caps should be placed on international student numbers of 20% per course, 15% per university, and 10% from any one country
International students should have to pay tuition at least equal to the per-student amounts paid on behalf of domestic students
The time that academics devote to be research should be explicitly acknowledged and financially valued in research budgets
Commonwealth support should be limited to one undergraduate degree per student in order to free up places for more students
That final recommendation would enable Australia to make Commonwealth Supported Places available to all students who want them for initial bachelor degrees, while encouraging strong students to progress to master-level studies.
Australia’s universities may not be able to reform themselves, but they can be reformed. It’s up to the Commonwealth and the states to do it. Instead of focusing on red herring issues like university mergers or rankings success, they should focus on promoting better educational practices at Australia’s existing universities. No one wants government telling universities what to teach, or even how to teach. But government can and should put in place mechanisms that promote a race to the top in educational practice among all universities that receive public support.