Should unis ignore the government’s peformance funding?

Though the federal government plans to stop telling universities how many students to enrol in which disciplines, its plans for university ‘performance funding’, detailed today, show that the urge to micromanage doesn’t go away, it just shifts to different areas.

There will be new targets for enrolment of low SES students, retention rates, pass rates, overall and teaching satisfaction, students’ self-assessed generic skills, employment and further study outcomes, with warnings of other possible future indicators to replace the more manifestly inadequate on this list. Two of these – a new ‘University Experience Survey’ for first years and wider use of the Graduate Skills Assessment test – would involve additional form filling-in and testing for students.

The targets will be adjusted to the circumstances of each institution, so ‘success’ against the targets is likely to depend as much on the skill of the university negotiators in getting easy targets as anything subsequently done to achieve them.

Though the goals may sound good, this is not necessarily the case. We don’t have the evidence base we need to show that a significant increase in low SES students would be good for those students, as compared to alternatives such as TAFE. Retention is not self-evidently good, since dropping out can result from a sensible cutting of losses from bad choices, taking of better options, or adjusting to changed life circumstances. Pass rates can be manipulated. Higher satisfaction will usually be good all other things being equal, but there may be trade-offs involved in academic standards or re-directed institutional spending. We hope universities typically increase generic skills, but not all students need their generic skills improved, and there are the usual dangers of universities ‘teaching to the test’ rather than covering more important subject matter. Employment outcomes are influenced by the state of the economy and by personal factors universities can do little to influence. Further study is not always desirable.

It’s good to make information on these indicators available, but their relative importance should be assessed by universities and students, not by Canberra bureaucrats. Cumulatively, chasing these outcomes will require significant diversions of time and resources from other activities that may be more important.

Indeed, with only $138 million on offer for all institutions, the big question is why universities should bother, especially since there is no guarantee they will recover the costs of compliance. In the year the performance fund comes into effect teaching revenues are likely to be around $11 billion. International and fee paying students are the main game, and universities should focus on what these markets demand, not on second guessing requirements from the bureaucracy.

15 thoughts on “Should unis ignore the government’s peformance funding?

  1. All this student drive satisfaction stuff has gone too far — I’m not against decent teaching etc. but student driven curriculum is now common, where large numbers of people detrimentally modify what they teach to get higher ratings and please the underwear gnomes above them.
    On this note, I was personally exceptionally surprised when I first moved back to Australia when one of the courses I ran was supposedly the 5th hardest (or whatever it was) in it’s year level across the university (could it be harder than quantum physics, mathematics 3, etc. ? I doubt it, but that wasn’t what the ratings said). The reason for this is that if you give assignments where students are not told every single thing they need to do (including things you’d like them to work out themselves), they think it is hard, complain, and so many people give assignments which are about as difficult as dot-to-dot puzzles, since they get sick of getting penalized for giving out assignments students learn from and listening to complaints. This mentality of course isn’t suprising, given many of the students are coming from a high-school system where they simply memorize essays etc. for Year 12, so this is what they often expect. The problem with it though is it creates a kind of prisoners-dilemma situation for those teaching, since you don’t want to be the one that doesn’t give the dot-to-dot puzzles, or else you will get penalized for it, and you won’t get really high ratings (and hence you will potentially lose out on promotions etc. that are related to these).
    Whilst this is just an anecdote, it’s unfortunately difficult to quantify (I’m sure no-one wants to) but it seems that this mentality is much more common across Aus universities than many other places I’m aware of (indeed any others), and it doesn’t do anyone any good, apart from students in terms of their short term satisfaction (versus job prospects) and those that try to give the easiest assessment possible to get the highest satisfaction marks.


  2. S of R – Or more accurately, he who sets price controls so that the controlled will chase crumbs calls the tune.

    Conrad – I’ve not come across unis using student surveys to assess difficulty of courses, other than questions about the appropriateness of assessment.


  3. The good old days when Canberra simply sent cheques to the universities and didn’t ask too many difficult questions are long gone. The days when Canberra will allow universities to set their own prices unconditionally are far into the future. The Glyn Davis idea of making his university more of a post grad institution offers some relief because the restrictions with post grads are less onerous. But it is a model that few can copy.


  4. S of R – It really depends on how we conceptualise the relationship between universities and the government. They treat them like state governments treat government schools, but this is constitutionally dubious, and especially in the fields where Cth subsidy is a minority of funding it is doubtful that the Commonwealth should be seen as the major client whose preferences should over-ride market outcomes.


  5. “I’ve not come across unis using student surveys to assess difficulty of courses”
    There are questions on the student satisfaction surveys that relate to difficulty. I’m not sure universities pay much attention to them (as one of my friends said “we could teach the students about the Teletubbies for a semester, and if we got high rankings, no-one would care”), but individuals certainly do, since a common belief is that satisfaction ratings are negatively correlated with difficulty (and a no-doubt correct belief with undergraduates), and universities do pay attention to satisfaction scores.
    Here’s a good example of this. I know many students in the social sciences have difficulty drawing and interpreting graphs (it’s true!). Therefore, it would be a good idea to force them to draw some graphs in an assignment at some stage, since it’s an important thing to learn to do. Now, I have two options. Option one is that I tell them every single last specific thing about how to draw the graph, what to put in it, and so on. They will learn nothing from this — it’s no better than a recipe book or a dot-to-dot puzzle. Option two is that I give them some general rules about graph drawing and so on, which will force them to think about what they are drawing, different options they can use, and so on. They’ll learn something from that. Now, as it happens, I know if I use option 1, they’ll all be happy, and they’ll end up with a nice graph which I can mark easily. Alternatively, if I use option 2, they’ll complain and some won’t draw a perfect graph, which I’ll then have give them a lower mark for. They will also give me lower satisfaction scores because of this. Now, there might a number of similar things I have to make this decision with, and it all adds up. So, for all intents and purposes, if I want to meet some satisfaction score mindlessly enforced by the government and university underwear gnomes, the easiest thing I can do is make the course as easy as possible. It’s also what happens across the board — You can look through 4th year theses for this, and see how many people still can’t draw a nice graph.


  6. Perhaps a little winging, and a little more hiring of lectures that want to teach instead of “researching”.

    It will be sad if a standard Australian curriculum for critical subjects is the next step, no doubt it will come if this blog is indicative of the response to these changes.

    The “knowledge” economy needs a tertiary education system that trains people that can participate; the sooner tertiary institutions accepts this is an important role, the better.

    (my wing for the day)


  7. This seems like an incredibly clumsy way of ‘command and control’. if you had a genuine voucher system, then this would be a lot more efficient in making universities responsive to their students. Then they could stop treating them like annoyances, which is the way they think of them now.


  8. Actually I just worked out from figures linked here that my law degree cost the federal government less money than if I’d just gone on the dole!

    Coupling that with the fact that Austudy was impossible to get because my parents couldn’t afford fancy lawyers to set up trusts, it would appear that most humanities courses are simply a cheap fraud by governments to keep the unemployment stats down and save revenue. They hide the unemployed in useless courses while providing them with false hope and avoiding a political earthquake.

    Question : should the above analysis appear on a mandatory disclosure statement given to every enrolling or re enrolling humanities student?


  9. We don’t have the evidence base we need to show that a significant increase in low SES students would be good for those students, as compared to alternatives such as TAFE.

    That proposition, however, should be the null hypothesis, since there is no a priori reason to think that the socio-economic status of one’s parents is correlated in any way with how good a doctor, engineer or lawyer you would make.

    So if you believe that low SES students are intrinsically less likely to benefit from a University education, it’s up to you to prove it.


  10. I don’t think low SES students as such are intrinsically less likely to be benefit from higher ed; the evidence we have suggests that all other things being equal low SES is not a negative factor in for academic progress, though the evidence is more limited on post-uni outcomes. But something correlated with low SES, ie weak school results, is associated with relatively poor academic outcomes. Before we ask someone to spend 3+ years of their lives and $20K we should be pretty confident that it is going to pay off. Don’t forget that the labour market is already saturated with graduates, and more saturated it gets the higher the risk that the higher ed investment will get low or zero returns.


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