The coming end of academic autonomy

On Friday the government released draft legislation for the biggest change to higher education organisation since the forced mergers of the Dawkins years: a new, national higher education quality regulator, to be known as the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

TEQSA is a child of the WorkChoices High Court case, the Commonwealth using the corporations power to grab control of higher education accreditation from the states (though the draft does require state ministers to be consulted in some circumstances). All higher education providers will have to meet basic registration standards (called provider standards in the legislation), teaching and learning standards, qualification standards, information standards, and for universities research standards as well.

The standards will all be in delegated legislation, made by the minister on the advice of a Higher Education Standards Panel appointed by the minister, with regard to advice from TEQSA and state ministers. Though there are checks on the minister, overall this will concentrate a very large amount of power over Australian higher education in the federal government. The standards will be disallowable by either house of parliament, but cannot be amended by the parliament.

By contrast, the current system is highly decentralised. Continue reading “The coming end of academic autonomy”

Paying for uni through effort?

The review of higher education funding has been asked to look at the issue of the relative public and private contributions to tuition costs.

Some people think it is anomalous that law and business students pay more than 80% of the nominal cost of their place, while for example medical and engineering students pay a third or less.

Another perspective is to ignore cost shares and focus on the size of private benefits. Post-1996, this is roughly the perspective that has dominated. The basic idea is that students in disciplines with high incomes can afford to pay more.

Using occupational income data from the ABS Employee Earnings and Hours publication I’ve been playing with another version of the private benefits idea.

The idea here is that graduates pay for their courses in work effort, defined as the number of weeks it would take to repay their debt if they devoted their entire net weekly earnings to doing so. While some courses are much more expensive than others, the higher salaries their graduates earn mean that they can repay more quickly.

The table below shows that for most occupations the time to repay is closer to the average than the $ dollar cost relative to the average (closest number in bold). Mostly the differences are not large, though for arts professionals and medical practitioners there is major correction towards the mean on the time to repay measure (the figures are all based on average earnings for full-time males in May 2010). Continue reading “Paying for uni through effort?”

A low quality higher education spending cut

I was right that universities would be high on the list when budget cuts were called for, but wrong about what would get cut.

Instead of postponing the demand-driven system they are abolishing the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC), and the Capital Development Pool.

Rather unusually for a government agency run by career public servants, the ALTC is offering a feisty response on its website:

The Federal Government will force the Australian Learning and Teaching Council to cease operations at the end of 2011 leaving a gaping hole in the sector.

CEO, Dr Carol Nicoll responded to the Prime Minister’s announcement made earlier today.

“The ALTC represents the Australian Government’s commitment to enhancing the quality of learning and teaching in higher education through means other than regulation,” she said.

“Obviously we are deeply disappointed that the Government’s stated commitment to improving the student learning experience for Australian students is not matched by continuing funding.” …

“The Government has taken the easy option of abolishing the ALTC. The savings to the government will be less than $22 million per annum but the damage to the higher education sector and student outcomes will be far reaching,” he [ALTC chair John Hay] said.

Continue reading “A low quality higher education spending cut”

Will uni finances be washed away by the floods?

We should of course be a little sceptical when Julia Gillard talks about cutbacks. But if cuts need to be made, who will take a hit?

Step forward, Australia’s vice-chancellors. Higher education has long been near the top of the list when money needs to be saved. And in recent times, higher education spending has been out of control. As I noted last year, massive over-enrolments have forced multiple large upward revisions of federal spending on higher education. Postponing the decision to ‘fully fund’ these places (unis receive only student contributions if they exceed their funding agreements by more than 10%), promised for 2012, could produce nine figure savings.

If this does happen, it will confirm my view that there have been some reckless decisions to take so many students. And there is little sign in this month’s offers figures that there has been any attempt to bring numbers under control. In NSW and the ACT, where much of the 2010 over-enrolment is concentrated, offers are up 2.6% on last year (acceptances may be higher or lower, so we can’t directly infer commencing student numbers from this figure). In Victoria, offers are up 1.1%.

The 2011 intake will ‘replace’ (in terms of total student load) smaller commencing cohorts from 2008 and preceding years who have now completed, so total over-enrolments are likely to be well-up on 2010.

Unless unis really do have very low marginal costs, cutbacks could mean that the ‘irrational exuberance’ of 2010 and 2011 enrolments leaves some universities with students they cannot afford.

Has anyone really accrued a HELP debt of $384,957?

The Herald-Sun this morning reports on the country’s biggest HELP debts, with the highest coming in at $384,957 according to the ATO.

I did some background for this story (though unfortunately for my media mentions, in the story I am only one of the anonymous ‘education experts’ recommending caps on HELP debts), including some modelling of how much somebody could end up owing.

In my maximum debt scenario, my hypothetical student has been enrolled continuously since HECS started in 1989. Until 2002, he/she takes the most expensive HECS course on offer. When the PELS scheme for full-fee postgraduate students starts in 2002, he/she takes the most expensive MBA course for $48,000 a year for two years (though in reality you need business experience to get into these courses). They then find another postgraduate course to do for another couple of years over 2004 and 2005, at $30,000 a year. Now they are covered by the capped FEE-HELP loan scheme, and to max that out I enrol them in a full-fee medicine course for $25,000 a year for four years. In 2010 I switch them to a Commonwealth-supported place to continue the medical course, with a HECS-HELP loan of just under $9,000.

The total debt for all this, including the effects of indexation, is $371,787. Continue reading “Has anyone really accrued a HELP debt of $384,957?”

Gavin Brown, RIP

Being vice-chancellor of a sandstone university does not seem like the path to a long life. First Alan Gilbert died far too young, and now Gavin Brown. He had a heart attack and died after his Christmas lunch, aged 68.

In my time as David Kemp’s higher education adviser in the late 1990s, Brown like Gilbert stood out among the vice-chancellors. Gilbert was an entrepreneur and visionary type, and you always knew what he thought. Brown struck me as a canny character; the Scottish accent and a left eye that did not follow the right distracting you from what he was up to.

Though Brown did what VCs needed to do in the 1990s in pursuing full-fee students – including, controversially, domestic undergradates – in other respects a cigar-smoking, racetrack-going academic seems like someone from another, more leisurely and less ‘performance’ oriented era. We probably won’t see any more people like him leading the top universities.

Gavin Brown, RIP.

DEEWR gaffe in incoming government brief

Perhaps because departments know that incoming government briefs are subject to FoI they are mostly pretty uninteresting. DEEWR’s is largely a bland summary of current policy.

But there was one small gaffe that amused me. Among the ‘fronts’ on which the Department is promising ‘effort’:

‘drafting and introducing legislation to enable compulsory student union fees’

The government’s language has otherwise emphasised student ‘services’ and ‘amenities’ rather than student unions. In introducing the latest bill to Parliament, Peter Garrett said:

Let me be clear—the bill is not a return to compulsory student unionism.

The truth is somewhere in between. Under the bill, there need not be a student union. But there is nothing stopping a university from funding one, and in draft guidelines there are requirements that there be democratically elected student representatives, that universities provide resources to these representatives, and consult them on use of the amenities fee.
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Out of the incoming government brief, the media picked up on a point I made back in August , that there would be a $20 billion plus price tag to the Green promise to abolish student tuition fees and write of the HELP debt. Fortunately this insanity will be ignored by the ALP.

Have higher student:staff ratios been bad for student satisfaction?

An implication in complaints about rising university student:staff ratios is that things are getting worse for students.

We don’t have any measures of student learning, the most important indicator, but we do have from the course experience questionnaire sent to all completing students a series of questions on satisfaction with teaching, which together form the ‘good teaching scale’ (GTS). These questions cover time spent commenting on work, helpfulness of feedback, whether students were motivated to do their best work, how good lecturers were at explaining things, whether lecturers worked hard to make their subjects interesting, and whether staff made an effort to understand difficulties students might be having.

Contrary to what we would expect if SSRs were a major teaching problem, all the GTS scores have improved steadily since 1997, though from a low base. In 1997 on average 39% of completing students gave a clearly satisfied rating to the teaching questions (ie the top two points on a five point scale). By 2009 this was up to 52%. Continue reading “Have higher student:staff ratios been bad for student satisfaction?”

Do uni class sizes matter?

Should we worry that uni student numbers have grown more quickly than academic staff numbers? The history of school research on student:staff ratios suggest that we should be cautious about making lower SSRs a policy priority. Most analysis has found little or no educational benefit in reducing school student:staff ratios. Increased SSRs may be a sign of higher productivity rather than a problem.

Given that uni students are supposed to be more independent learners than schools students, universities (with rare exceptions like the Oxbridge tutorial system) have always used large groups methods of instruction such as lectures. Unis can teach many more people at the same time than schools.

On interesting question is whether if the class expands beyond the size where personal interaction is feasible, does it matter whether there are 100, 200, 300 or more students in the room? If, as the school research suggests, it is teacher quality that matters most to learning it might be better to have the best lecturer teach a class of 300 than to have six not-so-good lecturers take six classes of 50. Continue reading “Do uni class sizes matter?”

Are student:staff ratios a useful university indicator?

Universities often complain about rising student:staff ratios. These rose from around 14:1 in 1990 to around 21:1 in 2007.* By contrast in schools student:staff ratios declined from 15.4:1 to 13.9 to 1.

But what does a student:staff ratio actually mean for teaching in a university context? In schools, a student:staff ratio of 14:1 will often mean just that – than in the average school, there are 14 students for every 1 member of the teaching staff.

In universities that isn’t the case. A student:staff ratio of 21:1 means 21 full-time equivalent students (EFTSL) to each full-time equivalent (FTE) teaching or teaching/research staff member. Due to part-time uni students, there are 1.4 persons for every EFTSL. But due to casualisation of university teaching staff, according to a report in the Higher Education Supplement one staff FTE could be 7 or 8 casuals (they represent about 20% of FTE teaching staff). So on a person to person basis, the university student:staff ratio is likely to be less than 21:1. Continue reading “Are student:staff ratios a useful university indicator?”