Value can come in many forms; some of them measurable, and others that are harder to count but no less important. The things we can measure tell a clear story: Australian universities are already very efficient, and ever more so.
Australia is home to only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, yet we produce about 3 per cent of the world’s scientific output.
In international rankings of global higher education systems, Australia ranks third in the world for research performance, educational attainment, participation rates and employability of graduates.
Yet, Australia is ranked only 14th in the world for the level of resources flowing into its universities.
We are one of only two countries – the other being Britain – that are in the top seven countries for the “output” of our higher education system, but not in the top seven for resources. This is a testament to our university system’s efficiency. And – from that high base – we are continually making improvements.
Analysis by the Innovative Research Universities group shows Australia has had a research productivity boom over the past 10 years. It found the number of peer-reviewed journal articles, conference papers, book chapters and other scholarly works produced by Australian academics grew from around 45,000 in 2006 to 96,000 in 2016.
That’s more than a doubling of output in a single decade. And while the academic workforce expanded by 28 per cent over that same period as Australia opened up access to university education to 47 per cent more students, that’s still a big gain.
It’s not just in research that big gains have been made. It’s also in teaching. Under the uncapped system of places, hundreds of thousands more Australians have been given the chance to go to university.
This achieved 55 per cent growth in student enrolments from the poorest quarter of Australian households, 48 per cent growth for regional and rural students, 89 per cent growth for Indigenous students and 106 per cent growth for students with a disability.
But at the same time, attrition rates have remained broadly stable. So, while universities are teaching more and more students, including many more from disadvantaged backgrounds, we have kept those students engaged through to graduation at the same rate.
Clearly, our university system is working well. By any measure, Australia’s university sector is one of strength and quality and efficiency.
But this is not the whole story. What the figures miss is the power of a huge discovery, and the changed lives, the “value add” for individuals.
Despite this, some efficiency models have tried to reduce the work and value of our universities to a simplistic formula of “dollars in, students educated, research papers out”. Such formulas do not properly account for Barry Marshall’s discovery of the gut bacteria that causes ulcers, overturning the orthodoxy and saving tens of thousands of people needless pain and unnecessary operations.
The huge impact of Professor Marshall’s discovery is one among many across all areas that enrich our lives, change the course of history and drive human progress for societies and individuals – but are hard to quantify in an efficiency matrix.
Universities are – of course – accountable; they take efficiency seriously, knowing the significant public investment that goes into their work and their profound duty to the public good.
Then there’s quality – again hard to reduce to “inputs and outputs” – but clearly of real value.
The quality of our universities attracts more than 540,000 students from almost 200 countries. This injects $31 billion dollars a year into our economy. And the quality of our universities is the reason the vast majority of graduates are satisfied with the teaching they received.
The government’s annual survey on student satisfaction, the largest of its kind, shows that four out of five students are happy with the quality of teaching and of their education.
This quality also prompts nine in 10 employers to say the university graduates they supervise are well-prepared by their education for their current job.
Continued funding cuts put the quality of this system at risk. And that’s why we continue to call for the end to the pre-Christmas funding freeze, the $2.1 billion in cuts. These cuts won’t only undermine our universities; they will undermine our economy.
Recent modelling shows under the freeze, federal tax revenues will drop by between $2.2 billion and $3.9 billion and cost the national economy between $6.9 billion and $12.3 billion over the next 20 years.
For every Australian who misses out on a university qualification due to the university funding freeze, it will cost our GDP $471,000 and lose us $152,000 in tax take.
It’s time to end this university funding freeze to safeguard our national productivity and prosperity. Whatever short-term budget savings these cuts aim to make will only erode quality – and that’s bad for efficiency, however you try to measure it.
Catriona Jackson is chief executive of Universities Australia and will speak on a panel about university efficiency as part of the 2018 AFR Higher Education Summit.
As published in the Australian Financial Review on 27 August 2018.