Category Archives: Students and teaching - Page 2

New data on the close link between SES and university attendance

I’ve criticised the government’s exclusive focus on attracting more university students from the lowest 25% of geographic areas, as measured by an index of education and occupation. I had found several data sources suggesting that educational achievement in the second-lowest quartile wasn’t much better than in the lowest quartile.

Today the ABS released an update to its online 2011 census package that lets us classify students according to their socioeconomic status ($$$ if you want access). I calculated university attendance rates for 20-24 year olds by SES deciles, with one the lowest and ten the highest.

I think my general point stands: there are low rates of university attendance well above the lowest 25%. Someone in the 4th decile is well above the lowest 25%, but still only has a third of the likelihood of attending university as someone in the top 10%. Even removing early school leavers from the analysis, their chances of attending university are still less than half those of someone in the top 10%.* We need a re-investigation of the role poor school results versus other factors play in this outcome.

uni attend 20-24 take 2

However, the data is less lumpy than I expected. There is the upper middle class at deciles nine and ten with high rates of education and professional employment which is quite different from the rest of the population. But below that attendance rates do slowly but steadily increase as people move up the SES spectrum, without the large and weakly-differentiated lowest 50% I expected from other sources.

* The decile differences are somewhat exaggerated due to students who move from low SES areas, especially in regional areas, to live near universities which are in high SES areas.

The complicated university teaching-research relationship

In The Age this morning, Don Aitken argues that university teaching has come off second best. ‘Today research, and only research, is really important,’ he says.

I certainly think that university teaching needs improving. But the story is not one of the decline of teaching and the rise of research, with one improving at the clear expense of the other.

Up until the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s more than half of higher education students attended colleges of advanced education or institutes of technology. Their mission was teaching rather than research, although some of their academics were doing research. The universities were teaching-research institutions, but with weaker research pressures than today. Most research funding was delivered as a block grant that was (unlike today) not linked to indicators of research performance.

If the teaching-focused colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology were good at teaching, we would expect their positive legacy to show when the first national student survey (the course experience questionnaire) was conducted in the mid-1990s. In reality, the CEQ showed generally dismal results. Across the country, the average positive response to six teaching-related questions was around one-third.

As the government started emphasising research performance in its funding policies, the apparent incentive was to focus on it over teaching. But this is not showing in the trend data (the figure below). The time series was was upset in 2010 in ways that exaggerate satisfaction compared to the past, but the steady upward trend in satisfaction cannot be disputed. (Some theories as to why are here.)


A consistently calculated time series on research productivity only goes back to 1997. It shows steadily increasing productivity up to 2005, where it stablises at an average 2.1-2.2 publications per full-time researcher per year (counting teaching-research staff as 0.4 full-time equivalent in research, in line with common time use expectations).

Publications per academic

Rather than research rising at the expense of teaching, on these indicators they both rose together until the middle of last decade. In research, the focus has shifted to research quality – it’s still too early to put numbers on it, but simultaneous with on-going increases in satisfaction with teaching universities are culling weaker researchers and focusing their investment in areas of relative research strength.

As well as it being difficult to find evidence for research at the expense of teaching over time, our recent Grattan research project failed to find much evidence that low-research departments are better at teaching than high-research departments, as measured by recent student surveys.

My view is that at the dawn of the Dawkins era universities were under-performing institutions, across both teaching and research. Research was further down the path of professionalisation and favoured in academic culture. But both teaching and research needed to improve a lot, and that is what we have seen.

Just removing research and making some universities ‘teaching only’ would not on its own make things better. Improved teaching needs concerted effort, whether or not it occurs in an institution that also produces research.

Why is student satisfaction with teaching increasing?

My new Grattan report argues that teaching in Australian universities could be improved. But despite remaining shortcomings, I think significant progress has been made since the 1990s.

We often hear that with higher student-staff ratios Australian academics have less time to spend on students. But in the long-running course experience questionnaire survey it is the time-use questions that have shown the greatest improvement over time.

The figure below shows that the proportion of completing students agreeing that staff ‘put a lot of time into commenting on my work’ and ‘normally gave me helpful feedback on how I was going’ has roughly doubled since 1997.*

feeback questions ceq

I think a major explanation is likely to be technology. The increase last decade matches with the spread of home internet connections. Academic staff became much more accessible via email and learning management systems than they had ever been before, and were also able to efficiently give the same or similar feedback to multiple students.

There were also good improvements (20 percentage points plus) in agreement with propositions such as lecturers were good at explaining things, teachers motivated me to do my best work, and staff worked hard to make their subjects interesting. These are not so obviously technology driven, suggesting that other forces for good teaching were at work.

These might include the spread of subject-level student surveys and their link to promotion and greater (though still typically very short course) training in university teaching.

Whatever the exact causes, these results highlight how increasing funding is not necessarily the key to improved education. Through most of these years, real per student funding for Commonwealth-supported students was declining. How universities organise themselves is the most important factor.

* All five points on the response scale were labelled for the first time in 2010, with points labelled strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree and strongly agree. In previous
years, only the anchor points of strongly disagree and strongly agree were labelled. This seems to have increased positive responses.

The persistence of health and education students

I recently received some new data on completion and attrition rates by ATAR, a surprisingly under-examined topic in Australian higher education. My Mapping Australian higher education publication summarises research suggesting a weak relationship between ATAR and average marks. However, data on 2005 commencing students shows a quite strong relationship beween ATAR and completion – the higher the ATAR, the higher the chance of completion. The whole cohort data is in this article.

We also have the data by field of education. Most disciplines have the same general pattern. But two, health and education, have higher persistence at lower ATARs, as can be seen below.

health ed atar completion

The same two broad fields of study also have graduates with high rates of retention in jobs related to their field of study, as seen in the chart below.

Degree job relevance

I’m inclined to think that the main reason is that people who choose these degrees have a relatively high degree of commitment to the end occupation from day one. A colleague notes that this may in part be because students in these fields don’t necessarily have many attractive alternatives. For people with lowish ATARs who don’t want to do voc ed, teaching and nursing have been paths to relatively secure and reasonably paid careers.

What other degrees do science graduates hold?

This morning The Conversation ran another article by me on the employability of science graduates.

I used some data from the ABS Learning and Work survey. Unfortunately access to their micro-data is not free, but it does allow more detailed exploration of graduate qualifications and outcomes than most other sources. Most ABS surveys, for example, just ask about a respondent’s highest qualification. Learning and Work asks about multiple qualifications.

Learning and Work estimates that there are about 348,000 people with a bachelor degree in science. However, 35 per cent of the report as their highest degree either a postgraduate degree in science or a degree in another field. The most common other fields were education, management, health and IT. [Note: The figures in the table were corrected on 24 June. The figures in the text were correct.]

corrected science

So while employment prospects in some disciplines are sometimes not great, people often adapt to this by seeking higher or different qualifications that improve their job prospects.

Science demand keeps increasing, despite a higher student contribution

Science has been one of the most popular university courses over the last few years, with strong increases in applications year after year since 2009. The demand shift coincided with a slashing of student contributions by about 40%. This had seemed to be a possible exception to the general empirical rule that changes to student contributions don’t affect demand (some of the history is in Graduate Winners, pp 77-79).

As part of a long series of measures to reduce higher education spending, science student contributions were put back up to pre-2009 levels for 2013, an 80% price increase in one year. If the discount was driving demand, we would expect to see higher student charges reduce demand. New statistics released today show that this has not happened.

In fact, as can be seen in the chart below, numbers continued to grow strongly. They were up another 4%, in a market that was up only 0.5% overall. Only agriculture grew by more in percentage terms, and only health grew by more in absolute numbers. Science offers increased by 3.3%, with overall offers up 0.6%

science apps Read more »

Increasing higher education spending, even after cuts

The higher education budget papers let us see in more detail what is going with spending after last month’s cuts.

The chart below tracks successive budget forecasts on the core tuition subsidy program, the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, since the demand-driven system was announced. In the early years especially there was a significant under-estimate of costs. Cuts announced over the last 6 months essentially put the budget back on the trajectory it was on in 2011. Over the forward estimates to 2017, spending on the CGS will still increase by an estimated $945 million on 2013.


The trouble with these open-ended programs is that a government can spend nearly $1 billion more and still get condemned for cuts, because the new places are not ‘announceables’. This chart puts the increases in Commonwealth-supported places into historical perspective, going back to 1989. Uncapping of CSPs has led to a massive increase in their numbers. They are up 23% between 2009 and 2013, and expected to be up 35% between 2009 and 2017.

CSPP 89-17

Should unis voluntarily cap student numbers?

From my perspective, the demand-driven funding system is Labor’s main higher education achievement (it’s described at pages 56-58 of this report). Over time, I expect it will drive a more efficient allocation of student places and through creating competition improve teaching and student services. Already we can see that a student’s chances of getting an offer in their first-preference field of study has improved in most disciplines:

offer rates
Source: DIISRTE. The figure shows offers in each field of study as a % of all first-preference applications for that field of study.

But uncapping the number of Commonwealth-supported students is costing a lot of money, a factor in recent higher education cuts. An article in yesterday’s AFR reveals that the universities want a de facto re-introduction of caps – not through changing the higher education funding legislation but through universities agreeing to constrain student numbers.

This would be a backwards step. The fear of losing students to competitors is a key driver of responsiveness to students, and a cartel-like restriction on places would be nearly as bad as the old regulated control.

30-somethings the smartest

At least if we are to believe the results of an ‘adult competencies’ survey:



Is the university experience worse than 40 years ago?

”I don’t think the university experience is nearly as good for students as it was 40 years ago. There are a number of changes, but most important is teaching is taken much less seriously than it used to be.”

– Robert Manne, The Age, 19 January 2013

I suspect he’s right that senior academics spend less time talking to and mentoring the most intellectually engaged and able undergraduate students than they did 30 or 40 years ago. But for the average student academics generally probably do a better job of organising and presenting their course materials, and this is showing in increased student satisfaction with teaching.

The data is from the Course Experience Questionnaire, run by Graduate Careers Australia. The figure appears in the 2013 edition of Mapping Australian higher education, to be released tomorrow night. (Update: out now.)