Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 4: Trying to maintain a teaching-research academic workforce

In my previous post in this series, I argued that international student fees help pay for under-funded government-sponsored research grants. But these research projects are not the only partially-funded research universities are trying to finance. They also have many teaching staff on contracts that include research time, but who do not attract equivalent research income.

For academics, the expected and preferred academic career is generally to have a teaching and research or research only role. For most academics, however, teaching is not their top priority. A survey about a decade ago found that, among teaching-research academics, nearly two-thirds leaned towards or were primarily interested in research.

This bias is reinforced by the academic recruitment process, which favours people with PhDs. In 1987 less than a quarter of academics in the Colleges of Advanced Education, which by then taught the majority of higher education students, had PhDs, and 69 per cent of university academics. In 2018, across the now unified system, nearly 74 per cent of academics have a PhD.

Not surprisingly, most people who do PhDs are interested in research. In a 2010 survey, only six per cent of research students planning an academic career nominated a ‘mainly teaching’ role as their ideal job.

Research is of intrinsic interest to most academics, but it also a source of prestige. Universities boast about their position on world rankings. Academics scramble for research esteem – publications in their discipline’s top journals, project grants from the ARC and NHMRC, awards in their field. This status seeking is reinforced by government, through funding policies that reward research performance and research quality evaluation exercises.

Balancing efforts over recent decades, such as teaching awards, recognise the valuable contributions individual academics make to student learning, but cannot correct the cultural bias in favour of research.

Knowing what its members want, the academic union only reluctantly accepts full-time teaching-only roles, as better than casual employment.

If we look only at on-going and fixed-term contract roles, universities have, despite increases in teaching-only positions, tried to retain employment in accordance with academic aspirations.

As the chart below shows, teaching and research academics are still by far the largest group among non-casual staff (UNSW seemingly made massive JobKeeper-like errors in its historical staff reporting; the dotted line in the chart is what the totals would have been if UNSW reported staff were the same in 2018 as 2017).

The research component varies, but 40 per cent of work hours for teaching-research staff is a common expectation, on a 40 (research)/40 (teaching)/20 (administration and service) basis.

academic function trends

But if university prestige comes from research, university money increasingly comes from teaching.

As the chart below shows, in 2018 universities received $3.25 in student-related funding for Commonwealth supported students for every $1 in Commonwealth research funding. It was lower in the mid-2000s, due to increases in ARC and NHRMC funding (bringing other problems). But after then teaching funding grew more quickly than research funding in most years. Demand driven funding for domestic bachelor-degree students accelerated this imbalance.

These additional domestic students bring in only modest amounts of discretionary revenue that can be spent on research. The approximately 10 per cent of base funding available for research cannot possibly finance 40 per cent of teaching-research staff time being spent on research, especially if we assume that these resources must also support partially-funded project grants. Some funding gaps are plugged with consulting work and non-government research funding. But these revenue sources can only alleviate, not fix, the problem. (Update 7/6/20: This post notes and comments on base funding covering more than I assume in this paragraph.)

The now multi-decade move away from general block grants means that teaching and research are publicly funded according to unrelated criteria. For teaching, how much money a university receives is broadly based on its student numbers, while for research a university’s share of government funding is largely based on its past research performance.

The separation of teaching and research funding, basing them on different criteria and putting them on different growth trajectories, puts a huge strain on the teaching-research employment model. Teaching and research remain joined on the expenditure side, but not on the revenue side.

If there are more paying customers for teaching than research, how do universities finance most of their academic staff having time for research?

A significant part of how universities manage the broken teaching-research funding nexus is, unsurprisingly, but against the wishes and aspirations of most academic staff, letting employment follow the funding system’s logic. Specialised funding means specialised employment.

This trend is evident in the academic employment chart above. Teaching and research numbers are flat while teaching-only and research-only numbers are growing. But this understates the trend towards specialisation, as it does not count casual staff. There is no official headcount of casuals, but full-time equivalent numbers are published. As the chart below shows, teaching-only casual employment has increased significantly.

In 2001, on a full-time equivalent basis, 36 per cent of academic employment was specialised; teaching only or research only. In 2018, it was likely to be around 55 per cent (final 2018 casual figures have not yet been published).

Specialised teaching staff tackles the teaching-research problem on the cost side; universities minimise the number of academics who generate research costs.

On the revenue side international students, by typically paying in fees much more than it costs to teach them, partially restore what three decades of public policy have worn away, a funding connection between teaching and research.

Due to their aggressive pursuit of international students, university leaders have maintained teaching-research academic numbers at higher levels than would have been otherwise possible. This probably accords with their personal views of what an academic career should look like; it is the type of role most of them would have had earlier in their careers. It also bought them some industrial peace from a workforce that is highly resistant to teaching-only academic careers.

The COVID-19 crisis will re-expose what international student dollars partially covered up – that a large-scale teaching-research academic workforce is not viable on domestic higher education policy settings.

4 thoughts on “Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 4: Trying to maintain a teaching-research academic workforce

  1. Thanx for this analysis. Academics pursue research not only out of intrinsic interest and for prestige, but also to establish a reputation and thus employability outside one’s department.

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  2. Thanks, Andrew, for this analysis. So interesting (and depressing!) how the figures reveal this broken nexus between public expenditure/income on teaching-research academics.

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  3. Well written and evidenced as always. When one market is protected and the other is free, the free side will always be fully exploited, especially when investment in research drives prestige which, in turn, drives higher international student revenues. “Demand-driven” seems a strange, politically-motivated label for what is really a supply-driven market for domestic students.

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    • While it is true that universities did not have to respond to domestic demand, I think ‘ demand driven’ was for bachelor degrees a reasonable term to contrast uncapping places with the previous supply-constrained system. While students could only take what universities offered, there was a big realignment by field of education in line with student preferences.

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