Long overdue data on university staff in 2021 was released yesterday, giving us the most detailed information yet about job losses since COVID-19 hit the higher education sector.
The Department of Education’s staff statistics are mostly based on a 31 March census date. For staff with permanent or fixed term contracts I assume few job losses before 31 March 2020. The full travel ban on incoming international students was less than two weeks old, although some countries – including, importantly, China – had earlier travel restrictions. But retrenchments take time to process so I doubt the impact at 31 March exceeded some new hires abandoned at the last minute. These weren’t enough to prevent a 3.7 per cent headcount increase between 2019 and 2020.
In the next twelve months to 31 March 2021 total permanent or fixed term contract staff fell by 9,050, or 6.9 per cent of the 31 March 2020 total. This is only the third decline in staff numbers since 1989, and by far the largest. Difficult as 2020 was for everyone involved, total staff numbers at 31 March 2021 (121,364) were roughly what they had been on 31 March 2018 (121,718). The higher education sector is still a big employer by its own recent historical standards.
The full-time equivalent fall for permanent or fixed term contract staff was 7,985, or 6.8 per cent. This number, however, needs a caveat. For these staff the FTE is an extrapolation based on work arrangements as at 31 March. Normally this would understate actual FTE, as hours worked by additional staff hired after 31 March will not be counted until the following year. But in 2020 the 31 March estimate would have overstated FTE, by not taking into account net staff reductions during the rest of the year.
For casuals DESE reports actual FTE (ie not an extrapolation) with a lag, so that 2021 actuals will be reported in the next staff data release. Before then DESE publishes university estimates of casual FTEs. With no notice periods or retrenchment payouts required, universities could start reducing casual numbers before 31 March 2020. As the chart below shows, casual estimates were trending down at 31 March 2020 compared to 2019 – a contrast to the increase in permanent and fixed term staff.
The actuals show an even bigger decline, with losses of 4,258 FTE or 17.5 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019 .
From the start Australia’s universities served multiple purposes, with on-going tensions between knowledge for its own sake, typically most strongly supported by academics, and meeting practical needs, typically most strongly supported by governments.
At the 1920 meeting that Croucher and Waghorne mark as the start of a national organisation of universities, University of Sydney Chancellor Sir William Cullen warned against ‘adopting too enthusiastically the current preoccupation with ideas of “national efficiency”‘.
Funding for Commonwealth supported bachelor degree students has been capped since the end of 2017, so this might seem like just a formality. But in reality the repeal involves a major structural change, one that could undermine important higher education policy objectives.
Even though section 30-27(1) of HESA 2003 created a power to cap, section 30-27(3) required that the capped amount be at least the previous year’s funding level. The only way that a university could get less money than the previous year was by enrolling too few students, reducing their payment under the demand driven funding formula (section 33-5(5)). In effect, the link to previous Commonwealth payments created a funding floor that the government could only lower with parliamentary approval.
Friday’s post and the comments made on them also link back to other recent posts that try to understand how universities finance themselves. The posts have consistently acknowledged data issues, and that precise dollar figures cannot be attached to most of the conclusions. At best, we can get to a credible range.
According to the ABS, which uses international definitions, research is ‘creative and systematic work undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge – including knowledge of humankind, culture and society – and to devise new applications of available knowledge’. Scholarship, by contrast, I take as activity leading to or maintaining in-depth understanding of existing knowledge.
It is hard to have research without scholarship. How can academics claim to have increased knowledge if they are unaware of the current state of their topic or field? The literature reviews that appear in many ‘research’ articles in academic journals are scholarship.
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.
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.
In a previous blog post, I argued that stagnating or declining government revenues encourage universities to seek additional international student fee income. By 2018, international student fees provided 26 per cent of all university revenue, up from 10 per cent in 2000.
However, I doubted that aggregate public funding levels fully explained university dependence on international students, whose numbers grow when public spending is increasing as well as decreasing.
But in thinking about how government policy affects university decision making it is not just revenue that matters. The cost of the services universities deliver for their public money is also crucial to understanding university behaviour.
A recent article in The Conversation suggested that government student-linked revenue did not cover the full cost of growth in student numbers. Another Conversation piece this morning also suggested that universities have become reliant on international student fee revenue to cover the cost of teaching, as well as research and other activities.
However, a chart in my first post shows that since the mid-2000s average per student funding for Commonwealth supported students grew by more than inflation and then stabilised in real terms, although with a small recent decline.
But one point made in response to my original post was that wages usually grow by more than general inflation. This means that my CPI indexation of revenue does not fully adjust for the changing purchasing capacity of grants, given the bundle of goods and services universities actually buy. In 2018, 56 per cent of university expenditure was on wages.
In the United States, the general public has an increasingly negative view of universities. In 2019, 38 per cent of respondents to a Pew Research Center survey said that universities had a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, up from 26 per cent in 2012.
In Australia, there is no directly equivalent question but successive questions on confidence in universities find that around three-quarters of respondents have a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in universities. The numbers are down slightly on their peak, but above where they were at the start of the century. With other important institutions scoring poorly on this question, university ratings are high and resilient.
In the US, the decline is driven by Republican voters. They share with Democrats concerns about tuition costs and employment outcomes, and also believe that students are protected too much from views they might disagree with and that academics bring their political beliefs into the classroom. There are some parallel critiques in Australia, with worries about free speech and left-wing bias in some courses.
So far, however, these concerns are not significantly influencing how Coalition voters perceive universities. As the chart below shows, about three-quarters of them have confidence in universities, compared to 80 per cent or more for supporters of left-wing parties. It is people who don’t support any party or prefer a minor party who have the lowest confidence in universities.
A Commonwealth campaign finance bill introduced late last year was strongly opposed by the university and broader NGO sectors. Most organisations commenting on a federal political issues were going to have to report on their donations and implement highly bureaucratic systems to prevent ‘foreign’ donations to political causes. The bill would also have affected think-tanks such as the Grattan Institute, where I work.
The bill’s overly broad definition of political activity — public expression of views on an issue in an election by any means and/or public expression of views on a political party, MP or candidate by any means — was a longstanding problem in the law. I wrote a paper about it nearly a decade ago. Compared to the existing rules, the bill slightly improved on the status quo by creating some exceptions, including expressing views solely for genuine academic purposes. But in practice, the new campaign finance regulations were likely to lead to a much worse state of affairs than now.
Under the old regime, the AEC did not enforce the letter of the law. Only organisations engaged in traditional campaign activities ever complied, and nobody was punished for not submitting the required reports on political expenditure and donations. During debate over the government’s bill it became clear that many NGOs in technical breach of the current law had no idea that it existed. But now they know, and MYEFO gave the AEC extra funds to implement the government’s ‘electoral integrity reforms’. That money could be used to increase compliance.
After near-unanimous opposition to its original bill, the government released a draft revision for comment. This seems to have satisfied Universities Australia, but I am not convinced that, despite its improvements, that universities should support the bill in its current form. Read More »
Birmingham’s response is, in effect, that the rejected projects are not worth funding. On Twitter, he says “I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar.'”
He could have picked several other examples: “beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China’s gender norms”, “music, heritage and cultural justice in the post-industrial legacy city” or “Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist, 1917-1950”.
But that Australian taxpayers were probably not going to get value for money from these very niche projects is not the same as an argument for rejecting an ARC recommendation. Read More »
I have never liked the term ‘thought leader’. But Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry, persuades me that even if the language is unappealing the concept is useful in describing how the contemporary world of ideas works. In some cases, the category of people known as thought leaders can also make the marketplace of ideas more effective.
Drezner argues that the marketplace of ideas is much larger and more open now than it was in the post-war decades. Technology is one obvious reason; anyone with an internet connection can now publish and social media can be used to bypass the old publisher and broadcaster gatekeepers to audiences. Drezner covers this, but I think the most interesting parts of the book are about how even though it is more possible now than in the past to promote ideas on a small budget, this is also an era of for-profit ideas.
The language of thought leadership is used most by consulting firms, which publish reports as part of their branding – these are the trends and problems your industry faces, come to us for solutions. Drezner says McKinsey spends $400 million a year on these activities. Locally, PwC, Deloitte and others advertise their thought leadership in various fields.
While government spending on consultants seems volatile, there is little doubt that they play a much bigger role in advising governments than they did in the past. So their ‘thought leadership’ is likely to transmit directly to government this way. (Drezner has a chapter on how economics is more influential than other social sciences; that consulting firms are big employers of people with economics degrees is another route for economists to influence government).
Drezner contrasts ‘thought leaders’ with the older term ‘public intellectual’. He has a table of what he sees as the distinctions between them:Read More »