A farewell to arts?

I am on a panel discussion this evening called ‘A Farewell to Arts? On the Morrison Government’s University Legislation’. I will do my preparation in public via this blog post, working through the event questions.

Why does the Morrison Government want to dissuade students from enrolling in an Arts degree? [A reference to more than doubled student contributions.]

As the policy name ‘Job-ready Graduates’ suggests, the main stated reason for changes to student contributions is to promote graduate employment outcomes. Or as the JRG discussion paper puts it ‘incentives in the current funding system could encourage sub-optimal choices for students and institutions, leading to poorer labour market outcomes and returns on investment in higher education.’ The assumption is that if arts becomes more expensive students will instead choose a course with lower student contributions and better employment prospects.

Employment outcomes can be measured in many ways, but every method shows that graduates in fields typically taught in Arts faculties are at an elevated risk of disappointing outcomes.

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The social and political causes of increasing educational participation from the 1980s

In my previous blog post, a discussion of Australian educational trends inspired by Peter Mandler’s post-WW2 history of education in Britain, I finished in the 1970s, a rare period of decline in school completion and university participation rates.

School completion increases again

Whatever the reasons for 1970s educational trends, in the 1980s rates of school completion rapidly increased, as the chart below shows. According to Simon Marginson’s book Educating Australia, increasing the proportion of students completing Year 12 was a deliberate policy goal, supported by state governments and the Commonwealth.

With these older teenagers, in the 1980s compulsion was not a politically acceptable policy tool for increasing school retention. As recently as 2007 in Victoria and 2009 in NSW the school leaving age was still only fifteen. Incentives were needed. According to Marginson, the Commonwealth significantly extended income support for secondary school students, with recipient numbers increasing six-fold between 1982 and 1990.

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The rise and then slight fall of school completion and university participation rates in Australia and Britain, 1870s to 1970s

A recent reading highlight for me is Peter Mandler’s The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Higher Education since the Second World War. I reviewed it on the GoodReads site.

Despite its title, Mandler’s book does not neatly belong to either educational merit genre; it neither bemoans the excessive influence of academic ability in allocating social and economic goods, nor laments the decline of academic standards in schools and universities. Instead, its core theme is how changing attitudes, aspirations and expectations drove up British educational participation and attainment after WW2. There are many interesting parallels with Australia.

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Can universities just close loss-making courses?

As international student fee revenues fall universities are closing loss-making subjects and courses. Musicology at Monash. Maths and gender studies at Macquarie. Arts and social science subjects at Sydney. Neuropsychology at La Trobe.

Generally, universities have significant autonomy over what they teach. Changes in courses and subjects occur every year, in good as well as bad economic times.

But the funding agreements universities sign with the government impose some controls over course closures.

For courses leading to occupations deemed to be experiencing a skills shortage, and subjects teaching ‘nationally strategic’ languages, universities have to get government approval prior to closure.

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Financial influences on job-seeking university applicants

In an earlier post, I argued that student interests drive course choices, but also that more than 80 per cent of first-year students hope for improved employment outcomes.

It follows from this that, within their cluster of interests, prospective students would plausibly choose courses with the best apparent employment and income outcomes.

This theory helps explain trends seen in applications data. While supply-side and timing problems mean we do not always have enough ‘job-ready graduates’, rarely do we lack ‘job-ready applicants’.

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Jobs, interests and student course choices

The Tehan higher education reforms aim for ‘job ready graduates’. In that, the government’s goals align with those of most students. In recent ABS surveys asking students about their main reason for study, more than 80 per cent of bachelor-degree respondents gave a job-related reason. About 10 per cent gave interest or enjoyment as their main reason (chart below).

However, interest and work reasons are not mutually exclusive. When multiple reasons can be given interest in the field of study is the most popular answer, with over 90 per cent of respondents saying it is important (chart below). Training for a specific job is nominated by about three-quarters of respondents, with another ten per cent hoping to improve their job prospects without having a precise occupation in mind.

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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.

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Should ‘undergraduate certificates’ be added permanently to the AQF?

As of this morning eight universities are offering 43 ‘undergraduate certificates’ in the government’s university short courses program. Last week I outlined the then multiple legal and funding difficulties of ‘undergraduate certificates’.

But as I was writing that blog post a band aid legal fix was being applied. Undergraduate certificates have been temporarily added to the Australian Qualifications Framework. They can be awarded between this month and December 2021. This gets universities, and the Department, which otherwise lacked legal authority to pay Commonwealth Grant Scheme or HELP money to universities, off the legal hook.

Apart from highlighting AQF governance weaknesses  – it is just an agreement between education ministers – this leaves the question of what happens to undergraduate certificates after December 2021.

The links between short courses and qualifications

In answering this question we are not starting with a blank sheet of paper. The AQF recently had a major review, which reported in October last year. The review was sympathetic, as I am in general, to helping students build towards a credential. Students don’t necessarily want or need a formal qualification, but where they do we should, where we can do so efficiently with low integrity risks, help them achieve their goal incrementally and cost effectively.Read More »

International students and the COVID-19 recession

For Australian higher education the situation of international students in the COVID-19 crisis is especially concerning. They lack the local family and social security back-ups of domestic students. It leaves them particularly vulnerable as large parts of the student labour market collapse.

And if international students have to go home or cannot pay their fees, that is the most likely trigger for a broader higher education sector crisis. At best, thousands of higher education workers will lose their jobs. At worst, many universities will need government intervention to survive.

This morning the government issued a summary statement on the situation of international students during the COVID-19 disruption.

International students working in nursing and aged care have had their 40 hour per fortnight cap on working eased, as have students working in supermarkets until 1 May. While that is helpful for some students, as of 2016 the majority work in other occupations, as the chart below shows. Read More »

COVID-19 means that universities should not be held to performance funding targets

Update 6/4/20: Since this post was written, the minister has indicated that performance funding is being reconsidered due to COVID-19.

The government’s university performance funding scheme was always based on  questionable assumptions. Among them is the belief that we can reliably distinguish a university’s contribution to various outcome indicators from the other influences on those same numbers.

I’m sceptical enough of this in normal times. But COVID-19 means that, despite the extraordinary efforts of academics and other university staff to provide continuity of education and student support, three of the four performance indicators – graduate employment, student satisfaction, and equity group enrolment share – will or are likely to worsen compared to recent years. The fourth – attrition – will probably show a positive trend that also has little to do with university performance.

Due to the total amount of performance funding being linked to population growth, COVID-19 driven changes to migration levels will also reduce how much performance money is on offer.

Graduate employment

Let’s start with graduate employment, which has a 40 per cent weighting in the performance funding formula. As I argued in a blog post on Monday, previous record-bad employment results in 2014 will be significantly exceeded. Read More »