Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 3: The rise of research project grants

In a previous post, I doubted that inadequate public funding for Commonwealth supported students could, with a few exceptions, explain why universities have enrolled so many fee-paying international students. For publicly-funded research, however, structural changes in how funding is delivered have changed its economics.

Government policy has moved away from block grant funding – lump sums of money that universities can spend as they choose – towards project funding awarded on a competitive basis, mainly through the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

In the 1990s, as the chart below shows, competitive grants made up less than a quarter of Commonwealth research spending on universities (counting Department of Education plus NHMRC). By the middle of the 2010s nearly half of Commonwealth funding was delivered through competitive grants, though with an easing off recently as ARC funding was cut.

Read More »

Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 2: The cost of educating Commonwealth supported students

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.

Read More »

Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 1: Government funding cuts

A decline in international student numbers has triggered Australian higher education’s biggest-ever financial crisis. But why did universities became so financially reliant on international students?

In university constituencies, a common belief is that the government cuts going back to the 1990s are a factor.

Assessing trends in government funding is not straightforward. No official time series data exists. Different historical data sources do not always match.* There are notes about these issues in the text below, the footnote and the slides. I am confident of the overall pattern, although some year-to-year comparisons are not precise.

Read More »

How reliant is Australian university research on international student profits?

The decline in international student numbers has many people worried about the future of university research in Australia. A recent report from the Chief Scientist predicted that 7,000 research jobs could go due to reduced teaching profits, philanthropy and corporate funding.

In this post, I estimate how reliant research is on international student profits. It combines data from multiple sources. None of them were designed to calculate this profit, so my result should be taken as being in a plausible range rather than as a precise total. But it can give us a sense of the scale of reliance on international students.

According to the 2018 ABS higher education research report that was released yesterday, in 2018 universities spent $12.158 billion on research. The ABS also gives sources of research funding, but these only explain 44 per cent of the total, with the rest coming from ‘general university funds’.Read More »

University domestic bachelor-degree student profits and losses by field of education

In an earlier blog post, I calculated that universities made about $1.3 billion in 2018 from teaching domestic students. This post looks at profits and losses by field of education. Due to data limitations, the analysis is restricted to domestic bachelor degree students in Commonwealth supported places.

The first post included several methodological caveats. In drilling down further I must add more words of caution.

Costs are allocated according to the ABS fields of education. These do not necessarily correspond to the faculties and departments that organise and pay for teaching, and which have common cost structures from shared infrastructure and staffing.

For example, ideally law, which often has its own faculty, would have been separate from other ‘society and culture’ fields like humanities and social science. Economics is usually taught in commerce faculties, and so its costs would be closer to those of business courses than the ‘society and culture’ category in which it is placed. (If the ABS has ever had a worse idea than ‘society and culture’ I am yet to see it.) Read More »

How profitable is university teaching?

Last month the government released the latest teaching and scholarship cost data, which is for 2018. The bachelor degree data by field of education is here, and Deloitte Access Economics also provides a detailed report. The Deloitte report looks at costs compared to discipline-level funding rates, but does not aggregate these up to analyse teaching’s contribution to sector finances. This post tries to do that.

As Deloitte’s report notes, teaching cost numbers should be used with some caution. Universities are multi-purpose institutions, carrying out teaching, research, community engagement and other activities. Staff and facilities are often not dedicated exclusively to a single purpose, and so costs need to be attributed to different activities. University accounting systems differ in their design and their ability to allocate costs in a detailed way.

Because of joint production, any ‘profits’ on teaching are not necessarily cash left over that universities can decide how to use. The money may already be spent on the research time of staff employed on a teaching and research basis, or in the capital and running costs of university buildings used for teaching and research.

With these caveats, across the sector Deloitte estimate that 52 per cent of university expenditure is attributable to teaching and scholarship. Based on the university finance report for 2018, that means Table A universities spent about $16.7 billion on teaching in 2018.Read More »

University JobKeeper hopes dashed again

A week ago, when I last reported on the saga that is university eligibility for JobKeeper, the government had just announced that its grants would be counted in university revenue, making it harder for universities to get the required 30 or 50 per cent (depending on their size) drop in their income.

Despite this, I thought that some universities might still be eligible. The University of Sydney believed that it was. This was because while no university is likely to be down 30 or 50 per cent on its annual revenue, the timing of when international students pay their fees could mean that, in certain months, the cash flow reductions were that large.

The amended JobKeeper rules dash that hope. While other organisations can calculate their revenue losses over a monthly or quarterly period, for universities the relevant period will be the six months starting 1 January 2020. Over a six-month time period, the fortnightly payments of Commonwealth grants are likely to push university revenue losses back below 30 or 50 per cent. Read More »