Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 5: The rise of research rankings

In my series of posts on why universities became financially reliant on international students I have, to date, focused on domestic factors. Research funding policy changes are the most important. Universities needed new discretionary revenue to finance government-supported research projects, and to pay the salaries of staff with teaching and research roles.

But universities did not need a nearly 500 per cent real increase in international student fee revenue since 2000 to fill these budgetary gaps.

Suppose annual Commonwealth research spending was 50 per higher across the last few decades, all of it paid through block grants rather than generating additional costs via competitive grants. Up until the year 2000, as the chart below shows, a 50 per cent increase in public funding would have covered all research spending. But in 2018 Commonwealth funding 50 per cent higher than it was would still have left over 40 per cent of research spending unfunded (although there is about $1.9 billion in non-Commonwealth research income).

Profits on international students have been used to help finance a massive increase in university research expenditure this century.* Growth on this scale was something universities chose to do, not a change forced on them by government policy.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 »

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 »

COVID-19 could have a high fatality rate in the private higher education sector

If things look bad for public universities in the COVID-19 era, they look much worse for many providers in the private higher education sector.*  Not all are likely to survive a significant downturn in the international student market.

Although there are some commercially very successful players in private higher education, that is not the universal experience. When TEQSA reported on financial risk last year, it rated 12 per cent of for-profit providers as high risk, and 44 per cent as moderate risk. For not-for-profits, the corresponding risk ratings were 5 per cent and 40 per cent. This equates to more than 60 providers at high or moderate risk. As of April 2020, there are 134 non-university higher education providers.

The private higher education sector is diverse, with 37 providers having no international students in 2018 (based on not having a CRICOS registration). Generally speaking, however, the private higher education sector is more exposed to the international student market than public universities. About half of private sector students are internationals, compared to 31 per cent in the public universities. The true number is likely to be higher, as the statistics only include providers that have signed up for FEE-HELP, a domestic student loan program.  Providers aimed exclusively at the international market have no need for FEE-HELP.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 »

Will university staff receive the JobKeeper payment?

Update 9/4/20: Since this post was written there was, briefly, some expectation that the revenue loss required for universities would be lower for 15 per cent. That is not happening. 

Update 24/4/20: This story keeps evolving. Due to a loophole in the legislative instrument, which sets the revenue base at GST turnover rather than total income, some universities look like they have a basis for receiving JobKeeper.

Update 25/4/20: Cancel yesterday’s update, the government is moving to block that one. But there may still be other ways that universities can get JobKeeper. A new post updates the story.


Last night there was some Twitter discussion about whether university casuals would receive the new JobKeeper payment of $1,500 a fortnight. It is to be paid via employers, but casual staff are not eligible unless they have been employed on a regular basis for the last 12 months. Given the on-gain, off-again nature of casual teaching many probably would not be eligible.

But the first issue is whether universities are eligible employers. To qualify, they need to have suffered a significant loss of revenue:

Employers (including not-for-profits) will be eligible for the subsidy if:
• their business has a turnover of less than $1 billion and their turnover will be reduced by more than 30 per cent relative to a comparable period a year ago (of at least a month); or
• their business has a turnover of $1 billion or more and their turnover will be reduced by more than 50 per cent relative to a comparable period a year ago (of at least a month).  (emphasis added)

In 2018 eleven universities had annual revenues exceeding $1 billion. They therefore have the higher 50 per cent drop in revenue requirement, rather than the 30 per cent drop for smaller universities. Read More »