Are our universities ‘too fat’?

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I’m in Canberra. I’ve been attending the 2018 Universities Australia conference*, and I’m writing this from a corner in ANU’s ageing Art & Music library (I love the smell of it – oh the nostalgia! It reminds me of my undergrad days at UQ, when I would spend solid days in places like this. At the time I didnt realise the luxury of it). Alas, today my usual spot in the Chifley library is not available, because it’s being knocked down to make way for a schmick new student hub.

ANU's new student hub sign

Australian universities are in an interesting spot right now. Everyone’s committed to expensive infrastructure projects, and some are going into significant debt to do it. In my current city of Adelaide, we have a new University of Adelaide building for health and medical sciences going up right next to a UniSA cancer research institute on North Terrace. The rumour that UniSA added a spire to the top of its building to make it slightly taller than the Adelaide one hasn’t been confirmed beyond doubt, but there’s definitely some competition going on.

Many of these infrastructure projects are aimed at attracting students and industry partners, and bringing our activities into the 21st century. All of them started earlier than any concrete promises of government funding ‘reforms’ or MYEFO**. At that stage, we were all chasing increased student demand, and there was a sense that we could keep expanding forever – although actually after a big increase when the demand driven system was introduced, enrollment growth stabilised at just below population growth by 2016-17. Last year in my committee-plenteous middle management university job, I would field at least two new course proposals per month that made claims*** about being able to find amazing student load from entirely new sources.

Now we’ve put the anchors on. In the last two months the buildings have still been going up, but the Commonwealth $ will be the same, at least under the Coalition goverment, and later will be linked to ‘performance’ in various ways – most probably QILT indicators of student satisfaction, student retention, full-time grad employment and so on. It’s no surprise that now universities are variously looking for more money from international student load (FPOS), and domestic full fee paying students (micro-credentials for executive education, anyone?), both of which are risky moves. They are also looking seriously at belt-tightening, rationalisation and efficiencies, which is what the minister has been talking about for a while now.

So here’s a question: Are universities indeed ‘too fat’?
Universities all report their top level financial results to DET. Most post a surplus of between 2% and 6% (not so much regionals and dual-sector unis, many of which are definitely struggling), but according to UA, the average surplus has been declining over the last few years. These surpluses aren’t about profit, because universities are not-for-profit entities. The surpluses are instead what the university has on hand at the end of the year, including money from things like research and capital grants for which spending is already committed for the next year. The surplus figures are therefore not a great indicator of how much belt-tightening universities can stand, or might need.

So how efficient are universities in doing what they do? Is there more room for efficiency? By ‘efficiency’, I mean obtaining maximum value with minimum wasted effort and expense. This is a hard one, and one that VCs differ on somewhat (most recently, Margaret says yes we can be more efficient, at least with investment in infrastructure and technology, Glyn says no – specifically in terms of academic to professional staff ratios, and Jane also says no – in terms of the salaries and superannuation that academic staff receive).

To tell you the truth, the whole conversation makes me uncomfortable. The reason is that in pursuing university efficiency, we risk ending up negatively impacting our #1 stakeholders – our students. We risk ending up with very large face-to-face class sizes; courses ‘put online’ with not enough consideration of good pedagogy; ill-prepared, harried teachers; poor assessment feedback; and not enough support for students who need help, amongst other things. I am not saying that we shouldn’t pursue efficiency. I just think that we need to do it carefully, and using blunt indicators such as surpluses and staff ratios is highly problematic.

Here’s one challenging issue we could start with: Like many others, I have noticed that universities are afflicted by the ‘red tape plague’ that affects many large organisations these days. We’re busier than ever, with many academics working more than 60 hours per week, and this makes staff on the ground very angry when the Government suggests we need to tighten our belts. As an academic, I now spend far more time than ever before filling in forms, sitting in committees, and administering things… or clarifying confusion and roadblocks about forms, committees, systems, and administration. This is partly driven by reporting, KPIs and overregulation (apparently universities have the most reporting requirements of any Government funded sector), it’s partly that our systems and processes are becoming more and more complicated and sometimes don’t work together very well, and it’s partly the risk management culture. Academics grumble about not having enough professional staff to support them with all the red tape, but I dont think this is really the issue. Seriously: how do we reduce the administrivia in university life, and focus on core business?



*I might post about the contents of this later on, if I have time. It was very focussed on workforce changes because of automation, which disappointed me – it was a bit narrow and superficial, with some exceptions.

**MYEFO – ‘mid year economic forecast’, a euphemism for the recapping of funding for Commonwealth supported student places that happpened at the end of 2017, representing an end to the demand driven funding system.

***not always wonderfully substantiated, admittedly


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