Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Emerging problems with the Rudd/Gillard university targets

Back in July 2009 in Education Targets and Australia's Universities - delivery problems for the Rudd Government I discussed the Rudd Government's new target of increasing the number of 25 to 34 year old Australians with university degrees from today's 32 per cent to 40 per cent by 2025. This target has remained in place, hardly surprising since Australian PM Gillard was then (among other things) Mr Rudd's education minister.

One of the questions I raised at the time was simply whether the target was achievable. I thought not, just based on a very simple mathematical analysis. It was, I thought, another example of the problems that can arise through a narrow focus on measurable targets.

In the Australian, John Ross reports on modelling done at Monash University that suggests that the Government is indeed falling short of its target. However, that research introduces a new element. I quote:

INTERNATIONAL students comprise most of the growth recently counted towards Julia Gillard's target that 40 per cent of Australians aged between 25 and 34 will hold a degree by 2025.

However, even on this misleading measure - with up to 42 per cent of these additional degree-qualified "residents" not intending to stay in Australia after graduation - the target could be missed because of a fall in international student numbers.

While the Australian Bureau of Statistics excludes overseas residents from calculation of the higher education attainment rate, international students are counted because, under a 2006 rule change, people in Australia for 12 out of 16 months are considered residents.

Modelling by Monash University academics has found that international students were the main cause of a rapid increase in the bachelor degree attainment rate of 25- to 34-year-old Australians, which rose from 25 per cent in 2003 to almost 35 per cent in mid-2009.

This is another example of the need to be very careful in looking at simple quantitative targets. I didn't know that international students were included in the numbers. I simply ignored them.

In another story in the Australian, Andrew Trounson and Julie Hare report:

AUSTRALIAN universities are so chronically under-funded in their teaching activities that every domestic undergraduate is effectively subsidised to the tune of $1200 by international student fees.

That almost matches the commonwealth's own subsidy for domestic law and business students of $1765 a year.

Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, yesterday warned that this reliance meant that crashing international student numbers risked undermining the Gillard government's policies to dramatically boost domestic university participation.

So we have a statistics problem with the targets plus a funding problem.

There is another problem here as well, the move by the Australian Government towards a competitive funding model under which universities will be paid for Government funded places based on number of students attracted.. This has led a number of universities to over-enroll this year in anticipation of more money next year. 

This may help the Government targets, but it also builds a financial instability into the university system. I don't fully understand all the dynamics involved, and in any case that's beyond the scope of this post. For the moment, I just note my gut judgement that incipient funding issues are also likely to threaten the target, quality, or both.   


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