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Sunday, 21 September 2014

Fact check: Will Australian universities 'slide into mediocrity' without reform?

Fact check: Will Australian universities 'slide into mediocrity' without reform?

Fact check: Will Australian universities 'slide into mediocrity' without reform?


The Government claims allowing Australian
universities to charge students unregulated fees will keep them
internationally competitive. It has issued dire warnings about what may
befall the universities if the current funding system remains.
situation in Australia is such that we cannot have no reform to our
universities or they will slide into mediocrity, be overtaken by our
Asian competitors," Education Minister Christopher Pyne told Network
Ten's The Bolt Report on August 24.

international education market will dry up. Our university students
will go overseas thinking that they have first-class degrees only to
find they come eighth out of eight in every race."

ABC Fact Check examines how Australian universities are tracking against their international competitors.

  • The claim: Christopher Pyne says Australia
    cannot have no reform to its universities or they will slide into
    mediocrity and be overtaken by Asian competitors.
  • The verdict: On the available evidence, without Mr Pyne's reforms, it seems unlikely Australian universities will slide into mediocrity.

Ranking the world's universities

Despite its
relatively small population, Australia has developed an international
reputation for providing a high quality, innovative and highly
internationalised university system, according to Simon Marginson, a
professor of international higher education at The University of London.

Australia created 2.4 per cent of the world's published journal papers in 2010 and in 2012 it placed eighth in a ranking of national higher education systems, Professor Marginson wrote in a 2013 paper examining Australia's tertiary education policy.

little doubt world rankings of universities play a significant role in
"shaping global movements of knowledge, people and money in higher
education", he said.

Ranking tables are especially important for
Australia, where international students bring $15 billion to the
economy, making higher education the country's third largest
export earner after iron ore and coal. The sector brings more money to
the Australian economy than gas, gold, tourism, oil or wheat.

The Group of Eight, a group of Australia's large research universities, says Australia is the world's third most popular destination for international students, attracting nearly 7 per cent of international student population. Ranking tables help these students decide which university to attend.

Criticism of the ranking systems

A 2012 report
from the Group of Eight says there are valid criticisms of ranking
systems, including a lack of comparable data among world universities
and failure of the data to capture important outputs of different
universities in different fields.

It notes the ranking systems include only 3 per cent of the world's 17,000 higher education institutions.

university rankings do not relate well to the missions of universities
whose principal mission is not research, or at least not
internationally-referenced basic research," the report said.

the world ranking systems value research universities, there are
important roles for universities which focus on producing quality
graduates for the Australian labour markets, it said.

Despite some problems with the ranking systems, Professor Marginson says there is no doubting their importance.

tables might be obnoxious or fallacious but if a university rises in
one of the rankings it is all over the website," he said. "If it slips,
the vice-chancellor may not be reappointed."

Three main ranking systems

The three main world university ranking systems are produced by:

Richard James, director of the university of Melbourne's Centre for the
Study of Higher Education, says Shanghai Ranking's system is widely
viewed as the best.

Its methodology
includes considering every university that has any Nobel laureates,
Fields medallists, highly cited researchers, and papers published in
select academic journals. It ranks more than 1,200 universities and
includes more than 500 universities in its tables.

How Australia has fared

Fact Check has looked at the Shanghai Ranking data on the performance of Australian universities over the past decade.

the most recent 2014 rankings, Australia had four universities in the
top 100 and 19 in the top 500. This has remained relatively constant
since 2011. Looking back to 2004, the rankings tables show Australia had
just two universities in the top 100 and 14 in the top 500.

The 2012 Group of Eight report says Australia's apparent rise in the Shanghai rankings has
been influenced by recently awarded Nobel laureates from The University
of Western Australia (2005) and Australian National University (2011).

report also says: "Australia's relative improvement in several of the
world university rankings reflects the plateauing of inputs to US and UK
universities, the lagged accounting for the emergent Asian
universities, alongside some recent absolute lifts in funding inputs for
Australian universities".

This table shows the top eight
Australian universities and their world rankings, according to Shanghai
Ranking, over the past 10 years:

20052007 2009 2011 20132014
The University of Melbourne827975605444
The Australian National University (ANU) 565759706674
University of Queensland101-152102-150101-150868585
University of Western Australia153-202102-151101-150102-1509188
University of Sydney101-152102-150949697101-150
Monash University203-300203-304201-302151-200101-150101-150
University of New South Wales153-202151-202152-200151-200101-150101-150
University of  Adelaide203-300151-202201-302201-300201-300151-200
the Australian National University and the University of Sydney have
slipped in the past couple of years, the University of Queensland and
the University of Western Australia have both entered the top 100 list
in recent years.

Professor James tells Fact Check that if
Australian universities do not deregulate they will end up slipping in
the rankings because competition is rising at the top end.

2013, the Times Higher Education system placed five Australian
universities in the top 100 and 19 in the top 400, while the QS ranking
placed seven in the top 100 and 26 in the top 500.

'Overtaken by our Asian competitors'?

In his claim, Mr Pyne says without deregulation, Australian universities will "be overtaken by our Asian competitors".

More specifically, Mr Pyne has told Parliament "universities in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore are rising strongly through the ranks".

there are still no Chinese universities in the Shanghai Ranking top
100, there has been significant growth in the numbers of Chinese
universities in the top 500.

Singapore has no university in the
top 100 and its rankings in the top 500 (two universities) have remained
constant over the past decade. 

Hong Kong has five universities in the top 500 with two moving into the top 200 in the past couple of years.

In 2013-14, the Times Higher Education
system placed one Chinese university in the top 100 and 10 in the top
400, while the QS ranking for 2014-15 placed three in the top 100 and 18
in the top 500.

The Group of Eight's report says many Asian
universities are receiving "substantial increases" in government
investment in higher education and university research.

"The rate
of growth in academic publications output from Asia is far outstripping
that of Australia and the quality of Asia's research outputs is rapidly
improving," it said.

Calls for reform

Mr Pyne says "the situation in Australia is such that we cannot have no reform".

leading advocates for higher education have been calling for reform
after cuts to higher education by successive governments.

Australia chief executive Belinda Roberts says: "Either the status quo
of ongoing inadequate investment, or further cuts without deregulation,
will condemn Australia's great university system to inevitable

"We don't invest as much of our GDP in universities as
many countries, so we haven't been riding on the sheep's back, we've
been riding on the international student's back," Professor James said.

review by the University of Melbourne in 2011 found international
students pay about 40 per cent more than domestic students and
effectively subsidised their domestic counterparts.

have built an extreme reliance. It would be unlikely we would find a
similar system anywhere in the world that would require exposure to and
reliance on international students to directly underpin basic quality,"
the report's author, Michael Beaton-Wells, told The Australian

Professor James argues that if international student
numbers were to fall, as they did from 2010 to 2013, the entire sector
would go into decline.

However Andrew Norton, higher education
program director at the Grattan Institute, says: "I don't believe that
there are short-term quality issues likely to drive down demand from
international students, although of course we should not be complacent
about this," he said.

Would deregulation improve Australia's global competitiveness?

Recent modelling by NATSEM,
an economic and social policy research centre at the University of
Canberra, predicts university fees may dramatically increase if the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014, which passed the House of Representatives on September 4, also passes the Senate.

Mr Pyne's explanatory memorandum
for the bill says the reforms will "ensure that Australia is not left
behind at a time of rising performance by universities around the

However Mr Norton says the rankings are principally based
on research performance and "research policy itself is only facing small
reforms as part of the Pyne package, none of which should have any
material effect on global rankings".

Mr Norton says "there is a
widespread suspicion that if fees are deregulated, much of the money
will go to fund research". He says if that is the case "then fee
deregulation could help improve the relative position of Australian

"However, it is not clear that it is sensible for
students to pay for research. At this point no university has announced
what fees it would charge or what it would do with the money from those
fees, so this point is still speculative," he said.

Group of Eight chair Professor Ian Young argues deregulation
will enable Australian universities to be brilliant. He says
deregulation will enable universities to differentiate, like in the US,
where students can chose from small liberal arts colleges to Ivy league

But Professor John Quiggin from the University of Queensland says
the mooted reforms have not found favour with academics and students.
He says big questions remain about following an American system which he
says has failed.

In the end, "the main issue around fee deregulation is whether it can improve the student experience", Mr Norton says.

The verdict

is strong evidence showing Chinese universities are moving rapidly up
the world university rankings, however there are still no Chinese
universities in the top 100.

During the last decade Australian universities have also moved up the world university rankings.

unclear how much universities would charge after the Government's
proposed deregulation, and whether universities would spend money on
measures that would make them more internationally competitive.

On the available evidence, without Mr Pyne's reforms, it seems unlikely Australian universities will slide into mediocrity.

Mr Pyne's claim is far-fetched.


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