Universities waste international student billions on administration

Earlier this month, Auditor-Generals from Australia’s three largest states warned that Australia’s universities have become dangerously reliant on fees from international students, which have ballooned on the back of the massive rise in international student numbers, as shown below:

As you can see, the number of international students studying in Australia has nearly doubled to 613,000 as at March 2019 – a record high. And this boom in student numbers has driven fees from international students into the stratosphere, as illustrated by the next chart for NSW universities:

This boom in international students would not be a problem if Australia’s universities were spending the bounty reinvesting back into teaching facilities and resources, in a bid to improve standards and the overall student experience. But sadly, as last month’s Four Corners expose documented, entry and teaching standards at Australia’s universities have plummeted in a bid to maximise the numbers of international students, as well as fee revenue.

Data from the Department of Education highlights this malaise. As you can see in the next chart, the numbers of non-academic staff easily outweighs academic (teaching) staff at Australia’s universities. Moreover, the difference between non-academic and academic staff numbers has actually increased between 2009 and 2017:

In 2009, there were 35,817 full-time equivalent (FTE) academic staff at Australia’s universities versus 58,167 non-academic staff – a difference of 22,350.

However in 2017, FTE academic staff had grown to 44,057 versus growth in non-academic staff to 69,557 – a difference of 25,500.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn here is that Australia’s universities have wasted much of their international student billions on beefing-up administration, such as marketing teams targeted at selling their product overseas.

To add insult to injury, academic staff numbers have failed to keep pace with student numbers, as illustrated by the rise in the student to academic staff ratio from 20.05 in 2009 to 21.44 in 2017:


This is particularly worrying given the rapid growth in international student numbers, many of whom are from non-English speaking backgrounds and are higher maintenance than domestic students. Accordingly, teaching staff are being placed under increasing pressure, which is eroding the standards and experience for both international students and domestic students alike.

Perhaps it is time for the federal government to mandate a maximum teaching staff-to-student ratio of under 20. This way, universities would be forced to reinvest back into front-line staff and actually improve the educational experience for students, rather than wasting money on university bureaucracy, such as the position advertised below:

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Leith van Onselen
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  1. Three things will happen when the international cash cow boom unravels.

    First, Strayan unis will cut front line academics and keep the fat administrators as the cash flows slow.

    Second, Strayan education standard will fall from poor to non-existent.

    Third, the gubbermints will privatize all Strayan unis once and for all, cos tax payers wouldn’t bear funding non-existent education.

  2. This data gets especially tricky when the administration give themselves academic titles without having an academic background. Then they hire more people like themselves, friends even, and make them professors too. Then realising they still have to deal with real academics, they create additional layers of academic administration between themselves and actual teaching staff. Let’s say a VC gets a Provost, who begets a team of DVCs, who begets a team PVCs, who each begets a team of Deans, who begets a team of Hods, who finally interact with academics who actually teach. And this all happens at one of Australia’s smallest universities. True story. Are all of the above classified as academics? They are all Professors.

  3. thomickersMEMBER

    Universities these days need a sales force! Sell that “bright” future like there is no tomorrow….

    • DominicMEMBER

      Don’t joke — if you ever turn on the radio these days there are heaps of ads for 3rd tier Unis spruiking ‘bright futures’ if only you take one of their courses. I feel like I’m living in a bad dream sometimes.

      • The radio ads are always for some bottom of the barrel online uni as well. Guy I play golf with is doing a Business degree, having studied film about 15 years ago. They gave him course credits for Macro and Micro Econ based on his previous studies… I asked him what he would do if he was ever required to actually use that info at some stage in his life – ‘nah, no one needs that’, was his response.

  4. Hanno Son of Bomilcar

    universities are constantly slashing funding to teaching and claim they’re doing it bc they have no money, but its really because don’t care about teaching, ensuring their students know anything, and god forbid that they get jobs at the end of their degree

    instead they spend all the money they get from the gubba and international students on dodgy IT contacts, admin staff, new buildings and big fat salaries for their overpaid executives

    it really is tragic when you realise that the unis have almost exclusively assumed the role of the only workplace training organisations left in australia given the fact that hey’re 1) terrible at it 2) dont even like doing it

    • Exactly! If Four Corners were to use its 45-minute format to explore those issues, instead of focusing on the narrow issue of English language tests, the public would finally understand what’s really going on. I wonder whether David Williamson can be persuaded to write a modern-day sequel to his 1975 play “The Department”?

  5. A whopping 60% of young people now go to “uni”!

    60 per cent of school leavers going on to university before the age of 22.

    Push towards apprenticeships as young uni students drop out


    HECS debt has tripled!

    HECS debt ballooned from $19 billion to $62 billion during the years the Gillard government removed placement caps


    What a waste of time and money. There is a lot of scrutiny over how many jobs Adani will provide but absolutely no security over how many jobs the “unis” provide! Federal funding of “unis” needs to be tied to the salaries that its graduates get. Under such a system, Murdoch “uni” would have its funding halved.

    • DominicMEMBER

      Even the ’90s when I was going through Uni the value of under-Grad degrees was becoming questionable so I ended up doing 2 post-grads just to make certain! Unless you’re doing engineering, law or medicine you need to take care that you don’t go and waste 3 years on a degree that is being distributed like confetti to anyone who gives it a go.

  6. @jacob read the latest Productivity Commission Report on demand driven University Funding, most of these students drop out after the first year, thus incurring a debt to the Commonwealth which most likely will never br paid back.

    • DominicMEMBER

      This is where I am fundamentally opposed to the idea of ‘free tertiary education’ — something political Left are very keen on. If there’s a significant cost involved, it helps focus the mind — is this worth it? What am I going to do at the end? If I borrow the money, can I realistically pay it back? If it’s practically free, people have a tendency to say “thanks” and “nothing lost if I do” — scarce resources, that could productively used elsewhere, get wasted.

      • Bullcrāp! Free tertiary education is how I got to where I am. However, there were admission exams you had to go through, and limited numbers for places. So it was free, but not free-for-all.

        The net result is that your education has value, and that’s ongoing.

      • Agree strongly with Ino
        Gave me the opportunity..
        Very effectively screened with year 12, but would not have been able to afford uni any other way. ( country student,which added huge costs).

      • When I went through uni, it started as free then that turd John Howard lied to win an election. The whole vibe of the Uni changed, the culture died out – “long term” students fell away, and it became all about getting through the course asap. Not entirely a bad thing. But still, you had to know the course to pass. Dropout rates were easily 50% for some first year subjects, another 20% for second year. That didn’t include people completing but failing the subjects. It was hard yards.

      • @bda2206, fees were introduced during the Hawke years. The turd just upped the fees (on average doubled fees) in 1997 just as I was starting university.

      • @Ino / js
        I never said no one would benefit — just that a huge amount of waste is inevitable.

        I couldn’t afford Uni so I worked full time and did my degree part-time (evening classes). I wasn’t prepared to go into debt or consume other people’s hard earned money

      • @ino @js the demand driven funding arrangement has seen Universities simply turn into recruitment centres, evident in the findings of the Productivity Commission report which found a high drop out rate from students who would be better served enrolling into a pathway program or a vocational education course. Secondly, the report found Universities weren’t providing sufficient support to these students despite the students having ATAR scores well below 50, it’s simply recruiting students so as Universities can book the FEE-HELP revenue.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        If it’s practically free, people have a tendency to say “thanks” and “nothing lost if I do” — scarce resources, that could productively used elsewhere, get wasted.

        But apparently not productively enough to pay better than negative [whatever an arts degree costs].

  7. Sounds like they’re starting to be run like our Government?
    Or the more people below them, guarantees those above a bigger salary. Pretty simple

  8. RussellMEMBER

    Strongly disagree with the contention that if “non-academic staff” is on the rise then unis aren’t investing in teaching and learning. Part of this cohort include a range of learning specialists designed to improve learning for students and lift th quality of these institutions. They are just not classed as academics because thet don’t teach or research.

    • greedypuppyMEMBER

      so they say- any academic on the receiving end of these non academic specialists and their programs will tell you a different story – less emphasis on course content and teaching more emphasis on accountabilities, goals and outcomes and of course more armies of bureaucratic police to ensure that “standards” are improving while academic excellence collapses

    • On the flip side, there are also staff who are classed as Academic but are not (or, hardly) involved in teaching. On balance, the statistic of 20.05 in 2009 compared to 21.44 in 2017 underestimates the magnitude of the shift rather than exaggerating it (and, compared to other countries, 20.05 was already high).

    • One more thing. The huge student numbers are concentrated into certain departments within the university whose staff-student ratio is much higher than average (up to 45 or 50 in some cases). So, if you ask what is the staff-student ratio experienced by the average student, the answer is more like 35 and definitely much higher than just about any other country on the planet.

  9. I remember in the late 90s and early 2000s that offices were being modified to be Feng Shui compliant at hundreds of thousands in costs. It was completely evident even at that time that not only were international students cash cows, they were also sacred cows and the universities wanted more of them.

    The issues that you are bringing up are not new, they are just in overdrive at the moment. I can’t see anything changing whilst universities are producing an over-inflated $35B in export earnings.

    • We need to kill off the $35b Export Myth.

      The money comes in to pay the courses, but alot is going out in remittances to pay back family or other lenders.

      There is also the social cost from giving work rights to these students and their partners via reduced overall wages and tax revenue, as a start.

      Plus there is the cost of additional infrastructure to accommodate the 600K+ ‘students’.

    • Come, boy. See for yourself. From here you will witness the final destruction of Straya, and the end of your insignificant rebellion.

  10. haroldusMEMBER

    One thing you don’t want to do is skimp on admissions staff, but they all do (ie the people who administer entry). Lots of internal conflict between admissions and marketing.