MB has frequently questioned the odious links between international students and university rankings.
In a nutshell, a system has been created by the federal government and Australia’s universities to encourage strong growth in full fee paying international students via:
- The Australian government offering the world’s most generous student visa working rights and opportunities for permanent residency; and
- Australia’s universities dropping entry and teaching standards.
The bounty from exploding student numbers (see next chart) has then been funneled into research aimed purely at propelling Australia’s universities up international rankings.
As gaining a higher ranking equates to more prestige and is a sign of quality, these rankings were then used as a marketing tool to further grow international student enrolments, alongside justifying higher fees.
Higher education analyst, Andrew Norton, explained this process yesterday, which he believes has been halted due to COVID-19:
When Australia’s borders closed a long international student boom finally ended. It had been very lucrative for Australia’s universities. Between 2000 and 2018 international student revenue increased by nearly 500 per cent in real terms…
For years, the Group of Eight universities were on a virtuous cycle. International student surveys show Chinese students are particularly motivated by rankings, their willingness to pay high fees helped universities increase their research and boost their rankings, which in turn attracted more Chinese students…
Australian topics are disadvantaged, since research on Australia is cited less than topics of global significance or concerning countries with larger populations…
The risk now is that the virtuous cycle turns vicious; that fewer Chinese students means less research, which means lower rankings, which means fewer Chinese students.
…even before COVID-19 arrived, university international student practices were attracting plenty of concern and criticism on both financial risk and academic (English language standards, soft marking, cheating, influence of the Chinese Communist Party) grounds.
Nobody wanted university priorities to be re-oriented in the rapid and destructive way that is now happening. But in the medium to long-term, less emphasis on global rankings, and some moderation in international student numbers, may not be all bad.
What was lost in this whole debacle was the deleterious impacts on local students.
While Australia’s universities funneled international student dollars into research to boost their rankings, actual teaching quality was degraded.
This is illustrated by the next chart plotting the ratio of students to academic staff, which rose considerably across Australia’s universities over the long international student boom:
As we know, the lion’s share of international students arrive from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds (NESB), and presumably require much more teaching effort than domestic students. As such, the bigger student loads, along with the higher effort required for international students, suggests a significant erosion of both teaching capacity and quality across Australia’s university sector.
Domestic students have also been made to carry NESB students through their courses via group assignments, which occurred alongside growing incidences of cheating and soft marking as international student numbers soared.
Instead of fussing over bogus rankings to pump-up international student numbers, Australia’s universities must return to their primary function of providing high quality education to local students.
Operating low-quality degree factories for maximum revenue was never in the national interest.