The great international student rankings Ponzi scheme

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…

Research expenditure has boomed this century, nearly tripling in real terms between 2000 and 2018. This is spending on a scale well beyond what was needed to fill funding gaps left by domestic policy changes. Research could only have been financed at this level by profits on international students.

To explain why universities felt the need to recruit so many international students to finance their research a global factor needs to be considered: the rise of university rankings. Universities have long been concerned with status, but the establishment of the Academic Ranking of World Universities in 2003 (often called the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings), and the Times Higher Education Rankings in 2004, put brutally (if spuriously) precise numbers on where each university stood. Other rankings followed...

Target rankings are now common. In the Group of Eight universities, the University of Sydney wants to be first in Australia in the best-known rankings. The University of Melbourne wants to be consistently in the top 40 of the ARWU and the top 25 of the THE rankings. UNSW developed a composite index of different rankings, and aims to be in the top 50. The University of Queensland wants to be ‘well inside’ the top 75

The trouble is that many universities around the world hold similar ambitions…

This competition for an inherently limited number of top ranks means that enhancing research quality and quantity is not enough. Universities must improve by more than their competitors. Rapid growth is necessary to get ahead. This is one reason why the Group of Eight universities, which have the most ambitious research targets, ended up highly exposed to the international student market…

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.

Leith van Onselen
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  1. DominicMEMBER

    A mate of mine runs a manufacturing business here in Straya (yes, the odd one still exists) and this business is currently collaborating with a QLD uni on a new composite for the product they make. Anyway, he was saying the Uni were worse than useless and all the running was being made by his staff. No doubt when some breakthrough is made this Uni will receive co-credit despite contributing little to nothing. He regrets ever getting involved with these clowns.

  2. those with high ranking (Gof8) have less than a third of all international students
    why does 330k students come to study on our low ranked universities that are still very expensive relative to much higher ranked universities in USA or Europe?

    • Shades of Messina

      Same reason as why so many go to single room inner city “RTO’s” and graduate with a piece of paper you wouldn’t wipe your ass with.

      Education isn’t the goal for 90%+ of the cohort.

  3. That HUGE increase in research. Hard to measure, but has there been ANY benefit produced??

    • almost all of world’s research is just junk … commercialization of few decade old science

      look at the greatest achievement of 2020 – SpaceX repeated something done 200 times before decades ago

  4. From my observations Chinese University students in Australia are just pawns in a larger game.
    Their parents move them here and there to gain advantage
    You’re completely missing the whole point of the exercise when you pose question’s like
    What are these Chinese International students gaining from their degree?
    They were never meant to gain from this adventure, all gains were reaped by their parents
    You wonder why so many of these so called “students” aren’t remotely interested in study
    Maybe it’s because they understand the game better than you
    They know why they are here

      • Not just that, but not exclusive of that either.
        When a Chinese Industrialist tells his mates that his daughter is studying in Australia you better believe he mentions the name of the Uni, especially if it happens to be USyd or UNSW or ANU or or well there’s 8 of them.
        Her study is for his advantage, now if she happens to learn something useful on the way then that’s an unexpected bonus.

  5. Stewie GriffinMEMBER

    LOL – when a society ceases to be able to use the resources that is has at its disposal in order to educate and perpetuate its own societies cultural values, then it will simply cease to exist.

    Australia as a Multicultural economic zone is no longer allowed to rank the rights of its children and their rights to an education before any other. Once upon a time before foreign students were allowed at our Uni’s en-mass, the debate was on whether they should be allowed in in any significant numbers and how that would effect our children’s education and opportunities.

    Now that social norm has been gradually been chipped away to the point where the debate is now not so much whether we can afford to discontinue relying on them, but whether we have any right to halt their flow at all, which is precisely the argument that is made in many left wing progressive circles, and which occasionally bubbled to the surface in the border closure debate.