International student rankings Ponzi scheme implodes

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 recently, which he believes has been halted due to COVID-19 [my emphasis]:

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.

According to a new report by the Centre for the Study for Higher Education at Melbourne University, up to 6,100 full-time research jobs could be lost at Australian universities due to the loss of revenue from international students, while some universities could lose their research capacity:

Australia’s biggest universities face an “extremely high” risk of losing their research capacity as COVID-19 and the loss of foreign students strip as much as $7.6bn from higher education…

University of Technology Sydney, Macquarie University in Sydney and Deakin University in Melbourne face the biggest hits to their research funding because of their exposure to the international student markets. Sandstone universities also face big research funding shortfalls…

“Without the same level of discretionary funding available for the next few years there is likely to be a significant loss of research momentum,” the report states. “This outcome will have enduring national and international economic and social consequences…

The University of Sydney and Melbourne University also were found to be highly exposed to the loss of foreign student income, with their reliance on those fees for research running at 86 per cent and 68 per cent respectively.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has spent the past three months negotiating a research rescue deal with the sector and said on Monday more would be revealed in the budget.

Let’s be honest for a moment. A lot of the university research is of questionable value and is aimed squarely at catapulting universities up the bogus university rankings, as explained above.

What is lost in this whole debate is the impact on domestic students.

While universities have ploughed the international student bounty into research to boost their rankings, actual teaching quality has been destroyed.

This is evidenced by the ratio of students to academic staff rising materially across Australia’s universities during the long international student boom:

The majority of international students come from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds (NESB), and require more teaching assistance than domestic students. Accordingly, the bigger student loads, alongside the higher maintenance of international students, indicates a significant decline of both teaching capacity and quality across Australia’s university system.

We have also witnessed domestic students carrying NESB students through their courses via group assignments, alongside an increase in soft marking scandals and cheating scandals as international students have ballooned.

Instead of worrying about the losing research capability and falling down the bogus world university rankings, Australia’s universities must get back to their primary role of providing high quality education to Australians.

Operating low-quality degree factories for maximum revenue was never in the national interest.

Unconventional Economist
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    • Shades of MessinaMEMBER

      The VC’s and the senior management sure as hell did, and in true banking industry style they all got out just as shizzle was about to get real !.

      • Again – simple solution would be to cap the salary at any institution accessing Govt Fee -Help / HECS to say $500k.

        Want to pay more than that? Sure. But your students don’t get HECS.

        • happy valleyMEMBER

          I am sure that at $500k pa, they’d be plenty of sufficiently qualified/capable people prepared to take the gig on happily. While we’re at it, let’s also cut back the ridiculous remuneration paid to the likes of Australia Post and similar govt enterprises, to something like $500k pa.

  1. One wonders what the ‘research quality and quantity’ and the ‘research target’s actually mean.
    How are these measured and ranked on an individual basis and who is to say that one is better than the other?
    All the power for your ‘success’ handed to a select few who decide where your research sits in comparison to someone elses?
    Sounds like more bullsh*t to me. Just another excuse for academics who can’t cut it the real world to give themselves more qudos in the academic world!

    • Yes. My experience is most (but certainly not all) of the research is BS. Gender/trans/rayce studies anyone?

    • Not sure what you mean? Haven’t you noticed how value-added industry and international prestige has mushroomed in Australia over the past couple of decades as a direct outcome of all that research?

  2. There are quite simply too many Australian universities. The sector requires downsizing.

    The other crazy thing is, the sector was already pre-bailed out. HECS is a massive rort. The Govt pays for some of the course load and the rest is funded by HECS – but taxpayers will end up paying for a lot of this as the HECS.

    HECS / HELP outstanding has grown from $18b in 2009 to $62b in 2018 – it isn’t being paid off. That means taxpayers will pay again.

    My solution – the university underwrites the HECS debt – SKIN IN THE GAME, just like Mr Black Swan Nicolas Taleb suggests is required of all systems. If the debt is paid off in 5 years then the university pays the govt and chases up the student. The university will then be required to take into account credit quality and whether they are pushing unsuitable folks into useless degrees.

    (and by useless I mean the student’s earning capacity wasn’t lifted sufficiently to pay for 50% of the course costs)

    • chuckmuscleMEMBER


      Should even introduce some sort of randomness into the liability. For example, a random number generator to decide if universities have to fund some portion above the minimum for that coming year. Else I fear VC’s will continue to empire build based on linear models of student credit risk (whocoddanode?) and when SHTF, inevitably ask for the bailout because they were just following some McKenzie approved model (sigh). Such is life in Straya.

    • That won’t work : there is no skin in the game for the university management at all.

      What will work is to cap the number of places.

  3. I saw an interesting interview with some Chinese students in the USA.
    The USA is their first choice, followed by UK then Canada.

    Chinese students regard Australia is for “those too stupid or lazy to get into the USA,UK or Canada”

    • A Chinese friend of mine( well placed to know) said exactly the same thing.
      He ran into the son of a family friend( attending Deakin).
      This young man was so poor at academia, that his fabulously wealthy parents couldn’t even buy him a place in UK, US or Singapore.
      Hence the Australian university place.

    • panky666 panky666

      This is 100 percent true. Chinese students from top wealthy families or have outstanding academic backgrounds definitely choose Ivy league or Oxford etc over aussie unis – these unis are hard to enter, very difficult to graduate and also much more expensive. Also these students don’t really care about migration as there’s no reason for them to be desperate.

      Aussie unis welcome everyone, and graduating is just ‘too easy’ as long as their students pay intuition fees on time..haven’t witnessed any Chinese students around me failed their bachelor/master degrees.

      To be honest, Apart from Australia being a English speaking country with a good weather to live in..from an academic perspective why would you choose this country to purely achieve academic goals? The reason is migration really and that’s why Aussie unis can’t perform properly with these just wouldn’t work.

      • Exactly – no Australian really wants their degree from the university of wollongong – why would a foreigner?

      • But, but … you MUST be wrong! These are the very people we WANT to attract to our shores. You know … the best and the brightest young things?

    • That attitude forwards Straya has existed for 2 decades. The ones who came here for a while coveted it up with fantastic socialmedia pays about the nirvana like quality of life for a while making Straya the in place to migrate to, but I’m guessing that little delusion is starting to fade away At an ever increasing pace. It was already starting to get tarnished from around 2015 based on the info I was getting in Beijing then

    • I reckon that would be right, based on the quality of the one’s who’ve sat in front of me in lecture theatres. “Dim witted, disengaged, vacant eyed mouth-breathers noodling on their phones” would be a good characterisation of the majority of them.

  4. Rorke's DriftMEMBER

    Purposes of Unis should be ecucation of local students and research for economic or community benefit. Funding should have some relationship to outcomes. Students in employment in chosen sector 5 yrs after graduating. Commercialisation of research, social benefit test of research – did it make a difference. Some sort of regular qualitative and quantitative auditing of outcomes by an Australian ranking system measuring benefits to Australia might help get this back on track.

  5. gibber_blotMEMBER

    Sigh. The student-staff ratio line again as evidence that “actual teaching quality has been destroyed” . The ratio has gone from 20:1 to 21.5:1. That’s 1-2 extra students in each class. Evidence suggests that class size has almost no effect on student experience or quality of teaching, let alone a size differences of 1-2 students.

    Please find some actual evidence that teaching quality has been destroyed. Where is the evidence that the quality of Australia’s graduating engineers, computer scientists, medical specialists, lawyers, accountants, psychologists, etc. has been destroyed?

    I’m not here arguing that the reliance on international students is a good idea — I have argued against this practice in my own faculty for the last 3-4 years. But if you want to be taken seriously in this analysis, you need to stop pulling out this weak piece of evidence

    • NoodlesRomanovMEMBER

      Engineering degree here, forced to do some humanities to round me out. Prof actually showed real world examples of logical fallacies being applied in the real world – I forget the formal name of the logical fallacy, but truncated y axis was an application of it.

      LVO – you have too good an argument to have to rely on this graph.

  6. Maybe education and research should be consciously decoupled?

    There could still be a relationship (research consulting to the development of curriculum), but not to the current detrimental levels for each.