Aussie universities too fixated on bogus international rankings

For years MB has questioned the odious links between our universities over-reliance on international student fees and university rankings.

Basically, the federal government and our universities created a system that encouraged strong growth in full fee paying international students by:

  1. The federal government granting the world’s most generous student visa working rights and opportunities for permanent residency; and
  2. Australia’s universities lowering and entry and teaching standards to ensure large number of students qualify to study and pass their courses.

The massive fees earned from rising student numbers (see next chart) was then funneled into research activities aimed solely at lifting Australia’s universities up the international rankings ladder, instead of into areas that provided actual tangible benefits to Australian industry and the community.

Since a higher ranking equates to more prestige and is an explicit sign of quality, universities used their ranking as a marketing tool to further bolster international student enrolments, alongside charging higher fees.

David R. Gallagher, the former chief executive of the federal government’s Centre of Excellence in International Finance and Regulation, is the latest commentator to question the efficacy of this scam, calling for an inquiry into the Australian university system:

The sector appears to be hypnotically fixated on international rankings, both institutional and linked to scholarly journals. One proof of this is the fact vice-chancellors and deans can qualify for bonus payments based on rankings…

Moreover, rankings mostly reflect research performance, not necessarily the quality of teaching, and it is not uncommon to find that the best lecturers are not necessarily the best researchers.

Adding to this tension is the cost of research being funded with cross-subsidies from the tuition fees of the students who fill the lecture halls.

Enrolments have grown tremendously in the past decade, yet prestige and incentives favour research over teaching. These imbalances cannot be sustained with adequate quality controls in the long term.

For all these reasons, the university sector warrants the scrutiny of a government commission of inquiry.

Gallagher’s concerns about the quality of teaching is apt. Data from the Department of Education shows clearly that the ratio of students to academic staff rose significantly across Australia’s universities during the long international student boom:

Thus, while universities ploughed the international student billions into research to boost their rankings and executive salaries, actual teaching quality and effort was destroyed.

Operating low-quality degree factories for maximum revenue and to perpetuate the international rankings ponzi scheme was never in the national interest.

Australia needs a thorough inquiry to clean-out the whole stinking university edifice.

University should be about ‘higher learning’, not ‘higher earning’.

Unconventional Economist


  1. Frank DrebinMEMBER

    This used to be a great open source for analysing uni and based on actual customer feedback (eg. students):

    Sadly it looks like it is now behind a pseudo paywall so public access is not readily available.

  2. that last graph looks like a productivity good news story to me …
    … perhaps ask Dr Demography for a view?

  3. I think this misses the bigger picture. Or rather a few additional graphs would help reveal what is really occurring.

    The shift from a ratio of 20 to 22 in the last graph isn’t that compelling. What has been the change in student to non-academic ratio in the same period? What has been the change in total income per student in same period? I think you will find the extra money is flowing to administration (marketing and management bloat) and constructing buildings, rather than obviously to research.

    Next question is how are academics defined in the last chart? I suspect academics includes the researchers and the casual tutors. I do know that the number of staff who do teaching and research has fallen to around 35% of academics at several of the local universities, from about 50% just 5 years ago.
    There is much more to be untangled here and it worse than the above data suggests.

  4. Luca BiasonMEMBER

    Rankings are also extremely useful for those student recruitment agencies that are engaged as intermediaries, so are celebrity executives and fancy buildings.

    Often ends up as a bait and switch scheme when in practice standards of assessment are removed to ensure max customer satisfaction.

    When bonuses are tied to that kind of performance, there’s only one way to classify them: conflict of interest. How could it be otherwise?