Saturday, November 2, 2019

Open Access, Funding and International Student Numbers at Australian Universities

Dr Danny Kingsley,
Scholarly Communication Consultant
Kingsley and Vandegrift (2019) suggest that open access scholarly publishing has has been held back in Australia, in part because of universities reliance on revenue from international students.

Micah Vandegrift,
Open Knowledge Librarian
at NC State University Libraries.
Kingsley and Vandegrift  point out that, unlike their UK equivalents, Australian universities are reliant on government funding for research. The two main government funding bodies, the National Health and Medical Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC), have been less than enthusiastic on open access. These bodies have polices which encourage open access, but does not require it. Even that relatively weak policy took a lot of prodding.

But what does any of this have to do with international students?
Kingsley and Vandegrift  point out that Australia has a much higher proportion of international students than other countries. The revenue from these enrollments is much greater than that from government for  research. The authors then make the link between international enrollments and university rankings: students enroll at universities which rank well. The quality of research, as measured by publications, makes up a significant part of the international rankings of universities. Australian academics are therefore under pressure to publish often, and in high ranking journals, which tend to not be open access ones.

Kingsley and Vandegrift conclude by asking "Is it possible to uncouple decisions about research practice from financial or political/ideological considerations?". I suggest it is not, but it is possible to adjust the financial incentives to give more socially desirable outcomes.

International university rankings are heavily weighted towards the quality of research, as measured by publishing in commercial for-profit journals. Students are attracted to universities with high research rankings, even though this has nothing to do with the quality of the teaching. One way to fix this problem is to create ranking systems which value education, and open access, more highly. One example is the Webometrics Ranking of Wold Universities, which includes "openness". This produces a slightly different ranking of Australian universities. Also Webometrics includes many small vocational institutions, excluded from other ranking schemes. Many of these vocational institutions provide quality education.

From a national policy point of view, how many international students should Australia have? International students make up about 23% of the total for Australian universities (Ferguson & Sherrell, 2019). There have been concerns in Australia that the number of international students lowers the quality of education. Perhaps Australia should aim for a similar figure to Canada, at 14% (Usher, p. 21, 2019). Canada may have hit the sweet-spot for international students. Usher suggests the international students in Canada "burnish" (increase) institutions perceived quality, rather than diminish it (Usher, p. 21, 2019).


Ferguson, H., and Sherrell, H., (2019). Overseas students in Australian higher education: a quick guide, Parlimentary Library, Parliment of Australia, URL

Kingsley, D. & Vandegrift, M. (2019). Chasing cash cows in a swamp? Perspectives on Plan S from Australia and the USA, in Unlocking Research, Office of Scholarly Communication, University of Cambridge. URL

Usher, A., (2019). The State of Postsecondary Education in Canada,
2019. Toronto: Higher Education Strategy Associates. URL 

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