Monday, March 7, 2022

Australian Universities Can Reform and Have More International Students

It is something of a boom time for books and articles on reform of the higher education system. In addition to Heller's Distributed University, we now have "Australia’s Universities: Can They Reform?" by Salvatore Babones, University of Sydney. A very readable 205 pages, Babones takes a timely look at where our universities came from, and where they might go. The author starts by making a plea for data collected by parties without a vested interest on which to make policy (p. 3). That seems a naive wish: why would anyone who doesn't have a vested interest go to the trouble of collecting data about universities? Babones claims to be offering "disinterested policy advice" (p. 4), but holds a position at a Australia's oldest university. His somewhat jaundiced views on 'autonomy without responsibility" perhaps come from association with a university has a lot of history.

Babones argues Australian universities do not have a financial or free speech crisis, but a moral one: taking government money but not acting in the public interest. Perhaps the problem is that the interests of government are not necessarily the same as those of the public. A long way from University of Sydney, I hold an honorary position at the Australian National University (ANU). A much newer institution, and one with a mission written into federal legislation, with significant funding from the same government. However, I see no sign of this moral problem: the ANU accepts money and then interprets how it sees its public responsibilities. That perception mostly aligns with government objectives, but where it does not, the university asserts it academic independence, and that of its academics. 

More usefully than the moral landscape, Babones gives a brief overview of higher education's structure and history in Australia. As the author notes, Australian universities follow a European model. The universities decide their own curricula, largely free from government interference. As a member of professional body which accredits degrees (the Australian Computer Society), I have more say in what computer students learn at university than any government official does.

One point Babones doesn't emphasize is that universities are not the only higher education bodies in Australia. He points to "University Colleges", but only mentions in passing the vocational education sector, with state government TAFEs, and private registered training organisations (RTOs). As Babones notes, public discussion tends to focus on the public universities, but is guilty of the same mistake of ignoring the important role of TAFEs and RTOs (p. 15), as it happens I been a student at the then ACT TAFE, as well as more recently in the guise of the Canberra Institute of Technology.

One Australian university is very different to all the others. As Babones points out Torrens University Australia is privately internationally owned. Ruling it of for analysis on that basis (p. 17), I suggest, is exactly the wrong thing to do, as it has many interesting characteristics. Torrens provides blended learning at campuses worldwide. In this respect it was ahead of many Australian universities. Also Torrens has an emphasis on vocationally orientated hands-on education, for example, having a hotel for its hotel management students to train at in the Blue Mountains.

Another misstep is that Babones focuses on the Group of Eight (Go8) research intensive universities. As the author writes this group (of which my own ANU is a member), has been effective at influencing government strategic thinking. The education intensive regional universities are less influential, but I suggest no less important to the nation, and so deserve further consideration (I have been a student at USQ). 

In the chapter "Are Australian Universities Underfunded" Babones concludes they are not, with federal funding being "medium high" by world standards, with international students being a "low margin" addition to this, in " a futile search for everlasting growth"  (p. 54). At this point the author's own bias comes out in the statement "It's not clear that universities should grow at all" (p.55). They seem to want to return to an era when universities were sleepy backwaters for a few. 

 Babones argues that the ANU, in particular, saved itself from more severe losses during COVID-19, by setting a 20,000 limit on international student numbers. I suggest that instead, ANU, and other Australian universities were saved by educational technologists who had put in place online education, in part for this contingency. ANU had previously suffered a number of campus closures due to natural disasters, during which administration, research and education had continued online. In 2016 I warned Canberra's universities that international students could be prevented from getting to campus, and we should be ready to teach them online. While no all academics welcomed, or heeded, this advice, there was a cadre of educational technologists ready to help the recalcitrant, when the choice the alternative they faced was poverty and disease.

Babones argues Australia has the largest ratio of international to domestic students, and the second largest number absolutely. This is put as a negative, with these being low margin, high volatility market. However, in what other industry would it be argued that Australian in an international market, despite its volatility and low margins, be a bad thing? The author's suggested alternative of fostering on the domestic market has not been a success for many Australian industries, simply because there are not many Australian customers.

In the next chapter Babones asks "How many students are too many?". One odd metric used is that native English speakers should be in the majority in the classroom. If English is the language of instruction, provided the proficiency of the instructor, and the students, is to the required standard, whatever languages they may be able to speak is not relevant. Having students from many countries is of benifit to Australian studnts, as this is the world they will have to live, and work, in. Graduates will likely work in teams of people from, and in, many nations. 

Babones is correct in asserting that Australian universities pursued international students when they could no longer grow the domestic market. However, the author seems to think the universities doing this in a highly professional way, using materials in the student's language, is in some way a negative. Torrens is singled out for having 61% international students, as if this was setting a bad example for the public universities, "... behaving as for-profit businesses ...". But what is wrong with a university earning revenue for the benifit of their owner (in the case of a public university, the public). It appears that the greatest sin our universities have committed in Babones' eyes is to have run a successful business. By this criterion, major US and UK universities are similarly at fault. On several visits to Cambridge University UK, I was able to see how this very successful money making machine operates. This university educates students and conducts research to a very high standard, but it also turns the research into very profitable goods and services.

Applying Bowen's Law Babones argues that Australian public sensitivities should do the best they can to educate Australian students, with the money given by government. This is a very narrow view of how not-for-profit organisations can operate. If it is the case that Australian universities should not be earning income from international students, then the solution is obvious: change their charter to allow for what they have been doing so well. 

Babones uses a comparison of a "poorly funded university ... taught by obscure scholars with few publications" versus a richly funded one "... taught by Nobel laureates". The implication is that the students at the first will receive a poorer one than the latter. This is not the case. Researchers do not necessarily make good teachers. This can be seen in Australia, where the regional education intensive universities consistently outperform the research intensive ones, simply because well trained educators are better teachers. 

The central part of Babones thesis is made clear in the chapter "How many international students are too many?". The author notes that Australia has a much higher ratio of international students than other countries, even with NZ students classified as domestic. He suggests "too many" financially speaking is when the per student revenue is less than domestic. However, this assumes a very limited view of what a not-for-profit institution can do. There is no reason I can see why there need to be any link between fees, or revenue, from domestic and international students. 

Babones also notes that some Australian universities are large by international standards, and international student numbers were reduced 10% they would be more in line (p. 82). But the author leaves much larger non-Australian universities out of the comparison, such as Open University UK, with 175,000 students is twice as large as Australia's largest. The chapter concludes with the assertion that Australian universities sought international students to fund research. This is presented as if it was a negative, rather than, as I see it, as a positive. The author seems to want Australian universities to limit their research budgets to whatever the Australian Government chooses to provide. Leading international universities do not do that: they seek other sources of revenue. It just happens that Australian universities have proved adept at getting revenue from international students, rather than wealthy benefactors, and intellectual property. 

In the chapter "Is rankings mania warping university priorities" Babones takes a needed look at the league tables produced of universities. As the author points out, while these ranking schemes use different methodologies, they produce similar results, and Australia rates well. I suggest this should not be a surprise, as the rankings are based mainly on research output and research reputation, where Australia does well. What Babones doesn't point out is that these rankings have little, if anything to do with the quality of the education provided. If anything, a high research ranking may lower the quality of education, as researchers don't necessarily make good educators. Despite this, students, and their parents, use the research based ranking in deciding on a university. As a result some Australian universities have used misleading marketing, claiming their institution is in the top few percent in the world. There are alternative ranking schemes, such as the "Webometrics Ranking of World Universities". 

Continuing a list of hot topics, Babones next asks "Have Australia's universities been corrupted by China?". This is a serious charge, suggesting the leaders of our universities acted dishonestly for personal gain. The author concludes that Conffucius Institutes were not been financially rewarding for the universities which hosted them. Similarly Babones expresses concern about China's Thousand Talents program, but can't produce solid evidence of corruption. 

One area Babones does't address, and I suggest will be increasingly difficult for Australian universities, are the human rights records of countries they wish to collaborate with, and draw international students from. The Group of Eight (Go8) Australian universities issued a statement "... condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s people and sovereignty" (Go8, 4 March 2022). The ANU went further cutting ties with Russia (ANU, 4 March 2022). However, Australian universities have few international students from Russia, and few joint research projects. Will they be willing to follow this precedent in future, to call out human rights abuses in countries where they have much more to loose?

As an educator, rather than a researcher, I found Babones' question in the next chapter "Why are teaching and learning such low priorities?" easy to answer. Unfortunately the author missed the point completely. They suggest that low student engagement with a proliferation of increasingly online courses is a problem. Babones slates how some blame to the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). However, this fad had ended before the COVID-19 pandemic began. What universities pivoted to online as an emergency measure were video versions of old fashioned face to face courses. This combined the lack of engagement of a boring old lecture with the problems of technology based access. Given the lack of trained teachers in Australian universities, and the lack of interest in online learning from the leaders of Australian universities, there was little else could be done. 

The question "Why are teaching and learning such low priorities?" was actually answered by Babones in a previous chapter on university ranking. As students, particularly international students, select a university based on ranking, and the rankings are not based on teaching quality, this is not a priority. Universities select staff based primarily on research ability, which is, at best, unrelated to teaching.

There are ways to address the quality of education at universities. This requires staff to be trained to teach, and for specialists in education to help design learning and assessment. However, such initiatives are deeply unpopular with academics trained and selected for a completely different set of skills. Even if implemented, the university would not be rewarded with a higher ranking, or more students. Babones suggests more government oversight, but that would have little effect, given the powerful perverse incentives against quality teaching. What government might do is fund and promote new metrics which value teaching. 

I agree with Babones that Australian universities can reform, but not on what those reforms should be. The COVID-19 crisis could have been less severe, not as Babones suggests by having fewer international students, but by being ready to teach them online. Contrary to the narrative presented by Australian VCs, the crisis in international students getting to campus was anticipated. Some Singapore universities put such measures in place after SARS outbreaks closed their campuses. This was not secret: they produced papers and videos on the topic. I was one of those who urged Australian university to be ready. Even now, many academics appear to be wishing for the return of the good old days when students came to lectures, rather than preparing to face new foreseeable challenges.

Babones asks some very worthwhile questions for Australian universities, but I suggest comes up with the wrong answers.

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