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What goes wrong when uni students mark their teachers

Our members and collaborators have provided research for The Sydney Morning Herald. See more bellow.

“James Guthrie, distinguished professor of accounting at Macquarie University, says there are clear reasons Australian university students are disgruntled. “Staff-student ratios are very high in Australian universities, some of the highest in the world. This impacts student evaluations.”

Internationally the acceptable ratio is around one academic to 15 students. In Australia there are institutions with about one to 70. Between 2000 and last year, Guthrie says, the staff-to-student ratio significantly increased. Staff numbers have not kept up.

“All these efficiency measures would impact the student experience and would then be reflected in the evaluations of academics by students,” he says. “That’s the only evaluation on offer.”

Southern Cross University’s Alessandro Pelizzon, of lobby group Academics for Public Universities, argues there should be a comprehensive analysis of the skills of the people who make up university councils. He asks: how many have the expertise to run a university?

As Guthrie points out, there is little public evaluation of senior university executives including vice-chancellors, a shame for both students and the academics who teach them.”

Read the whole article by Jenna Price in the Sydney Morning Herald here.

A three part series of new research has just been added to our website!

New substantial research has just been added to our website. Find it here.

The titles of the documents are:

COVID cuts highlight intellectual bankruptcy of Coalition higher education policies. (Part 1)

Coalition policies and corporatization of universities are premised on shifting costs to students and staff. (Part 2)

The authoritarian academy: corporate governance of Australia’s universities exploits staff and students and degrades academic standards. (Part 3)

These three articles are the product of many discussions, comments and feedback from colleagues at more than a dozen universities over the last several years. They are intended to provide background for a national campaign for reform of Australia’s higher education system involving Academics for Public Universities, the Australian Association of University Professors, the National Higher Education Action Network and the National Tertiary Education Union. Please feel free to contact any of these organizations if you are interested in becoming involved.

Dear Mark McGowan, you wouldn’t ask this of a mining company

West Australian universities are in the thick of a crisis that the McGowan government should address right away and ensure universities live up to noble expectations set out for them under state law, writes one of WA’s most reputed academics.

“A mining company or a hospital would never have a board without solid industry-specific expertise. Universities shouldn’t either – but many do.

Each of the WA university senates have 17 members, of which only a small minority have any professional experience in higher education, let alone as an academic.”

Read the whole article by Gerd Schröder-Turk here.

Our uni teachers were already among the world’s most stressed. COVID and student feedback have just made things worse

It sounds like a dream job and the general public still sees academia as a safe harbor where people spend their time peacefully thinking and teaching their ideas to eager students. The reality could not be more different. As research shows, Covid has not only revealed the true nature of managerial governance of universities but has put academics in even more precarious, stressful positions. Read the full text written by our colleagues from Southern Cross University here.

Australian accounts ‘exaggerating Covid impact’
Institutions accused of ‘opportunism’ over job cuts

May 24, 2021
John Ross
Twitter: @JohnRoss49
Australian universities have been accused of exaggerating the financial impact of Covid-19, with investment revaluations and accounting conventions dwarfing losses from international students’ tuition fees.

Economist and former University of Canberra pro vice-chancellor John Howard said that of the 21 Australian institutions that have so far published their 2020 financial accounts, all but one had achieved surpluses on their cash transactions, with the increase averaging around 3 per cent.

Despite this, eight of the 21 universities had posted deficits. Dr Howard said this reflected the inclusion of “non-cash” expenses like depreciation, amortisation and changes in investment valuations rather than tangible losses of revenue.

While international tuition fee earnings across the 21 universities plunged by about A$300 million (£164 million) last year, reported investment income decreased by more than A$600 million. And depreciation, reported as an expense in the income statements, had totalled more than A$1.4 billion, reflecting write-downs in the value of new buildings, plant and equipment.

Dr Howard said listed companies reported to shareholders based on earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA), which provided “a better snapshot” of their current operational efficiency, and universities should do likewise. On an EBITDA basis, he said, the published financial statements suggested no university had yet recorded a current earnings deficit in 2020.

University of Melbourne chief operating officer Allan Tait said EBITDA-based financial reporting was problematic because it treated research grants and “tied” donation income as general revenue that could be used for any purpose.

He said the university’s preferred measure for monitoring its financial performance – the “operating result” – removed “items that distort core operating performance, such as movements in the valuation of investments and income of a capital nature” from the “accounting or net result”.

Universities have adopted imprecise language to describe last year’s financial results, with terms such as “reportable”, “operating”, “statutory” and “underlying” sometimes used interchangeably. This has sown confusion; a newspaper reported one institution’s A$168 million surplus as a surfeit of just A$9 million, while another university’s estimated A$107 million surplus was reported as a “slim loss”.

While universities say they lost A$1.8 billion of revenue last year and face a further A$2 billion downturn this year, both figures are outstripped by their reserves of A$4.6 billion in accessible cash at the pandemic’s outset.

Martin Foo, an economist with S&P Global Ratings, said universities had good reasons not to deplete these reserves. “You need a fair bit of cash on hand at any time to meet payroll and other expenses. If you’re halfway through building something, you need the money to complete that construction.”

Nevertheless, universities faced a “tough sell” lobbying for more government support when they had access to so much money – particularly after they had cut courses, closed campuses and shed an estimated 17,300 tenured and contract jobs.

In Victoria alone, where the state’s eight public universities shared pre-pandemic cash and cash equivalents of almost A$1.4 billion, annual reports show that they employed 8,175 fewer staff in December 2020 than in December 2019.

The National Tertiary Education Union’s Victorian assistant secretary, Sarah Roberts, said some of these job cuts would have been unavoidable. “However, there’s a level of opportunism in it. Institutions have had thoughts about ‘dead wood’ in the teaching and professional staff cohort. They have used this as an opportunity to swing the axe.”

Reporting rules require Victorian universities to disclose precise workforce figures, with every institution showing a net staffing decline last year. But in other jurisdictions, where no such obligations apply, six of the eight universities that reported their workforce numbers said staffing levels had increased.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

Read the article on Times Higher Education here.

Australian universities are dying and no one is coming to save them

The university system in this country is dying. The government used the pandemic to destroy the places for critical conversations; and university management mostly rolled over. Mass redundancies, both voluntary and forced across the sector, have left big gaps in teaching staff. In some places that led to decisions to close down subjects, courses, departments. Right now, nearly every university is considering merging faculties.

Read whole article by Jenna Price here.