Australian enrolments stay on course despite funding freeze

Australian universities kept doing what they were already doing after government froze teaching funds

June 10, 2019
Source: Alamy

The abolition of Australia’s demand-driven funding system has made little difference to universities’ appetite for publicly funded students, new figures suggest.

The latest university annual reports indicate that 2018 admissions were influenced far more by pre-existing cost pressures and demand patterns than the government’s decision to freeze teaching grants at 2017 levels.

Annual reports contain the first reliable enrolment figures at the institutional level. To date, 32 of Australia’s 38 public universities have released their 2018 reports, with most specifying how many places have gone to domestic students.

Among these, 13 universities decreased their domestic enrolments in the aftermath of the funding freeze. But 11 increased their admissions of locals, with enrolments unchanged at another three institutions.

Most universities maintained the trajectory of previous years, continuing to either increase or reduce their domestic numbers. The notable exception was the Australian Catholic University, which abruptly cancelled courses in the weeks following the 2017 freeze.

ACU, which had rapidly increased its intake of domestic students ever since the demand-driven system was flagged late last decade, cut its enrolments by 2.5 per cent in 2018.

The universities that have cut their domestic enrolments most consistently have been high-ranking institutions able to attract large numbers of fee-paying international students. Domestic student numbers have fallen every year since 2015 at the universities of Sydney and Melbourne, and since 2014 at the universities of Queensland and Western Australia.

Since 2014, overseas enrolments have grown by 19 per cent at the University of Western Australia, 57 per cent at Queensland, 70 per cent at UNSW Sydney and 83 per cent at Melbourne.

Domestic enrolments at Queensland fell by 8 per cent over that period, reducing the Australian proportion of the student body from around three in four to two in three. Last year, Queensland recorded easily the biggest operating surplus of any university in the state, up from third highest the previous year and a deficit in 2016.

A spokeswoman declined to say whether the university had any plans to cap the proportion of international students, as some other universities are considering, but agreed that the increase in overseas recruitment was driven by financial considerations as well as a desire for cultural diversity. “Australia’s national research effort would be in a very sorry state if we had not supplemented our income through tuition fees,” she said.

Queensland’s universities face a particular challenge in the coming years, thanks to a 2007 change in the school starting age which is expected to significantly reduce commencing student numbers next year, costing the state’s universities A$239 million (£131 million) by 2023.

Queensland University of Technology said it planned to combat the shortfall by recruiting more mature students and “diversifying into graduate education”, among other strategies. Vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil said the university’s financial situation would be “manageable but very tight”.

“We’re doing things we need to do anyway, but with more urgency,” she said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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