Australian performance funding approach outlined

Retention, graduate employment, student feedback and widening participation to guide distribution

August 6, 2019
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Four performance measures – first-year attrition, graduate employment, student perceptions of teaching quality and participation by under-represented groups – will be used to guide growth in Australian higher education teaching funds from next year.

The performance-contingent component of funds will accumulate, rather than being applied only to annual growth increments, and will be based on population increases averaged across the country rather than localised to universities’ catchment areas.

However, reports also suggest that any unallocated funds may be channelled back into the sector to assist poorly performing universities.

Details of the performance funding proposals, which are due to be unveiled to vice-chancellors by education minister Dan Tehan during a 7 August meeting at the University of Wollongong, suggest that the government has opted for a simple approach.

The scheme, foreshadowed in late 2017 when former education minister Simon Birmingham froze teaching grants for two years, allows for teaching grants to increase from next year at the rate of growth of the adult population.

The idea is unpopular with universities and higher education researchers, partly because the number of people of school-leaving age is projected to grow much more quickly than the overall adult population, and partly because similar schemes have been tried internationally with limited results.

The speed at which the scheme has been cobbled together has also attracted scepticism, with a discussion paper outlining possible approaches released just last December.

Australia’s research assessment exercise took years to construct, and experts say it is more difficult to assess teaching than research. This is partly because key measures tend to be contradictory. Universities with high attrition rates, for example, often also achieve high graduate employment.

Experts also stress that student satisfaction is not a reliable measure of teaching quality.

The new scheme is expected to guide the allocation of some A$70 million (£39 million) next year, averaging out to less than A$2 million per university.

The 7 August meeting will also feature a briefing on cybersecurity from the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD). Mr Tehan said that an ASD staffer would update universities on the latest cybersecurity risks and advise them on how to defend themselves.

“Universities are high-value targets for malicious cyberattackers because of the valuable intellectual property and personal information they hold,” he said.

Recent weeks have seen cyberattacks at the Australian National University and the Australian Catholic University as well as a data theft incident at the University of Western Australia. Cyberattacks have also been blamed for temporarily disabling the University of Queensland’s internet.

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