Performance funding ‘risks unintended consequences’ in Australia

Policy shift in Australia could penalise institutions that focus on widening participation, warns pro vice-chancellor

May 22, 2018
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Australia’s government must take a “nuanced” approach to introducing performance-based university funding to avoid penalising institutions that focus on widening participation, an educationalist has warned.

Teaching grants for universities in the country were frozen last December, but ministers promised to introduce increases from 2020 onwards, with the extra money to be allocated according to unspecified performance targets.

The metrics are likely to include an institution’s student dropout rate, and formal consultations on how this might work are expected to start soon.

But Chris Pilgrim, pro vice-chancellor for education and quality at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology, warned that a “simplistic read” of such data might lead institutions to conclude that they could increase completions by reducing their intake of part-time, distance-learning and mature students.

“No university would ever make that policy change,” Professor Pilgrim said. “But it’s something that could be misread by the public [to suggest that] we shouldn’t be allowing part-time, external and older students in.”

The prospect of funding being allocated according to attrition rates concerns universities such as Swinburne, where about 19,000 of the 39,000-odd students are off-campus following the rapid growth of the Swinburne Online venture.

Professor Pilgrim said that part-time study was demonstrably the “greatest contributor” to student attrition, with distance learning and mature-aged study close behind. All three factors applied to Swinburne’s online students, of whom 83 per cent were part-time and the average age was 33 – a far cry from the research-intensive Group of Eight universities, where many students are full-timers straight out of school.

He said that “life-stage factors” underpinned the high attrition in this group, as they juggled study workloads with work and family responsibilities.

In a 2017 analysis of student retention, Australia’s Higher Education Standards Panel reported attrition rates varying from 4 per cent at the University of Melbourne to 38 per cent at the University of Tasmania, where off-campus students predominate.

But when statistical regression techniques were applied to take account of key student characteristics – including attendance patterns, age and socio-economic and indigenous status – the differences narrowed considerably. Swinburne’s attrition rate of 25 per cent fell to between 14 per cent and 17 per cent under these “modified” measures.

Professor Pilgrim said that he did not advocate using the same approach for performance funding purposes, saying that this would lead to further technical arguments. “But when attrition data are published or used, the limitations and assumptions behind them need to be acknowledged and understood,” he said.

Similar concerns were voiced in the UK ahead of the introduction of the teaching excellence framework, which judges universities according to their performance in areas such as student satisfaction, retention and graduate employment.

Although most TEF metrics were benchmarked according to students’ gender, race and age, concerns were expressed that measures of socio-economic background were largely absent from this analysis.

Meanwhile, Australia’s latest student experience survey has produced an overall satisfaction rate of 79 per cent among the country’s undergraduates – a result that has barely changed since the first survey in 2011.

Universities Australia said that the “strong and consistent” results showed that performance-based funding was unnecessary. “It would be like getting students to resubmit an assignment when they’ve already got top marks,” said incoming chief executive Catriona Jackson.

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