Research takes back seat in Australia’s international boom

Research the goal but not the currency, as Australian universities chase Chinese dollars

November 26, 2018
Source: Getty

While foreign postgraduates are increasingly bankrolling research at Australia’s most prestigious universities, the role that research plays in their learning experience appears to be diminishing.

International enrolments at the Group of Eight universities have exploded in recent years, as institutions harvest foreign tuition fees to compensate for flatlining government funding.

New data suggest that this enrolment surge has been almost exclusively in postgraduate taught rather than research programmes, and that students are increasingly being instructed by academics who are not active researchers.

The number of international students enrolling in research higher degree programmes at Go8 universities’ Australian campuses declined marginally between 2012 and 2016, according to customised Education Department data obtained by Melbourne demographer Bob Birrell.

Over the same period, the number of foreigners commencing postgraduate “coursework” or taught programmes – mostly master’s degrees costing between A$35,000 and A$50,000 (£20,000-£28,000) a year – ballooned by 69 per cent.

By 2016, the Go8 was admitting 11 new international postgraduate taught students – up from six in 2012 – for every new overseas research higher degree candidate. The bulk of this surge came from East Asia, with the group more than doubling its intake of Chinese postgraduate taught students to 14,600. This compared with about 500 Chinese research postgraduates.

Among non-Go8 institutions, the number of commencing Chinese master’s students rose by just 3 per cent over the same period. The trend was reflected in Chinese undergraduate commencements, with numbers increasing by 121 per cent at Go8 universities and 13 per cent elsewhere.

Dr Birrell said that almost all of the Go8’s increase in international commencements had come from China. He said that he had been surprised by the surge in enrolments for taught master’s programmes, which had traditionally predominated in less expensive universities.

Go8 universities were trading on their global top-100 status by attracting “a significant fraction of very wealthy Chinese”, Dr Birrell said.

The University of Sydney did this most effectively, increasing its intake of Chinese postgraduate taught students by 181 per cent to more than 4,100 by 2016. Monash University and the University of Melbourne each saw increases of about 150 per cent to around 2,600 students, while the University of Queensland almost doubled its intake to about 1,500.

Dr Birrell said that universities had conscripted international students “to the neglect of their teaching effort”. The Go8 rejected this, saying that senior Education Ministry officials in Beijing had praised the quality of its education.

“Their graduates return home well educated and very employable,” said executive director Vicki Thomson. “The fact that we have seen growth in this market would suggest that students and their families see the value proposition from what the Go8 universities have to offer.”

However, Education Department staffing statistics offer scant evidence that Australian universities have invested their international tuition fee windfall in teaching resources. In full-time equivalent terms, the Go8 institutions increased their overall staffing levels by just 1.5 per cent between 2012 and 2016.

Their full-time equivalent student numbers rose by 14 per cent over this period, with international students contributing 78 per cent of this rise. The statistics also suggest a shift towards non research-active staff, with the Go8 institutions increasing the number of casual employees by 7 per cent and tenured teaching-only academics by 17 per cent.

Across the sector, staffing levels rose 6 per cent to accommodate a 15 per cent increase in student numbers.

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Reader's comments (2)

What the article fails to acknowledge is how nearly all of this international student growth is focused on business schools. I could have old statistics but approximately 60% of all intl students study business and the business schools are invariably loaded with students who struggle even with the most basic english language skills ( The business schools are, in some cases delivering upwards of several hundred million dollars in free cash flow to their universities and the sole reason many universities have bee financially viable over the last two decades is because of the margins associated with low cost but high price business degrees. My colleague, Graham Dowling, and I wrote an article in the Australian published on 8 May 2003 (which can be read at that highlighted this more than a decade ago (and offering a solution that no one was willing to take up). I assume that the situation is now even more worrying.
I am a PhD candidate in one of the nonG8 universities in Sydney. I am also part of the less celebrated casual teaching staff. Both from teaching and researcher roles, I could see a kernel of truth in this report. I do not have any specific statistics, but it seems our university is driving to bring more and more international students into the taught programmes, both in undergraduate and higher degree level. The number of Higher Degree Research (HDR) international students also growing, but it is not comparable to the taught courses. Moreover, existing funding for international students are not often adequate, and they need to operate under extreme time pressure. The scholarship will only cover a certain period and any extension would attract additional charges. Needless to elaborate the strain it put on already frail finance of an international student. Taken together, perhaps, our university sees the future as more teaching based institutes. (comments are my own).