Australian universities are under pressure like never before. While circumstances appear dire, the good news is our universities have proven themselves world-class in the past and so have the tools to adapt.

Before we consider the way forward, it is helpful to bust myths about Australian universities as middling performers looking for taxpayer handouts. The truth is they are gold medal winners by global standards.

In the past 15-plus years Australian universities have outperformed UK and Canadian counterparts, with substantially less government support and lower domestic student fees.

Prior to the pandemic, Australian research-intensive universities earned up to 7 per cent less from teaching activities per domestic student than equivalent UK universities, after adjusting for labour costs, our data shows. To make up the difference Australian universities have grown revenue from international students.

The perception that this led to “premium” funding conditions is wrong. The reality for research-intensive universities is that significant international student revenues simply brought them to parity with UK peers.

As a result of Australian universities’ entrepreneurialism and use of income to support research and teaching, the number in the top 300 of the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) has grown from nine in 2005 to 15 in 2020, while the UK, US and Canada numbers have fallen.

This is despite Australian research-intensive universities operating with an average of 30 per cent less direct research support than UK peers, according to data we have collected as part of UniForum, an initiative of NousCubane, a Nous Group company.

In research, Australia’s leading universities increased scientific publication at twice the rate of their UK and Canadian peers since 2006, according to analysis by Canada’s Higher Education Strategy Associates. The effort to focus their research portfolios has seen academics per field of research in Australia increase from 25 in 2012 to 33 in 2018.

In teaching, Australian universities demonstrate similar out-performance. Many have organised their curriculum so they have few courses with low student numbers, resulting in them operating 27 per cent more efficiently than equivalent UK universities.

Australian universities have found substantial efficiencies from administration. The best performers have reduced daily administration and support services spend from 22 per cent of income a decade ago to 17 per cent today, an improvement that has released between $50 million and $140 million per year for each university to invest in students, teaching and research.

This has been a gold medal performance. But the pandemic has changed the game, reducing revenues for Australian universities by up to 10 per cent – with more expected.

While international student numbers will likely come back globally, this time US, UK and Canadian universities have the policy advantage, with more open borders and friendlier student visa policies than before. And they have caught up to Australian universities in international recruitment strategies.

Unfortunately, Australia will now compete with a handicap and the longer borders are closed the greater the impact. IDP’s Crossroads IV survey of international student intentions show Australia’s share will likely be significantly reduced if face-to-face teaching does not begin soon.

So how does each Australian university come back?

The fundamentals are the same: be outstanding in each university activity – research, teaching and administration. Through UniForum, we have rich data on how universities around the English-speaking world perform. We believe Australian universities must strive for top quartile performance, to overcome the international student handicap.

On research performance per dollar spent, Australia’s leading research universities have shown the power of a focussed research portfolio, averaging more than 30 researchers per field of research. For the mid-scale and smaller universities, where research numbers range from 10 to 20 researchers per field, focussing portfolios around strengths will be critical. This ensures better value for the university’s infrastructure, greater capacity for industry partnerships and a clearer community impact.

In teaching, many universities surprised themselves at how quickly they moved online. For many this was achieved through bespoke approaches for each subject. This herculean effort meant students could continue their studies, but it resulted in highly disparate learning experiences across subjects and a confusion of channels of communication.

As campuses move to the new normal, likely to involve many students learning remotely and face-to-face, the cost in extra academic time and non-academic support will pressure finances. To be top quartile, universities must have clear course architectures underpinned by pan-university strategies for designing courses, developing content and delivering teaching and learning. The support for these activities must make it easier to adjust to changes in student enrolments.

Australian universities have demonstrated that top quartile administrative efficiency, in addition to delivering more funds to research and teaching, can deliver top quartile satisfaction from front-line academics leading the charge to support a large Australian export industry.

Over the past 20 years, Australian universities have shown an impressive capacity to respond to change. This next five years will require all that capacity to regain their gold medal position.

Get in touch to discuss how Nous and NousCubane can support your university improvement efforts.

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Prepared with input from David Diviny.

A version of this analysis was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 24 May 2021.