For people new to higher education and higher education policy, the field can seem bewildering. Statistics on enrolments and performance are surprisingly difficult to find and interpret. Funding policies are complex and often reflect history rather than clear objectives or principles.
Mapping Australian higher education 2018, the fifth report in a series, puts key facts and their context in one document. Several major themes emerge.
Health is a key strength of Australia’s higher education system. For domestic students, enrolments are growing in health-related courses more than in any other major field. Graduates from health courses have high rates of employment and enjoy increased income, at a time when graduates often earn less than they did a decade ago. Medical research receives a disproportionate share of all research funding.
Australian higher education is increasingly international. Overseas student enrolments are booming. International student fees are the single biggest source of university revenue. Profits from international students finance a substantial proportion of Australian university research. This research is itself a global enterprise, with thousands of international academic collaboration agreements and more than half of scientific articles by Australian academics having an international co-author. Australian universities have improved their position in international university rankings.
Changes to funding policy mean that the Commonwealth Government is becoming more interventionist while providing a decreasing share of all university revenue. In 2018, the Commonwealth Government will spend less in real terms on tuition subsidies than it did in 2017, the first annual drop since 2003. Just over a third of research expenditure is financed by Commonwealth research grants.
Despite domestic commencing bachelor-degree enrolments growing slowly since 2015, higher education participation reached record levels. In 2016, 41 per cent of Australian 19-year-olds were enrolled in higher education institutions. The number is much higher for young people whose parents work in professional occupations or speak an Asian language at home. Recent enrolment patterns and policy changes all suggest that, after a decade of major growth, domestic higher education participation will plateau over the next few years.
Although new graduate employment has improved since its 2014 low point, the labour market is still tough for younger graduates. Census data shows that male bachelor degree holders aged 25 to 34 earned less in 2016 than a decade earlier. The reverse was true for 25 to 34-year-old women with bachelor degrees: their income increased. A major reason for this is greater labour force participation by women with children.
Apart from graduate outcomes, the last ten years have been successful for Australian higher education. Student numbers, research output and sector revenue all grew significantly. Student satisfaction and research performance improved. But now, apart from international students, most indicators are stable. After a decade of rapid change, Australian higher education is in a period of consolidation.