Efficiency dividends: at what cost?

Using efficiency metrics can put students' benefits at risk. Why would the government deliberately risk the international education sector?

This comment was published as “The High Cost of Cuts” in Campus Review on September 1, 2017.

Universities Australia, the peak body for Australian universities, has consistently resisted threats to Australian university funding. Most recently, it articulated its concerns about the proposed Higher Educational Support Legislation Amendment Bill 2017.

UA’s 10 August 2017 press release opposes the reduction in government investment via an ‘efficiency dividend’. Anticipating negative impacts of the legislation on education quality and diversity, UA calls for the removal of this measure, which can result in a reduction of resources to some of the most vulnerable services, student support and community outreach.

In The Conversation (3 July 2014), Christopher Stone also argued against an ‘efficiency dividend’ for a number of reasons, including that innovation needs an investment of resources, not a reduction, before benefits are derived. This applies to a challenging and changing international education sector.

We are currently enjoying the benefits of three decades of investment in services and support for international students whose needs and expectations we recognised as specific. We have supported cross-cultural training and staff development from the beginning. We have built academic programs with global perspectives and developed internationalised practice. We are now connecting international education to wider communities. These innovations have been possible through the targeted management of international student fees and related international activities–with a great deal of commitment and goodwill. And a good measure of efficiency, too.

Reduced university funding has unfortunate consequences for people working in international education. It means less investment in professional development, less job security for those in frontline work with students, increased workloads and burnout. Many universities have mainstreamed international student support services once delivered by specialists who knew how to address particular needs and expectations (Forbes-Mewett, 2010). In the longer term, we risk losing senior experience at the frontline, putting at risk a fragile corporate memory. These consequences are part of an efficiency trend that has no intrinsic value, especially in an environment of record international education growth and high levels of student satisfaction.

Stone argues for resources to be directed to areas where they achieve the highest benefits. This means investment in students’ experiences–their social and academic connections, as well as life opportunities on and beyond the campus. Among other things, it means addressing issues of employment opportunities and conditions, safe and affordable student accommodation–not only to secure the attractiveness of Australia as a study destination, but as rights.

Applying efficiency as a way to demonstrate ‘the most bang for taxpayers’ bucks’ puts the benefits of students’ experiences–their connections to institutions and communities–at risk. It undervalues the critical importance of student support services as core business for institutions enrolling students from overseas. As UA rightly asks, why would the government deliberately risk the international education sector?

Finally, The UA submission notes the link between international education and tourism. International students bring dollars, their families, friends and other visitors to Australia. While tourism is another success story, students are primarily seeking education. They contribute to ideas, technology, knowledge and cultural understanding. We need to encourage international students’ participation in our communities, including in regional and outer metropolitan areas. We can support communities better who welcome and engage with international students and other newcomers. We need to preserve the corporate memory–to remember why we began this enterprise. We need to strengthen our services, and put resources before dividends.

A version of this article appears in the Campus Review, 1 September 2017.

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Ref: Helen Forbes-Mewett (2010). Mainstreaming International Student Services: Where’s the McValue?. Refereed paper presented at The Australian Sociological Association, Social Causes – Private Lives, Macquarie University, Sydney, December 6-9.

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