May 27, 2019

Some Unis are Lifting Teaching Productivity

Robert Bolton

27 May 2019 The Australian Financial Review

Victoria University has sharply lifted the productivity of its academic staff, which was one of the factors leading it to report a surplus this year after four years of deficits.

The university has created teaching-only roles, shifted to a block model of classes and restructured the back office of faculties.

The big gain in teaching productivity was revealed in data published by the Higher Education and Research Group last week, which highlighted improvements in research productivity among universities.

While most Group of Eight universities made big gains in research productivity, Victoria University – a dual sector university, which teaches skills as well as higher education – made its big gain in education efficiency.

It went from teaching fewer than 40 students per million dollars in 2002 to teaching more than 50 students per million dollars in 2017.

That makes it one of the leading universities in terms of improved education productivity. And it got a gain in research productivity, which was a side effect of the changes made to teaching.

Vice-chancellor Peter Dawkins said the university, which has campuses in Melbourne’s western suburbs and CBD, was struggling financially when he took over in 2011. After it reported a deficit in 2012 he started a reform program to boost teaching output and raise revenue.

“When we negotiated the 2013 enterprise bargaining agreement we introduced a teaching-focused workforce. We created a new position, academic teaching scholars. They teach more hours than an academic who does teaching and research,” he said.

This year about 29 per cent of academic staff are teaching scholars only.

“We did a review of courses. Universities can have far too many courses and some have only a handful of students. There is a minimum number of students you have to have to make a course viable. And we had a lot of loss-making courses. We’ve reduced those dramatically.”

The vice-chancellor combined the teaching changes with an administrative shake-up, shifting from faculties, which carried heavy administrative costs, to colleges, which focused on academic output and shared administrative work between them.

The university got push back from the National Tertiary Education Union, especially in 2018 when it shifted first-year students to a block model of teaching where subjects are studied sequentially and teaching is done by staff who do not have research commitments.

“The union did raise concerns about a lot of these issues. One or two staff went to the Fair Work Commission. But we were able to implement the changes,” Professor Dawkins said.

Redundancy costs were one of the factors leading to a deficit of $29.1 million in 2017.

On the revenue side, the shift to a different teaching method boosted retention rates and the positive feedback from students lifted enrolments, which included a rising numbers of students from China and India.

“The reform agenda was not only about productivity, it was about improving the offer to students. The stronger reputation has meant stronger demand.”

In 2018 Victoria University had total revenue of $453 million, up from $444 million in 2017. But operating expenses in 2018 were $446 million, down from $473 million the year before. That fed through to a surplus of $6.9 million dollars for 2018, and Professor Dawkins said 2019 was likely to produce another surplus.

On the research side, the university has brought all its activities under one administration and reduced its research and teaching focus to key areas such as health sport or sustainable cities.

As a result, the number of research publications per million dollars has risen from less than 0.5 per million dollars in 2002 to more than 1.7 in 2017, according to Higher Education and Research Group.

Chief academic strategist at HERG, Keith Houghton, said Victoria University had been “quite courageous”.

“There was a time when they were very publicly cash poor. But necessity is the mother of invention and they’ve been inventive in the way they’ve restructured.

“Universities like VU were getting students who were less well prepared to study. So had to reappraise their educational approach. So they introduced things like the block model. The early signs are it’s working.”

The NTEU said earlier this year staff twice rejected terms of the 2018 enterprise agreement, which is still being negotiated. But it was likely the EBA would be signed off “fairly soon”.