International Collaboration in Higher Education – HE in Australia

Kathryn Whittingham, Senior University Manager & AHEP Member

We caught up with AHEP member Kathryn Whittingham, to hear her thoughts on HE in Australia. Kathryn has been semi-retired since 2020, having moved into higher education from the UK Civil Service in 1988, and was the first professional member of university staff recruited to an Australian institution from outside the country. She has extensive experience of the sector, working in seven institutions across three countries and two hemispheres.

Recruitment and Governance

The perception, when you live in the UK, is that Australia is just a mirror image of the UK because of the shared history. To a certain extent this is true as you’ll hear similar terminology such as ‘academic board’, ‘student experience’ and ‘governance’, etc.. The governance structures tend to be fairly similar in that you have senior academic and executive committees, with various sub-committees, working groups and the like, ultimately reporting through to a governing body such as a Council or Board of Governors.

As with the UK, the majority of Australian institutions will align themselves into mission groups.  For example, the Group of Eight universities would be akin to the Russell Group, with significant focus on research quality and output.  Other groups in Australia include the Australian Technology Network, and the Regional Universities Network.

Governance and Structure

  1. Federal System: Australia has a federal system of government, and each state and territory is responsible for its education policies. However, there is coordination at the national level through the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).
  2. Universities: Australia has both public and private universities. Public universities receive funding from the government, while private universities rely on tuition fees and private funding.
  3. Research Focus: Australian universities often emphasise the impact of their research, and research performance is a key factor in rankings.
  1. Unitary System: The UK operates under a unitary system, and education policies are set at the national level by the UK government and devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
  2. Universities: Similar to Australia, the UK has a mix of public and private universities..  Public universities receive funding from government sources such as funding councils, research bodies etc.  Institutions are larger in number in the UK, but generally much smaller in size compared to Australia, where FTE of 50,000 is not uncommon
  3. Teaching and Research: UK universities typically have a strong emphasis on both teaching and research. Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessments play a crucial role in evaluating research quality

The UK is probably more strategic in terms of its academic engagement, discussion and its committees, whereas Australia tends to be more pragmatic and operational. That’s a very broad statement, but that’s the sense I got when I first began working here. Things are changing all the time because, with greater movement of staff between the two countries, methods and practices are blending.

Student recruitment is also comparable in its functioning and purpose.  Our marketing teams operate as they do in the UK, with a similar recruitment process in terms of materials, online applications, open days and ambassadors. However, the admissions process itself is very different.  Several states, such as New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland operate their own versions of UCAS, called Tertiary Admissions Centres (TACs) with domestic (home) students applying to one or more of the TACs (or directly to each institution in other states and territories).  

Australia has, traditionally, operated a post-qualification system of admission, with students finding out whether they have a place at university over several rounds of offers and only after they have their high school results and (in most states/territories), their rank, which compares them to other students in their year 12.  However, in recent years, and following pressure from universities, the system has become more ‘flexible’ with early offers which may be conditional upon their final results.

International students – unless studying an Australian year 12 award – apply directly to their chosen institution(s) and, unless they are an Australian Citizen, all applicants are subject to English language requirements.

NB:  Some or all of the above may change, depending upon how the Australian Govt wishes to take forward the Recommendations in the Universities Accord Report – an extensive review of tertiary education – published in February of this year.

Student services, again, are very similar to the UK. Although, Australia probably got on board with providing services in welfare and employability a bit quicker than the UK.  There’s a great emphasis on transferable skills and opportunities for work experience. Students take these opportunities up in droves here, which is positive in terms of university support. There’s also always been a tradition of supporting international students. These students bring in a lot of revenue – behind the US and the UK, Australia is the biggest market for international students and at one point there was a suggestion that we’d actually leapfrog over the UK, particularly from areas such as Southeast Asia and China, although we have diversified over the years.

Educational Approaches

  1. Flexible Degrees: Other than for very prescribed courses, such as Medicine, Australian universities tend to offer flexible degree structures, allowing students to choose from a variety of courses and customize their educational path.
  2. Practical Focus: There is a practical and industry-focused approach in many Australian programs, with opportunities for internships and work experience.
  1. Specialised Degrees: UK universities may offer more specialised degree programs, especially at the undergraduate level, with a focus on depth in a specific subject.
  2. Three-Year Degrees: Undergraduate degrees in the UK typically last three years, compared to the usual four-year programs in Australia.

Franchising – particularly internationally – is less prevalent in Australia, although a few universities do have campuses in other countries (e.g. Wollongong in Dubai, RMIT in Vietnam).  One of the significant points of discussion in the Accord report focuses on the relationship and pathways between TAFE (further education) and Universities, which, despite several attempts, has never been particularly seamless, other than, perhaps, for those institutions who have both within their remit (e,g. Federation University in Victoria)

Student culture, finances and university support

HE students in Australia tend to study locally. Unlike the UK, where there has been a culture of students moving to another region, away from their childhood home, in Australia students usually go to their local institution. The reason for that is primarily down to the funding – or rather, lack of it, for student living expenses.

  1. Funding Model: Australian universities receive funding from the government, but there’s also a significant reliance on tuition fees, especially for international students.  Fees tend to be charged ‘per unit of credit’, which may vary depending upon its classification (HASS, STEM, etc.) 
  2. HECS-HELP: Domestic students can access the Higher Education Loan Program (HECS-HELP) to defer the cost of their tuition until they start earning a certain income.  However, there are, generally, no loans available for living expenses, except for certain cohorts, so the majority of students (both domestic and international, depending upon visa conditions) will work part-time to a greater or lesser extent, whilst studying.
  1. Tuition Fees: The UK has a tuition fee system for both domestic and international students. Fees can vary, and students can access loans to cover tuition costs.

Professional Conventions and Job titles

One of the things that’s always been a point of contention for professional services staff in the UK, is the academic professional divide – although I think this has possibly improved over the years. When I first started in UK HE, the divide was quite distinct. However, I think because of the way that Australia is culturally anyway, there is a lot less of that here. You tend to see professional staff who hold their own, in different committees, and, although you’ll always get a few academics who look down on professional staff, I think that that culture is, thankfully, less prevalent here. 

Staff are differentiated as ‘academic’ or ‘non-academic’ in Australia, although they did move to the term “Professional Services” for the latter around the same time as the UK. The ongoing debates around job titles are similar, although the notion of a Registrar, for example, is quite different in Australia. All institutions must have a Registrar – principally as a compliance role – but it tends to be attached to somebody else’s role, usually a senior academic or a Chief Operating Officer who may have a similar portfolio to a Registrar. There are relatively few “Academic Registrars” in Australia.  However, there are many ‘Directors of Students Services’, ‘Directors of Student Experience’ and ‘Directors of Academic Administration’, who would perform much the same role. These sorts of titles seem to be increasingly coming into play in the UK, suggesting further convergence between the sectors..

Other than at fairly senior levels, there seems to be less movement of staff within Australia compared to the UK. In the UK, my experience was that staff tended to move between the different institutions quite readily. Whereas that only happens here with the major cities like Sydney and Melbourne because of what they call ‘tyranny of distance’. There are vast travel areas and there’s relatively less public transport for people to move easily. Once you get into an institution, you tend to stay there, rather than move around. That’s why organisations like ATEM/AHEP are very important for that networking and understanding of how other institutions operate, so that you can expand your knowledge of the higher education system.

Cross continent collaboration 

Since there are probably more similarities than differences between the two HE systems, there’s a huge opportunity for collaboration. You haven’t got to understand how things work and integrate in great detail. As I mentioned earlier, the governance structures and processes are very similar, however Australia is probably more tech savvy than the UK – developing, implementing, and improving IT systems with greater success. The most confusing thing for me when I first came here was probably the academic year because it starts in January and finishes in December – getting my head around that was quite strange! 

I certainly think that staff who’ve worked in the UK system could easily work in Australia and vice versa and many, many now do. It’s relatively simple to adapt to each other’s way of doing things and I’d encourage any higher education professional to consider doing so at any point during their career.

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