Note: These are some observations based on a visit to about half dozen universities in a few different cities. Some of them were the G-8 universities (top universities identified by the Australian Government), and rest just below them. The observations in this note are based on discussions largely in CS/IT schools and the broad numbers that were indicated mentioned these discussions – hence only broad statements are being made. This is not a detailed study of any university or the University system in Australia.

Size

Main Australian universities are quite large – most with more than 50,000 students and over 1,500 full time, regular faculty. They are generally organized as Faculties, and within them are Schools (which are like Departments in US or India), which may have disciplines within them. Universities also have focused research centers, which have funding of their own, but faculty mostly come from Schools. CS/IT is often a school of its own and generally one of the largest (and is heavily in demand). Most large universities are catering to it by expanding their offerings in it.

The overall administrative staff is appx of the same size as the size of faculty, though in each department the number is smaller than the faculty.

In CS/IT, in many of these large universities the faculty strength for regular, tenure-track/tenured faculty is about 30 to 40.

In size, main Australian universities are similar to the US public universities (there are only a couple of private universities in Australia – the rest are all public universities, supported by the Government.)

UG Education

Many have multiple programs at the UG level – in CS, IT, Sw Engg, etc.  A program may have an average intake of a few hundred students every year, and overall UG population can be a few thousands. Foreign students ratio may be about 10-20%.

Most UG degrees are 3 year programs. However, many of them add one year to give an honors degree. Those CS/IT degrees that are in engg, are normally of 4 years. Altogether, the school of CS/IT may have about 1000+ UG students.

UG students do mostly 4 courses (units) per semester. First year is usually a common set of courses. There is a strong focus on professional skills development in courses.

Masters Program

The Masters is commonly by course work only, and is normally of 2 years duration. The intake may be as large as 300 or 400 every year. Masters has a large number of overseas students – often more than half, sometimes even two-thirds. Most of the overseas students are from Asia – China and India being the largest. Smaller number is from Africa.

Masters is a completely a paid program. There is no scholarship/fellowship. And the fee is normally higher than the UG fee.

PhD Program

PhD program may be around 200 students in CS/IT – generally between 3 to 4 students per regular faculty. All PhD students are given scholarship/fellowship (tax free, of around $28K). PhD students may get paid a top-up from research grants (of about $10K). They are often paid extra for TA work or for being tutors. Tuition fee is waived for about 3.5 to 4 years, and the scholarship is also often limited to this duration.

Often for each PhD student, the university will give some budget (of about $5K), which can be used for laptop, conference travel (by the student or the adviser), etc.

Teaching/Instruction

A regular course may have 2 hours of lecture, and 2 hours of lab, and/or an hour of tutorial. The instructor gives the lectures, and also takes some sessions of tutorials (to get the pulse of the students). Tutors are generally not allowed to take lectures.

Courses for UGs and PGs are mostly separated – however, many times courses are dual numbered and the same lecture may be used for both the courses, with some special assignments or work for the PG students.

Course syllabus is often standardized, including the nature and number of assignments or labs or projects.

Lectures classes are often large – most with around 200 students. For first year courses, the size of a lecture may be around 500. For a large class, there may be two sections (say of 200 each, or 500 each for the 1st year course), and there may be two instructors for it – who will collaborate.

While the lectures sessions are large, there are tutorials and labs for courses. These are usually in small groups of around 30 each. Problem solving as well as lab help is provided in these sessions.

In a course there is often a feedback from students early on during the semester – to help the instructor make  any changes in how the course is being taught. There is a feedback at the end of the course. Moderation of grades is often done (i.e. some committee looks at grading patterns in the courses.)

There are facilities to tape the lectures, which are uploaded almost immediately after the class is over. Students can watch it later.  Most universities are exploring ways to leverage technology to reduce faculty requirement. E.g. in one students can enrol in web-delivery mode also (though very few students opt for it).

Student Faculty Ratio and Teaching-Research Balance

If entire UG students in the programs and the Masters students are taken, in most universities, in CS/IT the ratio may be of the order of 40:1. Some CS/IT schools have about 35:1, but some even have a ratio as large as 70:1. (Overall student to faculty ratio in a university also seems to be around 35:1.)

However, the faculty are well supported by Tutors and TAs, which are largely PhD students or casual faculty hired for this purpose. In some universities, senior UG students are also hired to help in TA work, particularly in labs (mostly honors students may be taken for this.) Part-time faculty from industry are also used for teaching. There may also be a small number of teaching-focused faculty to reduce the load of regular faculty.

There is a good balance between teaching and research. Many universities mentioned the 40-40-20 formula – a faculty member is expected to spend about 40% effort in teaching, about 40% in research, and 20% in service/administration.

Teaching load of a faculty varies from 2.5 to 4 courses per year. Adjustment based on research and administrative load is permitted and there are rules for this.

In teaching approach and student-faculty ratio, Australian universities differs from their US counterparts. The course load for students is a little lower, more support is provided through labs and tutorials, and the student-faculty ratio is considerably higher (in US many of the prominent state universities like UC system or GaTech have a student-faculty ratio of about 20:1.)

Research and Research Grants

Australian Research Council (ARC) is the main body. It usually gives larger grants. Many faculty may not get grants. Small grants may be provided by the University also.

Grants cover PostDocs, other research staff and top-up to students, and also travel and other such expenses. They don’t need to cover for PhD students.

There is a culture of postdoc developing and people with grants will have them. Generally, research is done by faculty, post docs, and PhD students.

There is an emphasis on applied research – sometimes coming from industry, and sometimes derived from some direct application.

Fees, and Economics

For domestic students, the UG fee is around $15K per year. The intake of students is not controlled, and a university is free to admit as many as it wants. However, the fee for domestic students is controlled – i.e. the Govt has fixed it.

Of the fee for domestic students, the student has to cover about one-fourth to half, for which he can take a loan, which is to be paid later as additional tax, but only after the student’s earning crosses some threshold. The rest of the fee is the subsidy by the Govt. The university gets the full fee from the Government directly, and the Government recovers the money from the student. (There is also some option to pre-pay the fee at some discount…)

MS fee is usually higher. Govt does not provide subsidy for this. (Not fully sure)

Overall, the university gets a funding from the Federal Govt based on the number of students, i.e. fees times the number of students in the university. Due to this, there is an intense competition to get good students and there is an inherent motivation to grow – that is why most Australian universities are large in student enrollments. Note that even state created universities will get this grant from the Federal Govt.

Government also gives some grant for research which is also based on a formula which takes as input the impact, the research funds raised by the university from corporations and other sources, etc.

Except ANU and one or two others, there is no other grant from the government for teaching. Government may also give some special grants for infrastructure or special purposes every now and then – for which universities have to make proposals.

For foreign students, the fee as well as the numbers a university can take, is not regulated. The Government provides no subsidy for foreign students. The fee for foreign students is about $30+ K per year. So, the fee from foreign students cover part of the cost of education for domestic students, and also supports research expenditure of the university (as research projects do not cover the full cost of research.) Due to this, there is a strong incentive to recruit foreign students.  Australia has actively promoted itself as an education destination – high quality education in English, with the possibility of migration as well. (After 2 years of study, an overseas student is eligible to work in Australia.) By some accounts, education is the second (or third) largest forex earner for Australia.

A university may have a budget of about $1Billion (AUD). Broadly, the main income sources for a university are:

  • Tuition fee from domestic students given by federal Govt – about 70%
  • Research grant from the Federal Government – about 5%
  • Tuition fee from overseas students – about 15% (higher in some)
  • Research grants – about 10% (higher in more research places, lower in others)

There may be special grants, which arise from time to time – for construction, for some initiative of the Govt, etc.

So, funding approach for Australian universities seems to be formula based, and seems different from their US counterparts.

Autonomy

Universities are fully autonomous and are governed very well with a strong administrative set up and often visionary leaders. The Government has minimal role in university administration. There are some reps in the Board, and there are reporting requirements by the Government (e.g. to make sure that finances are in good shape), but govt does not play a role in appointing anyone, including the President. It seems that any interference in selection of President/Chancellor may be taken in very bad light even by public.

And most funding is formula-based. This allows a university to plan its own growth and finances, and there is predictability of funding from the Government. In other words, relationships with the government do not play any role in funding levels.

Some Lessons for Indian Research Universities

There are clearly some lessons for institutions like IITs, some IIITs, etc., which have a strong focus on research and have a vibrant undergraduate program, as well as for other research-led higher education institutions which give strong emphasis to research and education both.

  • Explore ways to enhance student faculty ratio – there is clear scope to do this so the benefit of the high quality faculty in these institutions can be made available to larger number of students. This will require, improving the PhD program, enhancing TA training programs, leveraging technology, use more internet delivered courses, have a program like Teaching Fellow, in which the teaching fellow is recruited and trained to handle tutorials and labs, and in the process get trained to become instructors in colleges. Extra revenue obtained by increasing the students at UG level, can be used to fund the PhD students.
  • Improve TA training and work culture – this is essential as the a higher number of students per faculty can only be supported if the TA help improves so TAs can handle most of the labs, tutorials, grading, etc. Besides training, this will need good guidelines for TAs for grading, handling students, etc, improved feedback and assessment of TA work, establishing awards and recognition for TA work, etc
  • Use senior UG students as TAs – they have been found to be very good TAs for undergraduate courses – this is partly due to the fact that the senior UG student has done the course in the same university, thereby has a better understanding of the course approach and teaching style etc. This may require giving them training, more respect and honor, stipend..
  • Expand the PhD program –  have about 3 to 4 PhD students per faculty. Make the PhD program more attractive – develop schemes for top-up (e.g. from projects for RAs, and extra support for TAs after they have done the mandatory 2 semesters of TA work), provide more facilities, support for conference travel,…
  • For expanding the PhD program, ACITE can consider stopping scholarships for MTech – these provide little value and world over scholarships for Masters are getting eliminated – and use the funds to instead provide PhD scholarships.
  • Enhance supervised labs in core courses so students can build strong practical skills – this is important for building professional skills. Must provide more support in the lab so students can be guided.
  • Enhance tutorials for developing problem solving skills – will require good training for tutors so they don’t make it a lecture, but applying concepts from lectures to problem solving.
  • Expanding the MTech program overseas – there is good possibility here and being a 2 year program where mature students come, least risky. If the courses are mostly exclusively graduate, then it is relatively easier to do this. The fee can be kept a little lower than fee levels in places like Australia, as it still be very cost effective due to lower cost of living. Initial focus can be on Asia and Africa.
  • Improve the use of technology – in infrastructure as well as in education (e.g. taping of lectures and putting them online asap, use of technology for tutorials, etc.)
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