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Education and research – what the data tells us about productivity in Australia’s universities

7 Aug 2019, by Amy Sarcevic

The need for joint consideration of a university’s Education and Research output is vital in gauging its overall productivity, but until recently institutions have largely had to rely on intuition in making this judgement.

“Determining the performance of each domain separately is relatively straightforward, but when determining overall productivity, subjective weighting is often given to either Research or Education, meaning that productivity ratings between institutions are not necessarily objective or standardised”, says Emeritus Professor Keith Houghton, ahead of the UNIDATA Conference.

At least, that was until Prof. Houghton and his colleagues at the Higher Education and Research Group devised the REEF Index – an objective tool which combines Education and Research metrics to create a single productivity/ROI output figure.

The REEF index is relatively simple in concept, but remarkably powerful in terms of its potential. Former Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, made reference to it in Parliament, and has described the work as “ground breaking”.

How does it work?

The REEF Index has two axes: The vertical axis represents “research efficiency” and is measured by the number of uniquely authored publications per million dollars. The horizontal axis represents “education efficiency” and is measured by Equivalent Full Time Student Load per year (EFTSL), per million dollars.

Institutions are plotted at gradients between the two depending on their output/performance within each domain. Naturally, the greater the proximity towards the top right corner, the greater the overall productivity/efficiency rank.

The index is entirely “agnostic” in its approach, that is, it gives equal weighting to education and research, respectively. This is unlike the more subjective weighting historically deployed by analysts.

What are the potential applications?

Prof. Houghton says that the output is important in guiding productivity-related decisions on three key levels: whole-of-sector, institution and sub-institution (between faculties).

Also of considerable value is its potential to demonstrate the productivity improvement (or decline) of a university – or a unit within a university – over time.

Houghton makes it clear that the REEF Index is not a measurement of an institution’s cashflow, rather the efficiency in which funds are used.

What has it taught us so far?

“Quite a lot”, says Houghton. “In 2017 for example we were able to plot all 37 major public universities in Australia and determine their ‘productivity health’, as well as the health of the sector in general.

“One of the key findings of this was that some universities really stand out in terms of research and education efficiency – that is value for money invested in academic effort.

“We refer to their location on the map as the “efficiency frontier” and can actually measure the discrepancy between these leading institutions and the performance of other universities. This gives us a quantifiable benchmark for assessing progress.

“We are moving forward with the REEF Index work” Houghton added. “Projects now focus on issues such as quality of outcomes as well as what factors might explain relative efficiency. The economies of scale and cost of attrition are just two of a long list of significant factors that can explain efficiency levels. We can now divide productivity improvement between that achieved by the sector as opposed to individual institutional growth.

“A major development is looking at what academic units within a university are operating at the highest levels of performance and which might benefit from targeted added support. A key benefit is that university management can move from policies that are ‘one-size-fits all’ to something more targeted and nuanced – all based on demonstrated data-based evidence rather than simple assertion.

“We have also been able to determine productivity growth within the HE sector. We know, for example, that productivity is improving at around 3 percent per annum compound, which is better than GDP growth over the same period. We’ll be able to closely monitor this going forward and use it as an evidence base for policy initiatives”.

Where to now?

Prof Houghton will address Informa’s UNIDATA Conference – being held 11-12 September 2019 in Sydney- where he will talk more about the potential for data to “tell the story” of the higher education sector and what we can do with measurable data-based evidence.

Learn more and register here.

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