Short courses

Short courses ‘carry risk’ as Australian universities pile up

Australian universities are increasing their short course offerings as income from international education evaporates, but observers fear some are investing too heavily in a time-limited source of income that narrows their future options.

Undergraduate and postgraduate certificates, created last year as part of Canberra’s Covid relief scheme, account for at least 10% of teaching grant allocations at several institutions. Curtin University was earmarked over AU$27m (£15m) to deliver the courses, followed by the University of Tasmania (AU$22m), Central Queensland University ( AU$16 million) and Western Sydney, Victoria and Charles Sturt universities. (A$12 million each).

Most of these institutions are struggling financially, with Curtin and CQU posting deficits last year. Charles Sturt posted an operating loss in 2019 and Tasmania’s financial troubles predate the pandemic.

While short-term course funding can be a welcome sugar hit for institutional bottom lines, it could be short-lived. Funding is only available for 2021, though observers expected a possible extension in the May 11 federal budget, with the government signaling more short-term course allocations for private colleges in advance.

Another problem is that short courses may not award officially recognized degrees after December. To date, undergraduate certificates have only been on the Australian Qualifications Framework for a year.

Andrew Norton, a professor in higher education practice at the Australian National University, said short courses could also limit institutions’ future offerings. If students wanted to rely on their new degrees, universities would be morally bound to award associate degrees, regardless of their financial viability.

Professor Norton said that with anecdotal accounts of high dropout rates from new courses, planning for associate degrees could be risky. Underestimating dropout rates could leave universities with half-empty classes, while overestimating could prove costly.

“Universities are going to be in a very tough financial situation for a few years to come,” he said. “If you have a model that assumes 25% attrition in the second year and the true attrition is 10%, you’re carrying a lot of unfunded students.”

Consultant Claire Field said while short courses could bring an immediate boost to income, they risked distracting universities from efforts to cultivate sustainable student flows.

Another risk is that Canberra’s appetite for short courses could wane. While the government insists the aim of the courses is to steer students towards jobs, by far the most generously funded program – the Tasmanian Undergraduate Certificate in Sustainable Living, which has received more than AU$8 million – has been described as a “mixture of thought and gardening advice”.

Tasmanian marketing manager Craig Barling said the course offered good job prospects. “We’ve seen strong interest from people looking for careers in sustainability fields,” he said.

The university limited its income from the course by waiving tuition fees. Mr Barling said the cost was an ‘inhibitor’ for some people and that making the course free would ‘reduce barriers to higher education’.

He said the course had a “clear articulation pathway” for new university students. They could move on to the Tasmanian Diploma in Sustainable Living and then to a new sustainability major embedded in various bachelor’s degrees.

The second most generously funded short course, the Edith Cowan University Undergraduate Certificate in Higher Education, focuses on further education rather than employability.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com