Relative Funding Model and Mathematics in Australian Universities

In 1989, the federal government placed colleges of advanced education in the same funding basket as the 19 pre-existing universities, forming a “unified national system” (UNS). During that year, a sample of universities provided 1988 data on the actual costs of running bachelor and postgraduate degree programs in various disciplines. From this, there arose a set of weights for funding ratios. For example, for undergraduate studies, the weights for students included humanities 1.0, mathematics 1.3, computing 1.6 and engineering 2.2 . This exercise was meant to determine universities’ operating block grants for the years 1991-93 but the weights of the Relative Funding Model (RFM) persisted until recently. Each year, the universities are told how many student places will be funded for each degree program. The universities submit enrolment figures for subjects in each discipline category. The government offices then calculate a block grant based on numbers of weighted equivalent full time student units (WEFTSU). There has been no compulsion on universities to apply these weights internally. For reasons that I never understood, the mathematics discipline seemed to fare badly under this system. Most estimates show that we have lost 30% of our mathematics faculty over the last 10 years. I can name 9 universities that currently employ or aim to employ 5 or fewer people to teach mathematics. They are spending a small fraction of mathematics student-generated income on mathematics faculty salaries. An average university is funded for over 300 mathematics/statistics EFTSU, attracting a block grant of close to $4M. In the federal budget of May 2007, the psychology and mathematical science disciplines were the main beneficiaries of the new discipline clusters. The universities have been given an extra $25M for mathematics teaching. From a survey by the Australian Council of Heads of Mathematical Science, so far the universities have agreed to hand down less than $5M to the mathematics coalface. A few institutions have capitalised on this situation to build up their capability in mathematics and statistics to improve their relative research standing at a relatively low cost.

The universities are somewhat hamstrung in the ways in which they are allowed to generate income. Certainly there is a financial incentive, for example to increase engineering enrolments and decrease mathematics enrolments, especially if the extra money is not fully transferred to cover the additional costs of teaching engineering. I have heard stories of engineering teaching labs using outdated 1960s equipment. At the same time, universities are forming committees to define “commentary by staff that is damaging to the reputation of the university” and to suggest disciplinary action for such reprehensible truthful behaviour. For several years, politicians and community leaders have been saying that the health of mathematics is important to the nation. In the May 2008 federal budget, compulsory student fees (HECS) have been halved for mathematics and science. The universities will be compensated by the government for the reduction in the income from HECS. The universities should be held accountable to use earmarked government money for its intended purpose. In response to a question about this on May 21, the Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard said,

….we will be making it perfectly clear to universities what it’s for and the policy objective there. We obviously want our maths and science faculties to be able to teach quality maths and science… you should expect to see accountabilities in that area of the Budget and in relation to Budget funding generally.

After this pronouncement, I am confident that more universities will direct the money to its intended target. Tell it to the Deans.

[See also Phil’s article on the health of mathematical science in Australian Universities in the most recent issue of the Gazette. -Ed.]

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