Review discussion paper


Review discussion paper

Discussion paper

On 1 May 2023, the Panel released a discussion paper to targeted stakeholders. In line with the Review Terms of Reference, responses are by invitation only, but the Panel has decided to make the discussion paper openly available to anyone who may wish to read it.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of higher education to the Western Australian community and economy. Universities are not only large business enterprises and major employers but also a crucial pipeline for the State's future workforce needs and a significant driver of its research and development efforts. For government, community and industry alike, the State’s universities are well worth caring about.

It is acknowledged, both locally and nationally, that there have been challenges for the sector in recent years that have created a more difficult operating environment for universities. The pandemic is one obvious example but there have been others, including shifts in funding and regulation, a sharp increase in competition for talent, and rapid changes in technology and student preferences. If predictability was ever a feature of the sector, it is safe to say that the only thing that is predictable now is change.

With that in mind, the Review Panel has been asked to consider whether Western Australia's public university sector would benefit from structural change. We are to incorporate lessons learned nationally and internationally, identify options that may deliver improved performance and consider the key success factors associated with any recommended change. The Panel will be guided by its Terms of Reference (Appendix A).

We do not take this task lightly, and intend to complete the Review with diligence and determination. That means consulting deeply through targeted engagement with identified stakeholders across the sector including academic staff, alumni, student representatives, industry, government and the community. This process started early in April 2023, when we had the opportunity to visit Western Australia and speak face-to-face with some of the people closest to the Review.

This discussion paper is the next part of our consultation. It presents our initial thoughts on the state of the sector and the chosen framework for analysis, and raises key considerations for discussion and feedback. In line with our Terms of Reference, responses are by invitation only, but we have decided to make the discussion paper openly available to anyone who may wish to read it.

If you have been invited to respond, on behalf of the Panel (Appendix B) I look forward to hearing your ideas and contributions that will help ensure Western Australia's universities are well placed to meet the future needs of industry, students and the community.

Emeritus Professor Sandra Harding AO
Panel Chair


Western Australia's universities play an integral role in its society and economy. Each university and the sector overall has made an important and positive contribution to the professions, business, industry, government and community over many years. They remain critical to training and growing a skilled labour force, undertaking research to support and drive innovation, prosperity and economic growth, serving the community of Western Australia and instilling a sense of active citizenship. Western Australia's university sector is a vital contributor to the State's national, regional and global reputation and plays a critical role in helping to create and sustain a positive future for the State. This role will only grow in importance over time.

There are 5 Western Australian universities and several smaller non-university higher education providers in the State. Four Western Australia universities are public (Curtin University, Edith Cowan University, Murdoch University, and The University of Western Australia) and one is private (the University of Notre Dame Australia).[1] All 5 have their main campuses in the Perth metropolitan area, and have at least one outside it. Some Western Australian universities also have overseas campuses.[2]

The university sector plays a key role in Western Australia's export economy. A report by ACIL Allen commissioned in 2020 estimated that international education contributed $2.1 billion to Gross State Product and supported almost 12,000 direct and indirect full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs across Western Australia.[3] International education is one of the 8 externally focused priority areas in Diversify WA July 2019 – 2021, the State's economic development framework and its successor Future State: Accelerating Diversify WA (2023).[4] This document outlines how government, industry and the community can work together to grow and diversify the economy to build resilience and sustainable economic growth.

Western Australia's universities have faced significant challenges over the last 2 decades, but particularly in recent years with national and international competition for students, staff and resources. Further, they have not recovered as quickly as the rest of Australia from the impacts of the pandemic. The Western Australian Government has expressed a strong desire to ensure that the sector is well placed to play a vital role in Western Australia's future. With these concerns and aspirations in mind, the Western Australian Government has appointed a Panel of eminent individuals to undertake an independent review of the structure of the State's public university sector.

The Review provides the opportunity to take a fresh look at how the sector is performing and consider whether there are opportunities for improvement. It includes targeted consultation with key stakeholders selected by the Panel including staff, students, industry, government and community representatives. The Panel commenced work in March 2023 and held an initial round of targeted consultations in April 2023 to discuss its intended approach to the Review. These stakeholders included Chancellors, Vice Chancellors and representatives from government, community, industry and the TAFE sector.
The purpose of the Review is to ensure Western Australia's higher education sector is well placed to meet the current and future needs of the State, and explore whether structural change could deliver improved performance and financial sustainability for the sector. Evidence from Australia and overseas shows that structural change can deliver a range of benefits to universities, including increased funding, reduced costs, streamlined services, long-term sustainability and potentially higher global rankings.

This Review is the first step in considering any structural change and includes the identification of options available and recommendations for change.

The Terms of Reference set out the Review's purpose, scope and deliverables. The full Terms of Reference are provided in Appendix A.

Principal data sources used in this discussion paper are the published higher education statistical and finance reports produced by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training, the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC), reports from the major international university ranking organisations, and statistics from the Tertiary Institutions Service Centre (TISC), the tertiary admissions centre in WA. Refer to Appendix C for more information.

As per the Terms of Reference, the University Sector Review involves targeted engagement and consultation with a broad range of key stakeholders, including universities, academic staff, student guilds, alumni and representatives from other sectors.

Accordingly, responses to this discussion paper are invited from key stakeholders contacted by the Panel. 

Given the vital role played by Western Australia's public universities in the cultural and economic life of the State, it is clearly in the public interest to look for ways to optimise their contributions and enhance their performance. Each university can rightly claim many laudable achievements over time. For example, in the latest student experience data in the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT), undergraduates at all 4 public universities reported generally higher satisfaction levels on these indicators than the Australian average.

However, there are areas of significant concern that have been evident for some years, including relative declines in Australian Government funding, low growth in student enrolments (domestic and international when compared to other jurisdictions) and a declining share of research funding.

These concerns have filtered through to the public domain, with the Chief Scientist of Western Australia, Professor Peter Klinken AC, highlighting key challenges facing the Western Australian university sector in the following areas:

  • Global competition for talent, including students and staff

  • Maintaining the relevance of courses in the face of rapid industrial and societal change

  • Disruption to teaching models (on-campus vs online, on-the-job training and industry micro-credentialling)

  • Competition for funding, especially for research.[5]

Between 2011 and 2021, Western Australia had the smallest percentage growth in higher education enrolments in Australia (14.2%, compared with 31.3% across Australia). Western Australia also had the smallest percentage increase in domestic higher education enrolments of any State over this period (23.7% compared with 31.2% nationally).

The COVID-19 pandemic affected overseas student enrolments nationally in 2021, but across Australia, overseas higher education student numbers were still 31.5% higher in 2021 than they were in 2011. In contrast, in Western Australian higher education institutions, there were 8.4% fewer overseas students enrolled in 2021 than in 2011.

International students matter not only because they create revenue for universities through fees but also because they contribute to the workforce, build Australia’s international reputation and enhance the social fabric of our communities. The decline in international students contributed to exports generated by international education falling from an estimated $1.6 billion in 2020-21 to $1.2 billion in 2021‑22.[6]

The Western Australian university sector has also experienced a more significant decline in its share of Australian competitive research funding than any other Australian state or territory. Over the 20 years from 2001 to 2021, Western Australia’s university research income from national competitive grants rose from $54.3 million to $143.1 million, but this did not keep pace with the growth in other States, so the State’s share fell from 11.1% in 2001 to 6.9% in 2021.

Enhanced research income and output are also keys to improving the global ranking position of universities on many of the international university ranking systems. On the most recent Academic Ranking of World Universities, UWA was ranked 99th (7th in Australia), Curtin was ranked 201–300 (9th), Murdoch was 401 – 500 (24th) and ECU was 601 – 700 (28th). Table 1 shows the most recent global and Australian rankings of Australian universities from three of the main international university rankings agencies (Shanghai Ranking Academic Ranking of World Universities, Quaquarelli Symonds [QS] World University Rankings, and the Times Higher Education [THES] World University Rankings).

In addition to these overall ranking systems, there are other approaches that focus on particular sets of universities or particular aspects of university activity. For example, the Times Higher Education Young University ranking compares universities established in the last 50 years. Curtin is the most highly ranked of the Western Australian public universities on this measure, moving up the rankings from 81st in 2015 to 36th in 2022. Both ECU and Murdoch saw their relative performance drop during the same period, with ECU moving from 90th in 2015 to 94th in 2022, and Murdoch from 65th to 109th.

The Times Higher Education Impact rankings attempt to assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. UWA is the only Western Australian university included in the latest report (2022). It was ranked 401-600 globally and 25th of the 25 Australian universities in the report.
A table showing the rankings of all Australian universities and how the Western Australian Universities rank in comparison.

Table 1: Latest Australian university rankings

Australia's higher education funding system incentivises universities to operate at larger scale. While philanthropic giving to Australian universities has grown in recent years, Australia does not have the same culture of extensive donations and bequests that supports many of America's leading universities. The fees that can be charged to domestic undergraduates in Australia are capped, and Commonwealth Government subsidies are limited. Consequently, Australian universities must generate much of their funding for research, innovation and development from international and postgraduate student fees. They must search for efficiencies through economies of scale in their administration and operations. These factors, which form the basis for the economic model of all Australian public universities, tend to favour larger universities that can invest more in staff, research, equipment and facilities.[7]

The imperatives for structural change in the university sector have recently been examined in South Australia, resulting in a proposal for a voluntary merger of The University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia. The South Australian University Vision for the Future document notes that:

Combining the strengths of our institutions could, in our view, unlock benefits far beyond collaboration and scale, making transformational investments in both teaching and research more feasible than they would be for each institution individually. These investments, once realised, would make the combined university a stronger magnet for domestic and international students, as well as for creative and talented staff – creating a flywheel which would drive a step change compared to where our institutions are separately today.[8]

The Panel has been asked to consider and report on whether structural change could deliver improvements for the higher education sector, industry and the State. To inform this work, an extensive literature review and examination of the national and international experience of structural change have been undertaken.

The table below shows a continuum of potential structural alignment options drawn from the literature. Some of these options, already evident in the structural arrangements of universities in Australia and overseas, could be considered in relation to the Western Australian public university sector.
Table 2: Structural alignment options
  Structural option categories Definition Examples
Status quo No Change Maintain current universities in existing historical genres and organisational arrangements  
Cooperation Cooperation Informal collaboration between individuals, groups or whole institutions in areas of research and teaching and learning activity Brisbane Universities Language Alliance as an agreement for 3 universities to cooperate in offering languages to students without competing
Coordination Consortia Joint departments with shared back office, joint research centres/institutes and dual badging Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Graduate School and Cotutelle higher degree by research arrangements
Federation Independent institutions sharing governance, brand and back office functions State-based systems as they operate in California, Georgia and Texas
Merger Amalgamation as Western Australian University merger Forming a new entity between existing universities in the same geographical and regulatory context University of Manchester and current plans for South Australia
Amalgamation as Western Australian cross-sectoral merger Forming a new cross-sectoral tertiary institution by a merger of a university with a VET provider in the same geographical and regulatory context Merger of the Western Melbourne Institute of TAFE with Victoria University of Technology (now Victoria University)

Creation of Meadowbank Institute of Applied Technology – Digital
Amalgamation as external merger Forming a new entity as an existing institution merges with other existing institutions in different geographical contexts and jurisdictions  

As noted in Table 2, further examples of sectoral structural change are emerging nationally and internationally, including the new Institutes of Applied Technology in New South Wales. This form of tertiary institution was recommended in the NSW VET Review Report In the Same Sentence: Bringing Higher and Vocational Education Together. [9]  The NSW Government has created them through collaboration between NSW TAFE, universities in NSW and industry.

Examining the merits of any structural change requires an assessment using available data, information and insights. In particular, options should be assessed with a focus on their potential to improve:
  • the strategic positioning of the universities involved and the Western Australian higher education sector overall
  • student outcomes and experience, including of underrepresented groups
  • research performance and training
  • external engagement with industry, government, other education and training sectors and the Western Australian community
  • ranking performance
  • operational performance
  • State economic impact, current and future.
The Panel is also very conscious of the significant challenges associated with structural change in the university sector, as demonstrated in both the Australian and international experience. It will be clear-minded in identifying these challenges as it formulates its findings.

Q1. What types of structural options should be considered by the Panel and why?

Q2. Is there a structural option category, within the framework shown at Table 2 or additional to it, that is likely to deliver improved performance and sustainability of Western Australia's public university sector? What are the relative merits of it?

Q3. To what extent are Western Australian public universities engaged in activities that align with the various structural option categories described in Table 2? How effective is this engagement? 

Q4. What data sources should the Panel consider as it seeks to examine the relative merits of various structural options?

Meeting current and future knowledge and skills needs, increasing enrolments, providing equitable access, and enhancing the student experience. 

The world of work is changing rapidly. The Western Australian public university sector needs to be both of sufficient scale and capable of constant innovation in courses and delivery modes to keep pace with change and to meet the State's needs to build a skilled workforce for the future.

In 2021 the combined student total load for the 4 Western Australia public universities was 89,238 equivalent full-time students (EFTSL). In 2021 Curtin had a full year student load of 34,547 EFTSL, 1.7 times as large as the University of Western Australia (UWA), 1.8 times larger than Edith Cowan University (ECU) and 2.2 times the size of Murdoch. However, none of the Western Australia public universities is particularly large by Australian standards. In 2021, the Australian university average student load was 25,296 EFTSL. The average for the Group of Eight (Go8) universities was 41,801 EFTSL.
This figure shows the total equivalent full-time student load of all Australian universities.

Figure 1: Total equivalent full-time student load 2021

In total, the overseas student load for the 4 Western Australia public universities in 2021 was 22,888 EFTSL. Curtin had the largest overseas student load in Western Australia (9,090 EFTSL), which was higher than the Australian university average (7,069) and much higher than Murdoch (5,663), UWA (4,283), and ECU (3,852). The average for the Go8 universities was 16,554 EFTSL.
Figure showing the overseas student load at all Australian universities.

Figure 2: Overseas student load 2021

Across all Australian universities, overseas student load grew by 23.2% between 2011 and 2021. In the 4 Western Australian public universities it fell by 13.5%. As a result, their combined market share of Australian university overseas student load fell from 11.2% in 2011 to 7.9% in 2021.
The graph shows the WA Universities Overseas Student load from 2011 - 2021 decreasing over time.

Figure 3: Overseas students load time series


Figure 4: Share of overseas student load time series

The combined domestic student load for the 4 Western Australian public universities in 2021 was 66,350 EFTSL. Curtin’s domestic student load of 25,457 EFTSL was higher than the national average of 18,227 EFTSL while the other universities were lower (UWA 15,659, ECU 15,442 and Murdoch 9,792). The average for the Go8 universities was 25,248 EFTSL.
The graph shows the domestic student load in 2021 from all Australian universities.

Figure 5: Domestic student load 2021

Across all Australian universities, domestic student load grew by 24.3% between 2011 and 2021. In the 4 Western Australian public universities it rose by 16.0%. As a result, their combined market share of Australian university domestic student load fell from 9.5% in 2011 to 8.9% in 2021.
Graph showing domestic student load from 2011 to 2021.

Figure 6: Domestic student load time series

A graph showing the share of Australian university domestic load from 2011 - 2021.

Figure 7: Share of domestic load time series

The geographical and regional context of Western Australia presents challenges to both access and delivery of tertiary education. Regional students often face disincentives to study because of cost and distance to campuses, cultural and community needs and responsibilities.

All Western Australian public universities currently operate campuses outside Perth:
  • Albany (UWA)
  • Bunbury (ECU)
  • Kalgoorlie (Curtin)
  • Mandurah and Rockingham (Murdoch).
Opportunities may also exist for Western Australian public universities to increase access to education through the Regional Universities Centres (RUCs):
  • Great Southern Universities Centre, Albany
  • Geraldton Universities Centre, Geraldton
  • Pilbara Universities Centre, Karratha
  • Lumen Wheatbelt Regional University Centre (to be established in 2023)
  • Kimberley Universities Centre (to be established in 2023).
In the Mid-West region of Western Australia, the creation of the Geraldton Universities Centre (GUC) has allowed the delivery of supported online courses to local students with a face-to-face component, in collaboration with Central Queensland University (CQU).  

A similar approach for the Pilbara saw the Pilbara Universities Centre (PUC) created in 2019. PUC partners with CQU and the University of Tasmania to deliver degrees and diplomas.   

While Curtin University and others partner with the RUCs to varying extents, there may be opportunities to extend the breadth and depth of services to regional students and for Western Australian universities to meet some of the needs that interstate universities currently fill.

In 2021, regional and remote students represented a smaller proportion of domestic students at the 4 Western Australian public universities than for the Australian university sector as a whole (11.2% compared with 18.9% nationally). The proportions of low SES students (18.8%) and Indigenous students (1.7%) were closer to the national averages (16.9% and 2.1%).
Equity group students as a proportion of domestic students, 2021

Figure 8: Equity group students as a proportion of domestic students, 2021

A positive student experience is vital for student retention and therefore employment outcomes. In the latest student experience data included in the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT), undergraduates at ECU reported higher levels of satisfaction with their educational experience than their counterparts at Curtin, Murdoch and UWA. 82.6% of ECU undergraduates reported a positive overall experience, compared with 72.5% at Curtin, 70.7% at Murdoch and 71.0% at UWA. ECU undergraduates were similarly more positive about their skills development, teaching practices, and facilities and resources.

Undergraduates at all 4 universities also reported generally higher levels of satisfaction on these indicators than the Australian average. The only exceptions were the rating for positive overall experience at Murdoch (70.7%) which was marginally lower than the national average (70.9%) and the rating for skills development at UWA (75.5% compared with the national average of 78.7%).

Notably, employment rates for recent graduates are highest for Curtin, where they exceeded the national averages. All employment rates were lower than the national average at ECU, Murdoch and UWA (noting a high proportion of UWA graduates proceed to further full-time study).

Table 3: Latest QILT indicators (selected)

Q5. How could structural change in the Western Australian public university sector enhance domestic and overseas student enrolments?
Q6. What type of structural change could help improve student access to course offerings for equity group students?

Q7. What are the barriers to Western Australian public universities providing access to regional and remote students? How could structural change help overcome these barriers?

Q8. To what extent could structural change enhance the student experience?

The combined research income for the 4 Western Australian public universities was $425.0 million in 2021 which was lower than that for The University of Melbourne, The University of Sydney, Monash University, University of New South Wales and The University of Queensland.

In 2021, UWA recorded total research income of $242.5 million, accounting for 57.1% of the combined total research income for the 4 Western Australian public universities. The national average research income for all universities was $134.0 million and the average for the Go8 universities was $451.8 million.
The graph shows all Australian universities research income in 2021.

Figure 9: Research income

While the research income of each of the 4 Western Australian public universities increased over the decade 2011 - 2021, for UWA, Murdoch and ECU the rate of increase was less than for the Australian university system as a whole:
  • UWA’s share fell from 6.2% to 4.4% and its ranking declined from 7th to 8th
  • Murdoch’s share fell from 0.9% to 0.6% and its ranking declined from 24th to 27th
  • ECU’s share fell from 0.5% to 0.4% and its ranking declined from 29th to 31st
  • Curtin increased its share, from 2.0% to 2.3%, and its ranking, from 14th to 11th.
As a result of these changes, the combined research income share of the 4 Western Australian public universities fell from 9.5% to 7.7%.
Research income from 2011 to 2021.

Figure 10: Research income share time series

The decline in the State’s share of university research income is evident over a longer time period. Over the 20 years from 2001 to 2021, the combined share of national university research income attributed to the 4 Western Australian public universities declined from 10.5% to 7.7%.

Q9. How could structural change realise opportunities for Western Australian public universities to become more competitive in attracting research funds while enhancing the profile of world-class research in Western Australia?

Western Australia’s public universities must be positioned to attract and retain high-calibre staff in order to attract research funding and talented students. Total full-time equivalent staff (FTE) in 2021 (including estimated casual staff) was 3,582 at Curtin, 3,515 at UWA, 1,927 at ECU and 1,708 at Murdoch. Twelve Australian universities had larger staff numbers than Curtin. The combined total for the 4 Western Australian public universities was 10,732 FTE. The Australian university average was 3,146 FTE. The average for the Go8 universities was 6,678 FTE.

The graph shows the number of staff at all Australian universities.

Figure 11: Full-time equivalent staff

UWA's staffing profile is notably more research-intensive than other Western Australian public universities. In 2021, research-only staff (excl casuals) comprised 19.6% of total staff FTE at UWA (excl casuals) compared with 14.2% at Curtin, 8.9% at Murdoch and 6.8% at ECU. Combined research-only plus teaching and research staff comprise 42.6% of total FTE at UWA (excl casuals), 31.8% at Curtin, 29.3% at Murdoch and 28.5% at ECU. The Australian university average in 2021 was 39.2% and the Go8 average was 42.9%.

Correspondingly, the staffing profiles at Curtin, ECU and Murdoch are more teaching intensive than at UWA. For example, in 2021, the teaching-only staff comprised 9.1% of total staff FTE (excl casuals) at Curtin, 8.8% at ECU and 9.4% at Murdoch compared with 4.2% at UWA.

Total academic staff (research only, teaching and research, and teaching only) comprised 43.8% of all Australian university staff in 2021 (excl casuals). UWA had a higher than average proportion of academic staff (46.8%), while Curtin (40.9%), Murdoch (38.6%) and ECU (37.3%) were below the national average.

Research staff at UWA generate a higher level of research income per person than their colleagues at Curtin, ECU and Murdoch. The Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) income (all categories) per FTE of research only and teaching & research staff (excl casuals) in 2021 at UWA was $173,992 per FTE compared with $132,624 at Curtin, $86,929 at Murdoch and $49,345 at ECU. The Australian university average on this measure was $128,814 and the Go8 universities’ average was $186,300 per FTE.

Q10. How could structural change help position the Western Australian public university sector to attract and retain high-calibre staff?

Australian public university revenue is primarily generated by a combination of Commonwealth and State funding, domestic and international student fees and funded research. As previously noted, this funding system incentivises universities to operate at larger scale.

The 2021 operating margin for the 4 Western Australian public universities combined was 13.4%, a similar level to that achieved by the sector overall. All universities reported fair value losses on investments through their income statements in 2022. This has contributed to a deterioration in the reported operating margins in 2022. This was more significant for UWA which recorded fair value losses of $99.5m in 2022 compared to gains of $88m in 2021.

In addition the Western Australian university sector had reduced Commonwealth Government Financial Assistance in 2022 through operating grants and research block funding, the latter reflecting the removal of the additional research support funding that was provided to the whole sector in 2021.

Across the Western Australian public universities, international student fee revenue declined by around 1% in 2022. Murdoch had the largest decline of 4.8% compared with UWA -1.2%, Curtin -0.9% and ECU almost unchanged.
The graph shows the financial operating margin for WA universities through 2021 and 2022.

Table 4: Operating margin 2022 vs 2021

A comparison of financial performance over the last 10 years shows that on a number of key measures, Western Australian institutions have not kept pace with the sector.

Table 5 shows operating revenue in 2021 compared to 2011. Over the 10-year period to 2021, the sector experienced compound annual growth (CAGR) of 5% in total operating revenue. By comparison, the overall CAGR for the 4 Western Australian public universities was 3.1%. Western Australia’s share (represented by these 4 universities) of total sector operating revenue has declined from 9.5% in 2011 to 8% in 2021.
Operating revenue 2021 vs 2011 for all WA universities.

Table 5: Operating revenue 2021 vs 2011

Note: Although 2022 annual accounts for Universities in Western Australia have recently been tabled in the Parliament of Western Australia, this has not yet occurred in all other jurisdictions. As such, sector wide comparisons of 2022 financial performance cannot be made at this time. These comparisons have therefore been drawn from 2021 financial statements made available by the Australian Government Department of Education.

Revenue from international student fees grew from $383m in 2011 to $425m in 2021 across the 4 Western Australian public universities, an increase of 11% (CAGR 1%) compared to an increase of 195% (CAGR 11.4%) for the other Go8 universities and 106% (CAGR 7.5%) for the sector.

In particular, international fee revenue at Curtin in 2021 is 27% below 2011 levels. This revenue declined between 2012 and 2014, recovering to 2014 levels ($166m) in 2019 before the impact of the pandemic.

Except for Curtin University, growth in research earnings across Western Australian public universities has also lagged behind the sector. Curtin experienced the most significant growth relative to UWA, ECU and Murdoch, with research earnings of $125m in 2021 compared to $61m in 2011. Growth in research earnings at UWA is well below the rest of the Go8 overall.

Figure 12 shows the level of dependency on Commonwealth financial assistance over the period 2011 to 2021. Commonwealth financial assistance includes Commonwealth Grant Scheme and other grant funding including Research Support as well as HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP payments.

Curtin is more dependent on Commonwealth Government Funding which represented 61% of total revenue in 2021. This ratio was 46% in 2011, the lowest of the 4 Western Australian public universities. Murdoch’s ratio is 55% in 2021 compared to 51% in 2011.

UWA and ECU have both reduced dependency on Commonwealth Government funding over the period. UWA was at 49% in 2021 (56% in 2011) and ECU was 59% in 2021 (62% in 2011).

In comparison, the sector overall has reduced dependency to 52% in 2021 (56% in 2011). The other Go8 universities have more significantly reduced dependency on Commonwealth funding over the period – 43% in 2021 down from 55% in 2011.

The general uplift in the dependency ratio in 2020 reflects the impact of the pandemic.

Figure 12: Revenue dependency ratio 2011 - 2021

Q11. How could structural change help to strengthen the financial performance and sustainability of the Western Australian public university sector?

There are opportunities for the Western Australian public universities, in collaboration with industry, to play a stronger role in creating and sustaining partnerships between higher education, vocational education and industry, not just in Perth but in regional centres across the State. RUCs play a key role in this, providing students in regional and remote areas access to tertiary education without having to leave their community, and physical spaces and resources to support online learning.

There is an emerging need and opportunity to develop new partnerships, courses and lines of inquiry through research to support emerging industry developments and skills requirements. Increasing accessibility of pathways between VET, higher education and industry is likely to be a key component in ensuring successful learning and employment outcomes for students.

Successful dual-sector institutions exist but are the exception, not the norm. The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) is an example. In addition to undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, students can access VET courses at Certificate, Diploma and Advanced Diploma levels.

Another example is the Defence Industry Internship and Graduate Scholarship Program, which aims to stimulate the update of interns, graduates and trainees by defence industry firms. The program will facilitate placements between employers, universities and VET providers and provide support services to all parties. Elements of the program include an 8 to 12 week 'taster’ work-integrated learning scholarship placement, a 12-to-26-week scholarship program, and a one-year graduate program.

Similarly, the partnership between North Metropolitan TAFE (NMT) and ECU in cyber security pathways allows students to complete a Certificate IV in Cyber Security and an Advanced Diploma of Cyber Security at NMT and receive 18 months of recognition of prior learning with ECU, where they can gain a Bachelor of Science. This allows students to complete 3 qualifications in 3.5 years rather than 5 years.

The key question is whether these positive initiatives could be enhanced through a more systematic approach based on co-design with industry. Dual-sector universities, which have both higher education and VET sector components being taught alongside each other, are a feature of tertiary education in other states and territories. They are an example of a structural option designed to operate across the sectors but as part of an integrated institution (see Table 2). In NSW, institutes of advanced technology are now being piloted to integrate higher education and VET and offer progressive credentials. In many other jurisdictions, TAFEs provide a range of degree courses.

Strong and mutually beneficial relationships between schools and higher education institutions are also critical to the State’s future. Clear alignment and articulation between the school curriculum and higher education, increased school completion and higher education participation rates will all help improve student outcomes and sustain a fit-for-purpose and skilled workforce for the State.

With fewer students attaining an ATAR, greater competition exists for students across all sectors. In response, universities have partnered with schools to deliver university preparation courses across Year 11 and/or 12. Students who complete a university preparation course and meet English ATAR requirements (or equivalent) can gain direct entry into select degree courses. Some view this as having created an environment of unhealthy competition between the sectors.

Working with business, industry, community and policymakers, universities play a crucial role in leading and responding to innovation and developments at home and abroad, driving economic and social benefit for the State. Research and the application of insights and innovations, the products and services drawn from it, are also critical to Western Australia’s future.  

One source of data on research and development activity between universities and industry is the reported source of expenditure for university research and development (R&D). In 2020 (the most recent year for which data are available), the 4 Western Australian public universities reported that $60.5 million or 5.9% of their R&D expenditure was sourced from business enterprises. This is a somewhat higher proportion than the average for all Australian universities 4.8%. The proportions for the individual universities were Curtin 6.5%, UWA 6.1%, ECU 4.9% and Murdoch 3.9%.

In 2020, UWA sourced $32.4m of R&D expenditure from business, which was 5.4% of the national total for all universities. The corresponding figures for the other Western Australian public universities were: Curtin $19.6m, share 3.3%; ECU $4.4m, share 0.7%; and Murdoch $4.1m, share 0.7%. The combined total for the 4 universities ($60.5m) was 10% of the national total.

The combined share of 10% in 2020 was higher than in 2010 (7.9%) but slightly lower than in 2000 (10.3%). Murdoch was the only one of the 4 universities that did not increase its R&D expenditure sourced from business over these periods.

A broadly similar picture emerges from the data on Category 3 research income (which covers industry and philanthropic funding for university research). The combined share of funding from these sources for the 4 Western Australian public universities was 9.4% in 2021, lower than in 2011 (10%) but higher than in 2001 (8.7%). All 4 universities increased their Category 3 research income over these periods, but Murdoch’s share of the national total reduced.

Q12. What are some current examples of large scale, long-term collaboration that demonstrate successful partnerships between public universities and other sectors (e.g. business, industry, VET or school)?

Q13. How could structural change strengthen Western Australian public universities’ relationship with business, industry and VET providers to underpin a more cohesive tertiary sector?

Q14. How well are Western Australian public universities working with business and industry to meet the State’s future labour market skill and knowledge requirements?


This discussion paper outlines the imperatives for change in the Western Australian public university sector, to deliver improvements for the sector itself, industry and the State, and provides a framework to inform the Review. A key aim of the discussion paper is to ensure that stakeholders have an opportunity to inform the discussion and the outcomes of this Review.

A stronger higher education sector is crucial for the health and wellbeing of Western Australia's people and communities. It will help to ensure a pipeline of skilled workers for existing and emerging industries, and support innovation and development of a complex, knowledge-based economy in the State. These needs will only grow over time.

Q15. What are your overall thoughts on the options for structural change that would provide the best outcomes for:
(a) the Western Australian university sector (for students and staff, research, financial sustainability and rankings)? 
(b) Western Australia (skills and knowledge needs, economic growth and workforce planning)?

Q16. Are there any other matters of which the Panel should be aware as part of its Review?

All invited responses will be reviewed and considered by the Panel. This will inform another round of stakeholder consultation and the final report, which will be provided to the Western Australian Government for consideration. It is intended that the Review will be completed within 6 months of the Panel’s commencement.

See the full Terms of Reference


Find more information about the members of the panel

Unless otherwise stated, data in this discussion paper are drawn or derived from the following sources:

[1] Public universities are part of the broader government sector, but not governed by the Public Sector Management Act 1994. They are government entities bound by some of the same rules as the public sector including equal employment, misconduct and dealing with disclosures of wrongdoing.

[2] Curtin university has campuses in Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius and Dubai. ECU has a campus in Sri Lanka and Murdoch University has campuses in Singapore and Dubai.

[3] ACIL Allen, “Economic Contribution of International Students to Western Australia,” Report Commissioned by StudyPerth, June 2021, 16.

[4]Retrieved from WA-Web.pdf and

[5] Hiatt, B. (2023, February 28). Experts warn failure to consider merging all four WA universities could leave institutions out in the cold. The West Australian. Retrieved April 26, 2023, from

[6] Government of Western Australia, “Western Australia’s Economy and International Trade,” March 10, 2023,

[7] G. Davis “Why are Australian universities so large?” Chapter 3 in J. Horne and M.A.M. Thomas (eds) 2022 Australian Universities: A Conversation about the Public Good, Sydney University Press


[9] In the Same Sentence: Bringing Higher and Vocational Education Together Retrieved from: