Dean Forbes



Institutional Performance in Higher Education:

Defining Indicators for Success and Quality

Melbourne, 15-16th May 2012

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International & Communities)

Flinders University

Good afternoon. Time is at a premium, so I will address three primary questions.

First, how important are quality and standards to prospective international students?

Second, what shapes prospective students perceptions of quality? 

Third, how can we leverage the new holistic quality and standards framework in the international student marketplace?

The last question may seem excessively commercial, but so be it. Australia is an outpost of international education, and we need to be strategic in the way we communicate with our international audiences.


Anyone familiar with recent international surveys will know that quality is an important factor in decisions to study in Australia.  I can cite two (of many) substantial surveys that support this.

The International Student Survey 2010 interviewed 36,000 higher education (HE) students and 5,500 vocational education and training (VET) students. Three of the top four factors in choosing to come to Australia were quality related: some 94% of those interviewed cited the quality of teaching; 93% the reputation of the qualification; and 91% the reputation of the institution.

I also looked at the findings of a brand health study done for Education Adelaide. Its survey of 3,000 current and prospective students across the globe found that the quality of education was the main factor influencing student choice, while the international recognition of the qualification was ranked third. 

The findings from both these surveys are not controversial.  The credibility and reputation of the education and the qualification is a key factor in decisions about whether students will study in Australia.

But what about students who did not come to Australia? It puts a different slant on the perception of the quality of Australian higher education.

The Institute of International Education in New York last year published the results of a global survey of nearly 10,000 prospective higher education students (Chow 2011). Its findings are disturbing. 

Over 75% of students interviewed thought the US provided quality higher education. The UK followed with 49.9%. Next came Canada (33.2%), Germany (30.7%), France (23.2%), and then Australia.

Just over 19% of the prospective students thought Australia had a high quality higher education system.  That is one in five prospective students across the globe.

It must improve if we are to remain competitive.


Ranking agencies present international university league tables as an independent, authoritative, measure of university performance. A drip-feed model is increasingly common, with agencies releasing new slices of data throughout the year in order to maximise their exposure and influence. It makes good commercial sense.

The commercial benefits to rating agencies are frequently spoken about in private, but less often in public fora. A recent exception was a perceptive querying of the THE’s reputation rankings by Kris Olds in the 15th of March edition of Inside Higher Ed.

The press takes a great interest in global university rankings. It helps fill columns of newsprint and generally evokes a response of some kind. So too do governments, including those looking for places to send scholarship students.

Universities often prefer to publically highlight any positives and incorporate less positive results into internal strategic discussions. Increasingly, I think, they are noticed and we find them fascinating, but they are largely ignored.

How influential are the university rankings for prospective students?

The answer, based on the national data from the International Student Barometer Entry Wave (n= 8,296), is quite revealing (Varghese and Brett 2011).

About 5% of Australia’s international students said league tables helped in choosing the institution in which to study (p 12). When asked how important, the same group ranked them as the 17th most important factor (p 14).

There is quite a contrast between this finding for international students in Australia and the global ISB sample. Globally, just over 13% said league tables were helpful, and they were ranked 8th in level of importance. In other words, league tables were less significant for international students in Australia than international students globally, but they were not especially significant for either group.

So, if published league tables aren’t particularly important, how do we account for this perception of quality?

I may be wrong, but I don’t think we know with certainty what it is that shapes students perceptions of quality.

It is likely to be a product of the students’ experience in Australia and student outcomes. That is, the jobs and careers that are spoken about by alumni and passed on to future students. Without exception, the vibes have been extremely positive at every alumni event I have attended throughout the world. But this is inevitably a self-selecting slice of the total alumni body.

I believe our contribution to global scholarship and research has also played a part. High profile Nobel and Fields Medal Prizes have helped draw attention to our niche.

And finally we do benefit from the relatively homogenous attributes of the public (and private) Australian universities, the generally centralised regulation of the sector, and the previous existence of an explicit and respected, if light touch, national quality assurance framework.


The challenge is to improve global perceptions of the quality of Australian universities, and close the gap in prospective international students minds between Australia and the higher education delivered in Canada, Germany, France, the UK and, yes, the USA. Our first target should be to double (from 19%) the proportion of prospective higher education students who believe that Australia has a quality higher education system.

That means we need to think about how Australia’s higher education brand can project a powerful, authentic and defensible message about the quality of Australian education. The increased transparency and rigour of the quality framework must be brought to the forefront.

‘Future Unlimited’ is the international education tagline of Austrade’s ‘Australia Unlimited’ brand message. It enhances the ability of prospective students to imagine and achieve their future goals, whatever they may be.

The quality message is delivered by proxy; via achieving aspirations. It tunes into the student psyche. Don’t bother us with the regulatory and bureaucratic framework, inspire us to achieve the future we dream about (as I finished this sentence I realised I had effectively connected to Flinders own tagline launched in 2007 – ‘inspiring achievement’).

A subsidiary set of initiatives is required to build a structured understanding of our standards and quality framework targeted at the broader international community and, also importantly, for internal consumption within Australia. There are three key elements.

First, the Australian quality framework needs a crisper identity; a sub-brand, if you like. A few years back this was spoken about as the equivalent of the Woolmark.

Singapore has one. It is the EduTrust certification, the logo displayed by registered private education providers.

What for Australia?. ‘TEQSA: Quality is Us’ (borrowing from the PM’s ‘We are Us’ concept).  Or: ‘Trust Me: I’m Australian’. ‘Global Standards’. I welcome suggestions (it should be obvious why I didn’t take on a career in advertising).

Second, it is up to all the higher education providers, including the universities, to tell a better, more honest story about Australian higher education internationally. It should reference quality, in all its manifestations and acknowledge the positive aspects of regulation. It should also be hyperbole-free and told with candour. This has not been our strength, to date.

Third, we must step up our regional and international dialogue about quality and standards in higher education. What ever became of the Brisbane Communique? Signed in 2006, it initiated a dialogue around higher education frameworks and QA in the Asian Pacific region. I could not find it on the DIISTRTE (formerly known as DEEWR) website; is it off the radar?

Staff of the now defunct AUQA was deeply engaged in international QA matters through both the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education, and regionally through the Asia Pacific Quality Network. TEQSA needs now to take on the responsibility of explaining the quality system, and crucially the connection between regulation and quality, in the places where it is important to do so.


AUQA  Australian Universities Quality Agency

DEEWR  Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations

DFAT  Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

DIISTRTE  Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education

TEQSA  Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority


AEI (Australian Education International) 2010 International Student Survey 2010. Overview Report, Canberra

AEI (Australian Education International) 2008 2007 Follow-up International Student Survey – Higher Education, Canberra

Bradley Report (Australian Government) 2009 Review of Higher Education, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Chow, Patricia 2011 What International Students Think About US Higher Education: Attitudes and Perceptions of Prospective Students in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, Institute of International Education, New York

DEEWR (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations) 2008 Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications Across the Brisbane Communique Region, Scoping Study and Report commissioned by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, April 2008.

Evans, Senator the Hon Chris, 2010 The Future of Australian International Education, University of Canberra.

Forbes, Dean 2011 ‘The Australian Qualifications Framework: Providing (Extra) Certainty for Mobile Students’, The Australian Qualifications Framework Making a Difference: A Symposium and AQF Launch, Melbourne 23 June 2011

Olds, Kris 2012 ‘Why now? Making markets via the THE World Reputation Rankings’, Inside Higher Ed, 15 March 2012.

Varghese, Mary and Kevin Brett 2011 International Student Barometer Project 2010. National Report, AEI/DEEWR, Canberra

Walters, Colin 2011 ‘International students – returning their investment. Australia’s reform program for international education’ Going Global Conference, Hong Kong, 11 March 2011, updated 13 April 2011.