Students at Australia’s major universities, including the University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales (UNSW), and the University of Melbourne, are among the least satisfied in the country, according to a recently released major survey of teaching quality.
According to the federal government-commissioned survey, student satisfaction has rebounded across Australia with regional and specialist institutions excelling while many of its most renowned universities languish at the bottom.
Regional, specialist institutions and the ANU excel
|Institution||Quality of entire education experience||2022 Rank|
|University of Divinity||91||1|
|University of New England||80.7||5|
|Swinburne University of Technology||80.2||7|
|Australian National University||80.1||8|
|University of the Sunshine Coast||79.5||9|
|University of Queensland||79.1||11|
|University of Wollongong||78.2||12|
|Central Queensland University||78||13|
|University of Western Australia||77.8||14|
|University of Adelaide||77.6||15|
|University of South Australia||76.8||16|
|James Cook University||76.7||17|
|Edith Cowan University||76.7||17|
|Australian Catholic University||76.3||19|
|Western Sydney University||76.1||20|
|University of Newcastle||76.1||20|
|University of Tasmania||75.8||22|
|University of Southern Queensland||75.3||24|
|University of Technology Sydney||75.2||26|
|Charles Sturt University||74.8||30|
|University of Canberra||74.5||31|
|Queensland University of Technology||74.3||32|
|University of Notre Dame Australia||74.1||34|
|Federation University Australia||73.8||35|
|La Trobe University||73.2||36|
|University of Melbourne||71.8||38|
|University of New South Wales||69.9||39|
|University of Sydney||68.8||40|
|Charles Darwin University||67.9||41|
|Southern Cross University||67.1||42|
Data courtesy of the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) Student Experience Survey 2022.
Cinching this year’s top spot is the specialist University of Divinity which scored 91%, returning Divinity back to its previous position in 2020. The University of Divinity is a specialist institution specialising in theology with just under 1,500 students.
“These results are attributable to the quality of teaching provided by our dedicated staff, our commitment to small class sizes in which every student is known by name, and the effectiveness of our engagement with church and agency partners,” said Divinity Vice-Chancellor Peter Sherlock.
Coming close to Divinity’s lead was the Seventh-Day Adventist Avondale University at a laudable 88.3% and Bond University at 86.1% with the latter having been in the nation’s top three for the past six years.
The Australian National University (ANU) has made dramatic improvements from last year’s survey, leapfrogging from 27th to 8th. The University of Queensland’s ranking also made a large improvement, jumping from 33th in 2020 to 11th in 2022, placing the ANU and UQ top among the Group of Eight.
Meanwhile, the University of Sydney languished at the bottom end of the survey at 68.8%, being one of few universities where student satisfaction fell backwards from 2021.
USyd is the worst ranked University among the Group of Eight institutions.
The results mean that the University has stayed in the bottom five universities since 2017 and second-worst since 2019 when it last placed 40th.
Similarly, international students at USyd were the most dissatisfied out of all Australian universities, with just 62.2% of students giving the University a positive rating, far below the national average of 73.5%.
In response to the results, a USyd spokesperson told Honi that 2022 was a “challenging year” where the University struggled to balance its hybrid learning offerings. The University points to “improvements” in internal Unit of Study (USS) survey results.
“The student voice and their experience are front and centre of our strategy to deliver transformational education. We will continue to work with staff and students to listen further and inform our efforts.”
Group of Eight universities lag behind
The University of Sydney is not alone in being in an unenviable position, with other Group of Eight heavyweights like UNSW, Melbourne University and Monash featuring in the bottom six.
This marks a years-long pattern where the four institutions have remained at the lowest end of the survey. Much like USyd, UNSW has not emerged above the worst five for student satisfaction since 2017.
Despite this, all four regularly rank in the world’s top 50 universities in popular online rankings like UK-based Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) or Times Higher Education (THE), primarily due to no weighting being accorded to student satisfaction in these rankings. In fact, in this year’s edition, where Sydney, Melbourne and UNSW all entered the world’s top 20, QS changed its methodology to put “less weight” on student-to-staff ratio and academic reputation.
The four universities are also among the largest tertiary institutions in the country. This echoes what the Australian Financial Review’s Julie Hare saw as the rise of “mega” universities where education has become largely “transactional” rather than focused on learning and enrichment.
Australia’s universities are noted for having significantly higher enrolments on average compared to their counterparts in the United Kingdom or the United States. Monash has more than 72,000 students in Australia (more than 85,000 including Monash’s transnational campuses), with USyd sitting at more than 69,000 and UNSW being above 63,000.
More than half of all domestic students surveyed (53.5%) said that they did not feel a sense of belonging to their institution, suggesting a pervasive sense of disconnection on campuses.
This is in stark contrast with medium-sized and smaller universities around the country where students are consistently more satisfied. Armidale’s University of New England (UNE) and the ANU are both highly residential where there is a higher proportion of students hailing from interstate and frequently reside in university-owned accommodation, forging a stronger sense of community belongingness compared to major names in Sydney or Melbourne.
High student-and-staff ratio and work burnout
Staff at Go8 universities, including Sydney, lays the blame at high student-to-staff ratios at the institutions, which is leading to steep rises in teaching and administrative burdens on academics and casual tutors.
In 2022, USyd’s student-and-staff ratio enjoyed a small improvement from 21 to 19 students per teaching staff, however, this figure still places Sydney in the bottom sixth of British universities. The same goes for Australia’s most research-intensive universities where the average student-to-staff ratio exceeds 22.5 students per academic staff – drastically higher than the British average where the equivalent is 16 students per staff.
In USyd Students’ Representative Council President Lia Perkins’ view, Australia’s major universities have been placing immense strains and dampening morale among teaching staff, citing endemic wage theft as an example. In 2023 alone, Melbourne University faces legal action from the Fair Work Commission (FWC) over “serious contraventions” in underpaying casual staff, while Monash University’s attempt to revise its enterprise agreement was rejected by the FWC.
“It’s alarming yet unsurprising that the University of Sydney ranks low on student satisfaction surveys. Students constantly feel like we are not a priority for the university,” said Perkins.
“Some of the ways our learning conditions can be improved are by ending wage theft, secure staff for university staff and accessible learning environments. The university needs to focus on the problems stated by students and expand education to be more accessible to diverse student cohorts.”
The Albanese government’s Universities Accord released its interim report on Wednesday and is the first major review of Australia’s tertiary education system in fifteen years. The final report is expected to deliver wide-ranging recommendations on reforming universities and improving access to higher education for underrepresented communities.
The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) was contacted for comment.