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In the media: Australian University Sector – At the Policy and Political Mercy of ‘Fake Data’

EduData Summit 
Boston, United States 
Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive – Key Note Address – 18 June 2018

Australian University Sector – At the Policy and Political Mercy of ‘Fake Data’

Thankyou…and thankyou for inviting me to speak

An Australian presence at Edudata conferences has become a given.

It is one which the Go8 appreciates, and it is, to me, an important, worthwhile, and always stimulating forum to be part of.

We have a strong relationship with QS, and our main contact, the indefatigable Jason Newman. I know I can say that that all Australian universities have a reliance on the data that QS provides.

Last year, at the Edudata conference in London, I spoke about the extreme reliance Australia’s 40 universities have on global rankings; As Chief Executive of the Go8, the group of Universities in Australia which has seven of its eight members ranked in the world’s top 100 universities, I can say here today that we absolutely value that status, those rankings.

We are as equally reliant on robust and reliable data; and I doubt there would be anyone in this audience who isn’t, so I know I am preaching to the converted, which is always a pleasure.

The conference material made the point that the conference is about making data work for you to get the best returns on business.

Absolutely.  That is exactly the value of data. To me there is much more to it of course, and each person here today will use and rely on data, for differing reasons.

From my perspective it is an invaluable tool.

Certainly the data which we pursue ourselves, and from organisations like QS, gives me the confidence to know I am on firm ground when I am advocating strongly for or against proposed policy, and importantly for the right policy settings for funding.

Data gives me the confidence in International markets to pursue research alliances and meet with senior bureaucrats to further new agreement negotiations, and to renew existing ones.

You have to know your “stuff” and it has to be right.

I don’t have any margin for error.

The Go8, for those of you who are not across Australian university groupings, is comprised of Australia’s leading research universities, with  – as I mentioned  – seven of its eight members ranked in the world’s top 100 universities.

The Australian Government’s international benchmarking exercise confirms that more than 99 per cent of the research we conduct is world class or above.

Data also shows that we are home to one in three international higher education students who choose to study onshore in Australia.

Importantly, data shows, in a breakdown of those figures, that we are home to some 60 per cent of the Chinese students who choose Australia as a higher education study destination.

Data shows one of the reasons they choose a Go8 university, is the quality of the education and research future that we can offer them.

The data therefore shows that Go8 members contributed significantly to the $30 billion earned in 2017 from Australia’s third largest export sector.[1]

Australia’s reliance on the international student market is high, and you would know there is some debate that it is too high.

The Go8 does not accept that premise; but it does agree with the data that shows Australian universities have enthusiastically embraced the international market to make up for a continued decrease – for over the past decade – in Government funding.

Although I do hasten to add, that Australian universities opened their doors to international students decades before there were funding issues.

Australia has always welcomed the cultural diversity and the global research alliances made possible from the base of opening up our universities to international undergraduate students.

In fact, the importance of having diversity in the staff and student body is reflected in the very methodology of the QS ranking system.[2]

Returning to university funding, data shows that there is not a single Go8 university which is majority funded by the taxpayer.

Even across the sector, the average level of government funding of supposedly “public” universities is only around 41 per cent [3]

As one example, Australia’s leading university, the University of Melbourne,  gets only around 35 per cent of its annual revenue from Government funds.

This does mean the current geopolitical situation we face in Australia, is an economic risk for not only the university sector, but the nation, given China currently comprises 32 per cent of Australia’s international student market. [4]

New data just received by the Go8 from London Economics indicates that every three of our international students generate $1 million for the Australian economy –  that’s creating jobs and boosting small business.

So it’s a bit of a mystery to us as to why the Australian government, unlike governments elsewhere, tend to see their universities as a cost, rather than the investment that they are.

This is odd, given the available data showing that, to the contrary, universities in general – and Go8 universities in particular – should be seen as powerhouses underpinning many aspects of the Australian economy and prosperity. For example:[5]

  • The Go8 are major employers, directly supporting 50,000 jobs and employing 40% of the sector’s academic and professional staff;
  • In 2016 alone, the Go8 universities earned over $13 billion, and made export earnings of over $3 billion;
  • We graduate more than 55% of Australia’s science graduates, 40% of engineering graduates, and educate more than half of our nation’s medical, dental and veterinary students, supplying Australia with a steady stream of educated professionals.

Perhaps we have not yet articulated these facts as best we could to the decision makers, and perhaps it is time to put our hand on our heart and admit we could do better at communicating our successes.

Because, the fact remains that Go8 members – how they go about their business, and their research ROI, shows they should be seen from available data as a valued investment by the Australian Government, not a cost.

Before I unpick that statement later in my speech, it is worth saying for those of you interested in how China’s irritation with the Australian Government is playing out for the university sector – that regardless of the geopolitics…………..

…………… the Go8 encounters no trouble gaining visas to visit China, is much welcomed, and we in turn very much value our well-established relationships with China’s C9 Universities, its Ministry of Education and the China Scholarship Council.

With five of our VCs, I have recently returned from a very productive 10 days there, during which the data we had and could speak to, was at the core of every meeting.

It is vital data which gives the Go8 an evidence-based foundation. And that is critical to who we are, and how we are perceived in China, and of course also at home, and in all other markets where we have a presence.

If all of the above feels as if I reached the podium, and then immediately launched a barrage of data and rankings information at you, you are not wrong.

It’s certainly not my usual way of easing into a speech subject matter, but I did want to immediately paint a vivid picture for you of why both data and rankings are so critical and interlinked for Australia’s universities, with funding and international relations to the fore.

You will have probably worked out by now that data and rankings are subjects I am, shall I say, quite passionate about.

That is why I was so pleased to be invited here to speak to you on data from a Go8 perspective.

And why I would like to reference one of the best quotes I know about data.

It comes from Daniel Keys Moran who said “you can have data without information but you cannot have information without data”.

In that one sentence we have encapsulated precisely why we are so reliant on data.

Put simply, without data we do not have the information we need.

We can assert anything we want to but without the data to back it in it means nothing.

It is worthless.

One of the most worrying trends apparent in the world today, and one that is troubling a number of data-driven practitioners around the world, was expressed comprehensively during a meeting of the Global Research Intensive Universities the Go8 hosted  in Brisbane last year.

It is an acceptance of turning away from solid, data-supported evidence to instead embrace opinion or feeling.

Witness the resurgence of beliefs in completely contestable phenomena such as those known as ‘Flat-earthers’ and ‘anti-vaxxers’.[6]

Note my use of the word “belief”, because this is what we, as evidence-based institutions, are up against.

There is a resurgence of a world in which evidence-based, observable facts increasingly have to defend themselves against ‘fake news’ or ‘alt-facts’, as though the two are somehow equivalent, and carry equal weight.

In Australia we had one powerful example of this when a then Senator Malcolm Roberts and a prominent scientist Professor Brian Cox were invited to appear on a national television   program, Q&A, in 2016.

I could describe what happened, but I would rather you witnessed it for yourself.

[clip:   https://youtu.be/sG8gLt4GChg]

To those of us who revere data, who live by the ethos of everything must be evidence based this is appalling, yet it surrounds us.

That is what we are up against as we continue to demand data be respected, not trashed.

Meanwhile in Australia we also fight on two other fronts – for data used in our sector to be current and not misused, abused.

Let me start with current.

Without current data we do not have the information we need.

Imagine, for example, basing your funding decisions for 2018 on the cost of goods and services from past decades.

Take house prices. In 2003 the median house price in Sydney was around A$454,250,[7] whereas by 2017 it sat at close to two and a half times that, at A$1.1 million.[8] Can you imagine what would happen if a real estate agent tried to estimate market value on a property using figures that were 15 years old?

Does anyone disagree with how essential it is that data be current?

Data that is not current, yet is being relied on, is dangerous for anyone, and especially any Government framing policy, making Budgetary decisions, making public statements of supposed fact.

Often, too often in fact, in Australia that is unfortunately, exactly what happens; and we seem powerless to rectify the situation.

Much Government data on universities, their students, their research, and their level of resourcing is relied upon by Government in their decision-making processes.

But that data is, to be polite, stale.

And too often, by not having current data available, we are ignoring another quote that I believe beautifully encapsulates why Australian Governments make trouble for themselves; and the university sector.

This quote form Management consultant Geoffrey Moore – states that “Without data you are blind and deaf in the middle of a freeway”.

Which is why perhaps the Go8 can feel that it has been run over by a poorly constructed, penalising, policy road-train driven by Government.

As it relates to policy and Budgetary decisions affecting universities, Australian Government departments are making decisions today using data that is many years out of date.

In 2018, these decisions are based on data that represents life as it was many years prior.

At the rate the world turns in the 21st Century there are great dangers in that.

Data must be more timely.

Seriously, why can’t we turn data around in Australia?

Contrast that with the private sector, where stock market prices can almost be accessed live.

It’s not good enough.

In essence we lack real-time data as it relates to student numbers, student needs, research ROI etc.

We cannot, and Government most certainly cannot, measure output accurately when we do not have access to the current evidence.

Our second “beef” as it relates to how critical it is that decisions are made using accurate and current data is the blatant misuse of data.. a phrase which is really me using a euphemism for the unethical use of data.

It may well be, that others in the room today also suffer from the same level of political shoehorning of data so it fits into what a Government has decided will be the facts it needs to back in a policy.

This is a form of data retrofit.

It’s where Government decides on the policy it wants to implement. It then scopes the data construct; and then it hires a consulting firm to deliver that data within a tight and unworthy parameter-set;

….meaning Government knows it will give it the necessary “supposed” evidence base – one which is in fact most definitely not reality.

It is effectively fake data, and frankly, in this current climate where everything is dissected on social media, where search engines lay everything bare, making everyone more accountable, it’s playing with fire.

It’s a reprehensible act for what it does to the credibility of data.

One of the most recent examples in Australia, and one which has had ramifications for universities, has involved the Government’s use of a report it commissioned from Deloitte Access Economics into the Cost of Delivery of Higher Education.

Ostensibly created to help “inform the Government on decisions regarding the appropriate level of funding for higher education institutions”,[9] the report was instead used to score political points against the sector in a manner contrary to the explicit recommendations of Deloitte itself.

But, in the interests of good data sharing practices, I’m going to let you make up your own minds.

Consider these two statements:

First, a statement from the Department of Education and Training:

Average funding per domestic student for universities increased by 15 per cent between 2010 and 2015, while over the same period the cost for universities to deliver courses increased by only 9.5 per cent, according to independent analysis from Deloitte”. [10]

And now, from the Deloitte Access report itself:

“[the] figures cannot be compared as direct growth or decline in costs relative to funding over the five years to 2015, given the differences in the sample, and differences in cost collection approaches” .

So what do you think?

Did our Government extoll what was basically fake data….?

Certainly, it gave an erroneous picture of Universities swimming in cash from profits they supposedly made from teaching – exactly what the Government set out to achieve, and which is of course wrong.

The fake data was delivered through a parameter-set that excluded research costs from teaching.

This was quite deliberate.

And it is the data sleight of hand we are sadly becoming used to from politicians.

Of course, the Go8 universities, and Australian higher education institutions in general, are brimming over with data-driven practitioners, able to challenge practices like these wherever and whenever we see them.

And challenge them we do. Australians have been called many things by the international community over the years, but “shrinking violet” is rarely one of them.

The truth is that the data continue to show Australian higher education holding its own in an international context, even in the face of these types of issues back home.

Go8 researchers have made a number of ground-breaking developments such as Gardasil, a vaccine for cervical cancer now given to teenagers around the world; and exciting advances in emerging fields such as quantum computing.

In education, we have managed to maintain our quality, as reflected in international ranking metrics, while increasing domestic numbers substantially since the opening up of the system in 2012.

We continue to develop our international partnerships, through agreements such as the one forged last year between Go8 universities and the UK based IP Group PLC, which will see at least $200 million invested in commercialisation of Australian research.

It’s just that our government isn’t exactly lining up to support us.

However, the point is to be aware that data, like any tool, can be good for all kinds of purposes, and the current trend towards devaluing of evidence can lead to temptations for those in the know.

Such as using data in a way that – while technically correct – doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Take, for example, the number of universities that use their results in ranking systems to claim to be in the “top one per cent of universities worldwide”.

Just as the University of Reading did, before it found itself having a conversation with the Advertising Standards Authority. In the words of Charles Heymann, head of corporate communications:

There had been no intention to materially mislead anyone. In good faith, Reading and scores of universities globally based this and similar claims on the accepted rule of thumb there are around 20,000 institutions internationally.

But… we accepted ASA’s view… that the university could not repeat it in its marketing as QS does not formally assess and rank every single university worldwide.[12]

And even I can’t claim to be immune.

I stand here today, in the interests of fairness, prepared to give you an example of where I staked a claim to data and created an erroneous picture and importantly did so without without any fabrication.

Unfortunately for me, this successful image I created has been difficult to get rid of and follows me still.

You would probably say that serves me right.

But it does illustrate what can be done with accurate data if your statements go unchallenged.

This is how it happened:

Before taking up my present role at the Go8 in 2015, I held a similar position at the ATN.

I set up the directorate and was executive director for more than decade of Australia’s technology network of universities. The young universities, the aspirants –  the market challengers.

In that position I was charged with being bold and marking our territory so to speak.

One of the claims we made in publications and in speeches and when wooing politicians was that the ATN educated some 26 per cent of Australia’s engineers.

Which we asserted, correctly and with much chutzpah.

We had the data. It was an authentic claim. It was accurate territory to mark.

Other such accurate claims were made for different professions and, importantly, for the level of joint research and income involving industry.

But like the 26 per cent of engineers there was one vital piece missing that would have completed the jigsaw… if we did 26 per cent who did most of the remainder?

No one put their hands up to say ‘hang on!’ and so the perception that our 26 per cent must be the highest percentage in the sector – which we never claimed – went unchallenged.

The fact was that the Go8 educated, and today continues to educate, more than 40 per cent of Australia’s engineers and is market leader but it was simply presumed that the ATN must be.

Which was all very well at the time, and in fact it was a great help in securing government finding for  programs in the area  – , but some years on I am still countering my own previous territory-marking made from totally accurate data-based claims.

If I had a dollar for every time someone still says to me as it relates to engineers… but of course the ATN educates blah blah blah of engineers or the ATN is the university group most involved with industry……………..

But fortunately, the Go8 has the weight of data on our side.

However, as we saw earlier in the exchange between scientist Brian Cox and then Senator Malcolm Roberts, data is important, but data alone is rarely enough.

Data, without context, without interpretation, is only part of the picture.

And the problem is, that the picture can be complex.

It’s so much easier to shout “it’s wrong!” than to spend the time and energy understanding the nuance.

But that nuance is only going to become more important, more critical, as we move deeper into a world run by technology, algorithms, and artificial intelligence.

It will be ever more critical to ensure that our decision makers, our governments, the leaders in our communities use good data in an appropriate way to the benefit of the world we all have to live in.

So it is incumbent on us, as the users and wielders of this data tool, to do the following three things:

  1. We must hold our governments and decision makers to account. Do not allow questionable statements or use of data to go unchallenged. Do not allow feeling or opinion to usurp the place of fact. And we must not shy away from complexity, reducing ever more complex problems to the false simplicity of a sound bite or a tweet.
  2. We must ensure that every student who graduates from our institutions, regardless of discipline or area of study, is skilled in the production and vitally the interpretation of data. This is important on two fronts: first, because we have a responsibility to produce graduates who are equipped to become valuable citizens in whatever career or whichever country they choose; and second – to be really frank – because we now live in an era in which graduates who can only produce data, and not interpret or understand it, will be replaced by a line of code. Research intensive universities, such as the Go8 and many others represented in this room, are especially well placed to do this, able to immerse our students in the complexities – but also the great excitement – inherent in learning in a research-rich environment.
  3. We must refuse to shy away from the fact that important issues are rarely simple, and complex problems require complex answers, based on evidence. The popularity of data-based programmes such as Mythbusters, QI, Cosmos and David Attenborough’s The Living Planet attest to the fact that communities are more than capable of engaging in data-driven arguments when presented in an accessible way. To seek to oversimplify or ‘dumb down’ issues is to do the communities we serve a deep injustice.

So let me leave you with one final quote, that I think sums up everything I’ve been talking about today.

It was said by Arthur C. Nielsen, founder of ACNielsen, and I hope that it will stay with you long after we leave here:

“The price of light is less than the cost of darkness”.