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The financial health of Australian universities: policy implications in a changing environment

Helen Irvine (School of Accountancy, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Brisbane, Australia)
Christine Ryan (School of Accountancy, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Brisbane, Australia)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 8 August 2019

Issue publication date: 8 August 2019

Abstract

Purpose

In the context of the Australian Government’s attempts to impose budget austerity measures on publicly funded universities in its higher education sector, the purpose of this paper is to assess the sector’s financial health.

Design/methodology/approach

The multi-dimensional study is based on seven years of government financial data from all 39 publicly funded Australian universities, supplemented by information from universities’ annual reports. Using a financial health model that reflects vulnerability, viability and resilience, the authors examine sector data using a suite of metrics. The authors analyse differences between those universities in the Top 10 and Bottom 10 by revenue, as a window into the financial health of the sector at large.

Findings

While mostly financially viable, the sector shows signs of financial vulnerability, particularly in the areas of expense control and financial sustainability. Possibly in response to an uncertain funding environment, universities are managing long-term liquidity by growing reserves. Debt represents largely untapped potential for universities, while differences between the Top 10 and Bottom 10 universities were most evident in the area of revenue diversity, a strong predictor of financial viability.

Research limitations/implications

Focussing on a specific set of financial metrics limits the scope of the study, but highlights further research possibilities. These include more detailed statistical analysis of data, financial case studies of individual universities and the implications of revenue diversification on academic standards.

Originality/value

The paper contributes to higher education literature, providing empirical evidence of universities’ finances. It highlights the importance of universities’ financial resilience in an uncertain funding environment.

Keywords

Citation

Irvine, H. and Ryan, C. (2019), "The financial health of Australian universities: policy implications in a changing environment", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 32 No. 5, pp. 1500-1531. https://doi.org/10.1108/AAAJ-03-2018-3391

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited