Monthly Archives: October 2014

Low SES students and the non-university higher education sector

Last week I had a go at the Greens and Labor for supporting low SES students having to pay full fees, if they choose to attend a non-university higher education provider (NUHEP). The Department of Education has recently provided me with data on low SES undergraduate enrolments by NUHEP.

There is wide variation in their low SES enrolment shares, from a low of 4% to a high of 33% (only looking at providers with more than 100 domestic undergraduates). As in the university sector, much of the variation seems regional, reflecting the fact that the low SES measure is based on residential postcodes. Providers with low SES areas in their geographic catchment areas tend to have higher low SES enrolments, such as regional areas and the poorer cities or parts of cities.

Overall, in 2013 15.6% of undergraduate students in NUHEPs had low SES backgrounds, defined as living in postcodes in the lowest 25% of the ABS index of education and occupation. This compares to 17.6% of students in the public universities. The chart below compares some of the sub-groups within the NUHEPs and public universities.

There is a very loose relationship between fees charged and low SES enrolments. The pathway colleges are generally more expensive than the TAFEs, but they have a slightly higher low SES enrolment share. Religious colleges, including theological colleges as well as more general education providers with a religious dimension, have more a higher low SES enrolment share than either of the other two groups. They also tend to have quite low fees.

NUHEP low SESJPG

(Data copyright Commonwealth of Australia, reproduced by permission)

Extension of the demand driven system should not be delayed

The government is distancing itself from a claimed list of higher education reform concessions reported this morning. I’m glad to hear that because one of the claimed concessions, a three year delay on extending the demand driven system, would be a mistake.

I would say it, but I think expanding the demand driven system is the most urgent of the reforms.

As the demand driven review report argued, the current system is not fit-for-purpose as we move into the next stage of mass higher education. Funding policy provides a strong financial incentive to start in a public university bachelor degree, when lower-ATAR and other under-prepared students would be better off starting in a diploma course. Diplomas are currently outside the demand driven system, and most of the pathway courses are in the private higher education sector.

The government could just allow public universities to offer more sub-bachelor courses. But only a few universities have much existing capacity or expertise in this area, so this would be a slower way of improving this market than bringing the existing players in.

In some markets public universities could scale up their sub-bachelor offerings (for example, dual sectors that already have experience in vocational diplomas, and the universities with their own pathway colleges already). However, this could undermine the long-term structural goal of a more diverse higher education system. It would let public universities compete in the non-university higher education provider sub-bachelor markets (about 20% of NUHEP students) while not letting the NUHEPs compete in the public university bachelor market. Some NUHEPs may not survive increased competition that is based solely on unjustified differences in public subsidy, not on educational quality.

The biggest danger with fee deregulation is excessive fee charging by public universities, at the expense of students and of taxpayers via HELP. While I don’t think that private universities and NUHEPs can have a large short-term effect on this (given their scale and historic focus on product differentiation rather than price competition) they can influence the behaviour of some public universities. The chart below comparing average NUHEP fees with the total Commonwealth supported place revenue received by public universities suggests that, in most fields, NUHEPs have competitive cost structures. We should be encouraging them to compete on price against universities, not giving universities another three years of protection.

NUHEP fee

Delaying extending the demand driven system would also undermine one of the government’s strongest lines against Labor and the Greens: that is now parties of the left that support full-fee undergraduate places, not the Liberals.

What is Whitlam’s higher education legacy?

Gough Whitlam, who died today, is one of the big four of Australian higher education policy: Menzies, Dawkins and Gillard are the other three.

Whitlam is most famous for abolishing tuition fees in Australia’s universities and state-funded colleges from 1974 (here is the original legislation for universities.)

I’ve argued before that free education was a major symbolic success, but in practice not as significant as many people in hindsight believe. Through scholarships, state subsidies and federal subsidies higher education was already free or cheap for most people. A chart I included on university funding sources in the latest edition of Mapping Australian higher education (p. 53) shows that students were only a minor source of university income in the early 1970s.

Nor was Whitlam very successful in lifting higher education attainment rates. While the number of higher education places did grow, the baby boom generation was so large that there was little growth in attainment for them. On this measure, Menzies, Dawkins and Gillard were all much more significant.

What Whitlam did succeed in doing was take over funding responsiblity for higher education from the states, making conditional grants the basis of Commonwealth power over higher education. Technically, the Commonwealth’s power was quite limited. Universities could have refused Commonwealth grants and returned to fee charging if they wanted to. But never stand between a vice-chancellor and money. If there was anything the universities would not do for the Commonwealth’s cash we never found out what that was. As John Dawkins discovered, they were even willing to merge with colleges of advanced education, which were well down the system hierarchy.

Two particular Whitlam-era policies are still in place, although substantially modified. He created a general student income support system, TEAS, to replace various scholarship schemes. This survives through Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy. A needs-based income support system is a more efficient way of funding higher education students than merit-based scholarships, which often go to people from affluent families.

Although completely free higher education lasted less than 15 years, Whitlam’s price control on undergraduate higher education has lasted the full 40 years since 1974. Universities were given back their power to set charges in 2005, but only up to limits determined by the federal government. Christopher Pyne is now trying to abolish these controls, supported for the first time in the post-Whitlam era by a majority of vice-chancellors.

The fact that until recently most vice-chancellors supported undergraduate price control shows Whitlam’s on-going influence. Despite being dissatisfied with their funding rates for all but a handful of those 40 years, many vice-chancellors still maintained the faith that government would give them what they believed they needed. Public funding was the norm when most of them went to university and started their academic careers. Even now, vice-chancellors generally see private funding as a regrettable but necessary departure from this ideal state. Staff and student groups ofen condemn university leaders for this concession. Creating such a powerful default belief about how the world should be shows that Whitlam’s cultural legacy will survive the man’s passing.