Despite a total lack of experience in education, it [the Howard government] has created Commonwealth Technical Colleges, tried to control state school curricula and muttered darkly about controlling state education systems.
Canberra has only been able to intrude because it has the money, not the authority. Perhaps it should leave the money and run. Is it really impossible to argue that an elected Victorian government has a genuine interest in the education of Victorian children and that – horror – it might even bring local insight to the process? …
The mantra “Trust me, I’m with the Commonwealth” has the plausibility of a four-dollar note.
Author Archives: Andrew Norton
Science has been one of the most popular university courses over the last few years, with strong increases in applications year after year since 2009. The demand shift coincided with a slashing of student contributions by about 40%. This had seemed to be a possible exception to the general empirical rule that changes to student contributions don’t affect demand (some of the history is in Graduate Winners, pp 77-79).
As part of a long series of measures to reduce higher education spending, science student contributions were put back up to pre-2009 levels for 2013, an 80% price increase in one year. If the discount was driving demand, we would expect to see higher student charges reduce demand. New statistics released today show that this has not happened.
In fact, as can be seen in the chart below, numbers continued to grow strongly. They were up another 4%, in a market that was up only 0.5% overall. Only agriculture grew by more in percentage terms, and only health grew by more in absolute numbers. Science offers increased by 3.3%, with overall offers up 0.6%
The chart below tracks successive budget forecasts on the core tuition subsidy program, the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, since the demand-driven system was announced. In the early years especially there was a significant under-estimate of costs. Cuts announced over the last 6 months essentially put the budget back on the trajectory it was on in 2011. Over the forward estimates to 2017, spending on the CGS will still increase by an estimated $945 million on 2013.
The trouble with these open-ended programs is that a government can spend nearly $1 billion more and still get condemned for cuts, because the new places are not ‘announceables’. This chart puts the increases in Commonwealth-supported places into historical perspective, going back to 1989. Uncapping of CSPs has led to a massive increase in their numbers. They are up 23% between 2009 and 2013, and expected to be up 35% between 2009 and 2017.
My original version of today’s Crikey article (missing parts of the argument restored, non sequitur removed)
My Crikey article today has been cut and edited in ways that leave out important parts of the argument and create a non sequitur (high private returns do not, obviously, justify subsidising private higher education). The original version is under the fold.
One of my main interests in campaign finance law has been the increasing attempts by political parties to limit ‘third party’ opposition. Governments dislike the campaigns being run against them by interest and issue groups, and since 2006 a series of laws have been passed to obstruct or discourage third party political activity.
Queensland went down this path in 2011, introducing laws restricting political donations from and to third parties, and limiting their spending during campaign periods.
And now there is a new attempt to impose yet more controls. This time the Queensland government proposes using industrial rather than electoral law to implement its policy. This means that it will affect unions and employer associations, but not other third parties. In practice, unions and business tend to be the biggest-spending third parties.
If this bill passes, Queensland unions and employer groups will have to run Electoral Commission ballots if they want to engaged in political expenditure of $10,000 or more in a year. The political expenditure is defined broadly to inlcude a political cause of belief, and not just partisan campaigning (full definition below the fold). Presumably this would cover routine unions campaigns such as those currently being run by the Queensland Council of Unions.
For the expenditure to be approved, 50% of eligible voters must cast a ballot, and of those more than 50% must approve. The cost of the ballot has to be covered by the organisation proposing the expenditure.
Effectively this law imposes huge decision costs on unions and employer groups, since especially mass membership groups like unions will have to spend a lot just informing their membership of the issues. Otherwise, they are unlikely to get the 50% turnout required. The inevitable (and presumably intended) result is that there will be many fewer third party campaigns in Queensland.
The bill is supported by the minister with the usual rhetoric about transparency and accountability. But members of political organisations do not necessarily want to be involved in the detail of campaigns or activism. Joining is an act of delegation, paying others to sort out the detail of a cause or interest the member supports.
Political campaigns are normal business for unions and employer groups. If their members are unhappy with these campaigns they can say so, and vote out the leadership or leave the organisation if they are not satisfied with the leadership’s response. This is all the accountability that is required.
Yesterday the ATO released tax statistics for the 2010-11 financial year. With the education department seemingly no longer publishing its annual higher education report the ATO tax statistics are the main source of information on some aspects of the HELP loan scheme.
Only about a quarter of HELP debtors, or 383,000 out of 1.57 million, made a repayment in 2010-11. The ATO classifies 593,000 people as ‘paying off’ their debt, presumably counting people who have made a repayment but have since fallen back below the threshold or have disappeared overseas (the number of people who are listed as overseas or with an unknown postcode more than tripled to 32,365, but I think this number is unreliable).
The reason is that HELP debtors are clustered in the lower income groups, as seen in the figure below. Many of them will still be students, but the largish number (122,000) in the $40,000-$49,999 range suggests that fiddling with the threshold for repayment, which was $45,000 in 2010-11, might substantially increase the number of people repaying. At the other end of the income spectrum, 5 HELP debtors had taxable incomes exceeding $1 million.
The number of HELP debtors with $50,000+ debts increased from 15,143 in 2009-10 to 23,664 in 2010-11. This probably reflects FEE-HELP borrowers and more people staying in the system for long periods of times, such as those doing initial professional entry qualifications under the Melbourne Model.
Repayments through the tax system are increasing, as seen in the figure below. Repayments increased by more than repayers (7%/3%). But there is still far more being lent than being recovered (they don’t report on financial years, but I would estimate $3.5 billion in lending versus $1.3 billion in compulsory repayments).
There has been debate about the University of Melbourne’s response to a sex-segregated Islamic event held on campus. But it was an unusual debate, in which the radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were on much the same side.
U of M VC Glyn Davis pointed this morning to the tensions between gender equality and freedom of association raised by this case.
Some commenters on my Facebook page argued that as a ‘public’ university made a difference to how we should weigh up the conflicting considerations – that even if we should tolerate sex segregation in society generally, it should not happen at the ‘public’ University of Melbourne:
This is, however, a publicly funded university and I assume it’s more then likely that the venue was provided at lower/no cost then a private space; effectively meaning the event was subsidised by the taxpayer. For the sake of reputation of the institution, as well as applying best principles, events that entail gender segregation should be clearly not allowed on campus.
The likes of Glyn Davis must remember that they are public servants.
Most universities in Australia are more akin to government departments than private enterprises, they are established by legislation that allows for extensive control over the way they conduct themselves.
‘Public university’ is not a legal concept. The University of Melbourne’s legislation rather pointedly refers to it as ‘public spirited’ rather than public. University staff are not employed under public service legislation, and the governmnent of the day has no say in academic or professional staff appointments.
In practice, the term ‘public university is used to describe the universities listed in Table A of the Higher Education Support Act 2003. But it is not a term that appears in the legislation.
Table A universities do have greater access to public funds than private higher education providers. Most (though not all – Australian Catholic University is the exception) are subject to some public sector requirements in their own state, perhaps most significantly administrative law obligations such as freedom of information.
But I would generally defend the ‘public spirited’ rather than ‘public’ formulation in the U of M Act. There are good small-c constitutional reasons for thinking that universities should be substantially autonomous of government, places of independent thought and speech. Governments have historically tended to accept that view. Though state governments appoint university or council senate members, they only appoint a minority. State governments especially have taken a laissez-faire approach to academic matters.
To me, public funding should be seen as transaction. Governments are entitled to get what they pay for (such as a number of student places), but this should not give them broader rights over the institution. That some taxpayer money might have been used in building the lecture theatre where the Islamic event was held does not give government any on-going veto power over how the theatre should be used.
None of this means that universities should be immune from criticism. But to me the fact that the U of M was set up by a Victorian government statute, or that it receives Commonwealth funding, does not add anything to the case for preventing sex-segregated events on campus.
From my perspective, the demand-driven funding system is Labor’s main higher education achievement (it’s described at pages 56-58 of this report). Over time, I expect it will drive a more efficient allocation of student places and through creating competition improve teaching and student services. Already we can see that a student’s chances of getting an offer in their first-preference field of study has improved in most disciplines:
Source: DIISRTE. The figure shows offers in each field of study as a % of all first-preference applications for that field of study.
But uncapping the number of Commonwealth-supported students is costing a lot of money, a factor in recent higher education cuts. An article in yesterday’s AFR reveals that the universities want a de facto re-introduction of caps – not through changing the higher education funding legislation but through universities agreeing to constrain student numbers.
This would be a backwards step. The fear of losing students to competitors is a key driver of responsiveness to students, and a cartel-like restriction on places would be nearly as bad as the old regulated control.
The low tax deduction plus the more easily-defensible closing off of the voluntary HELP repayment bonus could have major effects on some students.
For a presentation I was doing at Swinburne today I prepared an example using a Swinburne Graduate Certificate of Engineering, a course marketed as professional development and therefore likely to have sufficient link to the student’s current employment to be deductible.
I assumed that the student was currently earning $75,000 a year, giving them a tax rate of 32.5% plus the 1.5% Medicare levy. I assumed they would take out a FEE-HELP loan and then repay it to claim the 5% bonus for voluntary repayments. As figure 1 shows, the two measures substantially reduce the effective cost of the course to the student.
As figure 2 shows, with just a $2,000 tax deduction and abolition of the repayment bonus the effective cost of the course to the student increases by more than 50%, from $6,600 to $10,100.
There are interesting conceptual issues here. The tax system is already biased against human capital investment, as students cannot claim a tax deduction for their investment in their future salaried earning power, though they could if they bought a range of physical assets to produce trading profits.
For undergraduates, arguably the public subsidy and the HELP loan scheme removes any bias against human capital investment. Most undergraduates cannot get easy access to other forms of capital. But in the largely full-fee postgraduate market many students would have alternative investments for the available cash.
There are complications in the argument. It is not always easy to distinguish ‘consumption’ and ‘investment’ higher education. It doesn’t seem quite right that with tax deductions the effective cost of course is much higher for someone on a 15% marginal tax rate than someone on a 45% tax rate. In a book I wrote a decade ago, I thought that maybe flat-rate subsidies were less distortionary than tax deductions.
I’m still not entirely sure how to deal with this issue. But we should watch enrolments in postgraduate courses very carefully.
Well so much for the Universities Australia campaign for increased public funding of higher education, with another half-page ad in today’s Weekend Australian. The government has announced a new wave of higher education spending cuts.
As usual with these weekend announcements there is not much detail available, and not all the numbers make sense to me on current information. For universities, the main impact will come from ‘efficiency dividends’ of 2% in 2014 and 1.25% in 2015. This will be the first cut to nominal per undergraduate student funding since the Dawkins reforms 20 years ago. [Mookster makes the point below that after indexation there will not be a year-on-year reduction, though I am anticipating that there will be a reduction to Commonwealth contribution amounts in the Act.]
Reducing public funding to higher education is not in itself problematic. But arbitrary changes to the prices universities receive for reasons which have nothing to do with higher education (funding Gonski is the claimed reason in this case) are not easily justifiable. In a more market-based system, we could see whether students would rather put up with cuts or pay more to maintain current services.
This outcomes highlights the political failure of the Universities Australia process that led to their current policy document. By maintaining an exclusive focus on public funding rather than building a political case for more fee deregulation they were always taking a big risk. The idea that a $5 million university advertising campaign could alter the political calculation that there are more votes in schools and health was always pretty fanciful. And so it has again proved to be, even sooner than I thought.
The reality here is that there are vice-chancellors who would rather undermine the services they can provide than concede an ideological point about student charges. They should take some of the blame for the problems these cuts will cause.