Category Archives: Higher education

Has abolishing the discount for upfront payment of student contributions made a difference to upfront payment rates?

An article in The Conversation on incentives around student contribution payments made me wonder what difference the 2017 abolition of the 10 per cent discount for paying upfront was having.

The discount had a cost to taxpayers, since universities were compensated by the Department for upfront payment discounts. If students pay upfront, the risk of the remaining debt not being repaid is removed, as is the interest subsidy for the time that repaid debt is outstanding. The discount is only worthwhile from a taxpayer perspective if it induces upfront payments on a sufficient scale to reduce doubtful debt and interest subsidies by more than the cost of the compensation to universities.

At the time, I supported the decision to abolish the discount, because I doubted that it was generating a net financial benefit for taxpayers.

One reason for this is that various sources of evidence over the years suggested that upfront payments were coming from sources unlikely to be very sensitive to discounts. These include parents wanting their kids to be free of debt, employers, and scholarships. In the 2012 student finances survey, for example, 9 per cent of undergraduates reported receiving money to pay tuition fees. Read more »

The uses of ATAR

In the last few weeks, the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) has come under renewed criticism. A paper from the Mitchell Institute started this, and Swinburne University VC Linda Kristjanson followed up with an op-ed on one of their alternative entry systems.

These critiques have a history. More than 20 years ago, then education minister Amanda Vanstone gave a speech attacking the ‘tyranny of the TER’, an ATAR predecessor called the Tertiary Entrance Rank. ATAR’s decline has long been championed. But despite what the Mitchell paper suggests, ATAR is still used in the vast majority of school leaver university admissions (Mitchell’s numbers are due more to the rise of other academic results, such as past higher or vocational education, than non-ATAR school leaver admissions, although these are also increasing).

Some form of ranked school results has been used for university admissions since the 1960s. Previously it was enough to ‘matriculate’ (complete Year 12), but demand for higher education was exceeding the places available, and so school results were used to allocate places to applicants. But this history shows that there is an alternative – admit everyone who meets some basic threshold, and then cull them. University policy reviews from the 1950s and 1960s report fail rates that are very high by today’s standards.

There is something to be said for this admit-and-attrit approach to selection – let applicants try university and see how they do. It avoids proxies based on an imperfectly-analogous environment such as school, or admissions tests that can potentially be gamed or only measure some attributes needed for success at university. To a substantial extent, as a forthcoming Grattan report will show, trial-and-error selection after enrolment is still a major way of deciding who gets a longer-term university place.

But issues of fairness, efficiency, and student protection work in favour of retaining an active role for universities in selecting students. Read more »

Higher education inequality: do graduate outcomes differ by socioeconomic status?

In earlier posts in this series on inequality and higher education, I have suggested that the SES participation differences are largely driven by prior academic performance and that different SES groups seem to experience higher education in much the same way, but low SES students are less likely to complete their degrees. In this post, I will look at outcomes for the students who do complete their degrees.

First, are there differences in rates of getting a job? The 2017 Graduate Outcomes Survey finds that there are small differences. About four months after completing their bachelor degree, 73.6 per cent of high SES graduates who were looking for full-time work had found it, compared to 70.3 per cent of low SES graduates. However, of those who were working full time low SES students were slightly less likely to report not fully using their skills at work than high SES graduates (27.1 per cent compared to 28.9 per cent). It is difficult to say whether there is any direct SES effect in these results, as employment outcomes differ substantially by field of education, and SES differences in discipline choices could explain the results.

The Graduate Outcomes Survey also looks at starting salaries in the first full-time job after completing an undergraduate degree. Again, we find a small SES difference: the median starting salary for high-SES graduates in 2017 was $61,000, and for low SES graduates it was $60,000. This does not tell us whether there is any direct SES effect (such as not being able to access social networks to find professional jobs) or whether other factors such as discipline explain the result. A study using an earlier first year out survey had a limited control for discipline, as well as controls for weighted average marks, gender, and various other factors. It found no negative salary effect for low SES students, using a geographic measure of SES.

One possible cause of SES differences is that low SES students tend to attend the less prestigious universities, reflecting the school results issues reported in an earlier post. For example, 7.5 per cent of the University of Sydney’s students are low SES on a geographic measure, compared to 26.2 per cent of Western Sydney University students.

In theory, university attended should affect starting salaries. There are well-known differences in entry requirements between universities, which employers may take as a more reliable measure of ability than university marks, and employers may assume that the more prestigious universities have better teaching (can attract better staff, have more to spend – although student satisfaction surveys don’t support this conclusion). The first full-time job is when employers have to make greatest use of proxy indicators of potential, since most new graduates lack a track record in full-time skilled employment. Consistent with this, nearly 40 per cent of graduate employers say they have preferred institutions, mostly Group of Eight universities.

In practice, however, many studies have found no or small starting salary differences by university or university grouping (eg here, here, here, here and here). What course you take matters much more to your income than what university you attend. Read more »

Higher education inequality: how much does performance at university differ by socioeconomic status?

In an earlier post, I argued that the Australian higher education system probably deserved about a 7/10 for equity of access. In line with some theory, the middle-class meritocracy continues to reproduce itself successfully, but the universities are open to talent: for a given ATAR, university participation rates are very similar across SES groups. But what happens when students arrive at university?

Intriguingly, many studies have found that low SES students or students from non-selective government schools do not do worse and indeed tend to get slightly higher marks, for a given ATAR starting point (eg here, here, and here and the literature cited within).

Various theories for this finding have been offered, but I suspect it is because the schools higher-SES students attend maximise ATARs through intense coaching and social pressure, but their less motivated and organised students don’t do as well in the much less structured university environment. By contrast, a lower-SES student who has done well in Year 12, quite possibly with much less school and social support than higher-SES students, is a motivated and resourceful person, and that pays off at university as well.

Student satisfaction is not reported directly by SES, but recent surveys differentiate between people who are first in family and those who are not. This gives much less nuance than I would like, but low SES students are much more likely to be first in family than high SES students. The Student Experience Survey finds first in family students are often slightly more satisfied with their educational experience than students who are not first in family. Maybe first in family student expectations are different, but generally they seem to be experiencing university in much the same ways as other students.

However, on actually completing a degree we do find some negative differences. Using a geographic measure, 69 per cent of commencing low SES undergraduates complete a degree within the nine years to 2015, compared to 78 per cent of high SES students. Read more »

Higher education inequality: how well has Australia limited differential access levels by socioeconomic status?

In an earlier post, I argued that higher education has substantial inequality-generating features. This post is the first in a series looking at how well Australia’s higher education system does in this context, starting with access to higher education. Essentially, this is about how well the higher education system can foster social mobility.

The potential of the Australia’s higher education system is constrained by the potential pool of students, which largely comes from people who have successfully completed school. Before the 1980s, that was a minority of the population. Don Anderson and A.E Vervoorn’s interesting book Access to privilege reports that in 1980 overall school retention to Year 12 was only 34.5 per cent, and 28.4 per cent at government schools. It was already a massive 88 per cent at the non-Catholic private schools, favoured by many higher SES families. They were setting up the basis for the next generation’s educational success.

In the 1980s, school completion rates increased, so that about half of low SES students finished school by the end of the decade. Low SES Year 12 completion is now at 73 per cent, compared to 80 per cent for high SES students (with the caveat that dividing the population into three groups misses likely much larger difference in the lowest and highest deciles).

ATAR results by SES are rarely published, but some Victorian data I published in a book chapter a few years ago shows the highest SES quartile by postcode substantially over-represented in the 90+ group, and the lowest SES quartile substantially over-represented in the below 50 group. The annual NAPLAN reports show that, again, the high SES students, whether measured by parental occupation or parental education, do significantly better across all the literacy and numeracy tests, although consistent with meritocratic hopes there are also small numbers of high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds. So even though Year 12 completion has improved, we still have substantial issues with inequality of school-level academic achievement.

I don’t feel competent to judge to what extent university education faculties are to blame for this situation – although the early childhood research suggests that schools, also, are working within the constraints of the student pool. I will assess universities and higher education policy on how they deal with this academic achievement situation as they find it.

From the earliest days, universities and higher education policy (which was originally a State responsibility) have been concerned with access, offering students subsidies and scholarships. But that really only mattered in the post-WW2 era, since very few people before then went to university and it was not needed for most jobs. Hannah Forsyth has written about university admission policies in the post-war era. The Commonwealth government offered merit-based scholarships. Read more »

Was higher education ever likely to reduce inequality?

Next week I am a panelist in a discussion on whether Australia has an equitable tertiary education system. The promotional blurb says:

Australians believe we live in a fair and egalitarian country. We believe in a fair go: in equality of opportunity. We also believe that accessible education and training is a fundamental right and it facilitates prosperity, social mobility and a richer and more engaged economy.

Are these beliefs about who we are based in fact? While access to higher education has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, income and wealth inequality is also on the rise. This seeming contradiction challenges our most fundamental beliefs about intergenerational mobility. Is the education system a cure or a curse? …

When I accepted the invitation to be on the panel I told the organisers that I did not know the answers to their questions, but I could offer some observations. I am going to try a few of them out on this blog.

Starting theoretically, I think social mobility and income inequality are distinct issues. It was always more plausible that education would promote mobility in personal status than that it would reduce snapshot-in-time income inequality figures. Indeed, there are reasons for thinking that higher education is more likely to increase than decrease income inequality.

Higher education can increase individual income inequality by facilitating a more unequal labour market. Higher education provides the training to support an increasing number of highly-skilled and highly-paid professionals. In a 2017 paper, Jeff Borland and Michael Coelli have some interesting charts showing growth in demand for the kinds of cognitive skills that a university education aspires to teach. Consistent with this, numerous papers have shown substantial financial ‘returns’ to higher education. This Deloitte report from last year summarises some of the local literature and adds its own estimates. Read more »

Have you ever not finished a university degree?

At the Grattan Institute, we are nearing completion of a report on not completing university degrees, one of the measures that could be used in the new performance funding regime.

We’ve got lots of interesting new data on how much time students spend enrolled before they leave, how much they have spent, and the risk factors that can help predict who will complete and who will drop out.

But the data and literature on how people feel about incomplete qualifications is very sparse, and so we decided to run our own online survey.

It’s obviously not a random sample, but with over 800 responses to date we are able to identify some general themes. With more respondents we could start to see whether reactions to not completing differ across student categories.

The survey is going to close in a few days, so if you have dropped out a degree yourself, please take it. Or if you know someone who has dropped out, please forward the link to them.

Our report is going to focus on people who have left university without any degree, but we are also interested in people with a complete degree as well as a complete one.

How can the government cap funding for Commonwealth-supported student places?

As reported recently, higher education is expected to face cuts in Monday’s MYEFO. My guess – but certainly not my preference – is that the government will use new university funding agreements to freeze the demand driven system, and to reduce postgraduate Commonwealth-supported places.

Under demand driven funding, most public universities are paid a Commonwealth contribution for each domestic bachelor degree student they enrol (section 33-5(5) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003), except in medicine which is ‘designated’ (section 30-12(b)).

However, section 33-5(5) includes a provision for setting a ‘maximum basic grant amount’ for ‘non-designated’ places (ie, all fields except medicine). This power has been used for the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia, which traded in undergraduate places for Commonwealth supported postgraduate places. What we now expect is that the maximum basic grant amount will be used for other universities to reduce future spending on student places.

This can be a freeze but not a cut in nominal terms due to section 30-27(3) which says that, where a maximum basic grant amount has not previously been set, it cannot be less than the amount calculated under section 33-5(5) for the previous year, ie 2017 for the 2018 funding agreements. For the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia, it cannot be less than the maximum amount set for 2017. The freeze could be maintained by determining that the 2019 maximum basic grant amount was the same as for 2018, which is turn was the same as 2017, and so on.

It is also possible that the maximum basic grant amount will be higher than 2017, but lower than a university would have received after indexation of the Commonwealth contribution rates under division 198 of HESA and payment for any increase in student numbers under section 33-5(5).

In practice, it is likely that most universities would lose the value of Commonwealth contribution indexation and not be paid Commonwealth contributions for any additional students they enrol. Sustained over a number of years, this could do universities significant financial damage, especially if they are already locked into growth (for example, a university that increased its commencing student numbers in 2017 will have to accommodate them while they finish their degrees).

There is no equivalent of section 33-5(5) for student contributions or HECS-HELP. Therefore universities can still receive indexed student contributions for every Commonwealth supported student they enrol.

All postgraduate, associate degree and diploma courses are designated and distributed to universities through funding agreements (section 30-10 of HESA in conjunction with 30-25(3)). These places have to be allocated to funding clusters (section 30-10(2)).

The government was already planning to cut 3,000 postgraduate Commonwealth supported places, so that is likely to go ahead. They will also have to choose which discipline clusters to cut. As with bachelor-degree places, universities could still receive student contributions directly or via HECS-HELP.

Existing postgraduate students who are enrolled on in a Commonwealth supported place are entitled to keep it (section 36-25 of HESA). Effectively, that is an entitlement to a place with a price-controlled student contribution but not necessarily a Commonwealth contribution. Universities would still be allowed to ‘over-enrol’ (ie take more students than their funding agreement states) but would only get the student contributions. For new postgraduate students, universities can offer full-fee places to replace lost Commonwealth supported places.

The government may also cut Commonwealth supported places in associate degree and diploma courses. Universities could still receive student contributions if they ‘over-enrol’ in these courses. However, they are prohibited from offering full-fee places in all undergraduate courses (section 36-30 of HESA).

The funding agreements are not legislative instruments, and therefore are not sent to Parliament and not subject to disallowance by the House of Representatives or the Senate. Is that, rather than any higher education policy rationale, which makes capping likely. It is one of the few options left for a government determined to make Budget savings without a Senate majority.

A high HELP repayment threshold increases pressure to restrict or deny access to HELP

The Department of Education and Training’s 2016-17 annual report announced the first public use of a project to link up the ATO’s HELP repayment data with the Department’s enrolment data:

In 2016–17 the department worked with both the Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Government Actuary to create a database that links education courses with
income and occupation information. In 2018, the QILT website will publish graduate income data sourced from this database, which will inform students of the earning potential in their study area.

This will, of course, be very interesting, and could include income by university attended, as well as by study area. This has been done in the UK, although their QILT equivalent does not use it at this point.

But this data linking work is being done to better understand HELP debt and which factors affect repayment. It has potential uses well beyond student advice, uses that would fit a pattern of the government trying to reduce its risk of bad HELP debt.

The most obvious of these is to restrict access to courses with high rates of non-repayment. This was a feature of the VET Student Loans reform so that

loans are only being provided for courses that are closely aligned to the skills employers need in their workplace, thereby enhancing the opportunities for graduates to work, and to repay the money lent to them by taxpayers. [emphasis added]

Read more »

The VETification of higher education is a precedent that should not be set

In The Australian this morning an article points out that publicly-funded language diplomas may be not be available to new students from next year. In my view, that is a correct implication of both general policy statements on funding diplomas and associate degrees made by the government, and the specific consultation paper on sub-bachelor courses.

Unfortunately, this is a case in which the government, in attempting to fix one problem, would create several new problems.

The original problem here is that diplomas and associate degrees were, at the last minute in 2011, excluded from the demand driven system. That means that the total number of government-funded sub-bachelor places remains set by the government, the allocation of places between universities reflects largely historical decisions, and new places (when available) are distributed according to regularly changing criteria. The distribution of places does not strongly align with the preferences of students, the strategies of universities, or the needs of employers. In the review of the demand driven system I did with David Kemp, we recommended putting sub-bachelor places into the demand driven system.

On the surface, the government’s proposal looks like it is responding positively to this recommendation. Constraints on the number of funded sub-bachelor places will be lifted in two ways. First, sub-bachelor courses approved by the minister will enter the demand driven system. Second, sub-bachelor courses not approved by the minister will be given an exception on the general ban on undergraduate full-fee places at public universities.

Language courses are in trouble because they typically fail to meet both the announced criteria for sub-bachelor demand driven funding – that they articulate into a related bachelor degree program, and that they have been developed with a focus on industry needs. Read more »