Category Archives: Higher education

Some students could lose FEE-HELP by accident or no fault of their own

In supporting the government’s Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2017 in the House of Representatives yesterday, shadow universities assistant minister Terri Butler said ‘Labor supports greater protection for students, particularly those accessing the FEE-HELP system’.

The provider integrity bill would put some extra constraints on the marketing activities of non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs), whose domestic students typically use FEE-HELP (because they are denied access to the Commonwealth supported places that would let them use HECS-HELP).

But the provider integrity bill also exposes NUHEP students to new risks, and greater risks than students in the university system.

If a student in a public university fails most of their first year subjects, they will probably be sent to their institution’s unsatisfactory progress committee. But whether they continue with their studies will be an academic decision that can take a holistic view of the student’s circumstances.

Under the provider integrity bill, a NUHEP student using FEE-HELP – there were 46,000 of them in 2015, although students enrolled before 1 January 2018 will be grandfathered – will lose FEE-HELP eligibility if they fail too many subjects, and have to pay upfront fees unless they can demonstrate that there were special circumstances that were beyond their control, did not have their full impact until after the census date at which they incurred their HELP debt, and made it impractical to complete the unit. Read more »

Is a public-private ‘balance’ a useful higher education funding idea?

For several decades, Australian higher education policymakers have been interested in the idea that there is a desirable ‘balance’ between public and private contributions to the cost of higher education, and that a distribution of public and private benefits should inform this.

In an earlier post, I argued that a Deloitte Access Economics report released this week had come closer than any previous work to calculating a distribution of public and private benefits of higher education. What I am not convinced of is that such a calculation is useful for policymakers.

Sometimes an analysis of personal benefits and public benefits, as distinct from some ‘balance’ between them, will be helpful. In the Deloitte report (p.10) they argue that:

The economic policy rationale for governments to support higher education is the existence of a ‘market failure’ – specifically, the existence of the public benefits described above and the fact that, in the absence of government funding, the decisions by providers and students will not drive the system toward its socially optimal operation.

Economic theory suggests that students will choose to acquire knowledge where their expected private benefit is at least equal to their cost of education. If at least some public benefit exists, then this decision-making process will result in a suboptimal level of knowledge transfer activities.

In order to increase levels of knowledge and maximise the total net social benefit of higher education, governments need to be able to identify the public benefits being created, such that appropriate subsidies can be derived and applied. Identifying the relative split between public and private benefits may then inform the relative subsidy payments based on these dimensions.

Apart from the sentences in bold, I agree. I have made similar arguments myself.

The problem with the first bolded sentence is that the presence of public benefits does not of itself lead to sub-optimal levels of education. This will only happen if the total net private benefits are too low to justify enrolment. In those cases, tuition subsidies reduce costs and make it easier to get to positive net private benefits. This may encourage prospective students to enrol when otherwise they would not.

The main argument of my 2012 Graduate Winners report is that even though market failures are possible, with income contingent loans there are only limited empirical circumstances in which they actually exist.

In most cases the private benefits of higher education are already so large – Deloitte, like previous research, identifies hundreds of thousands of dollars or more extra in lifetime income (p.34) – that the tuition subsidies are unlikely to sway the decisions of someone acting in their rational economic self-interest. Subsidies at the levels historically seen in Australia usually add relatively small amounts to net private financial benefits that are already large enough to attract students to higher education. And this is before we take into account other factors influencing people to attend higher education, such as interest in their field of study, access to particular careers, the lifestyle experience of campus, status, and keeping parents happy. Read more »

The quest for a public-private higher education funding ‘balance’

Despite some contrary-sounding quotes from me in yesterday’s Australian, I think a new Deloitte Access Economics report on the public and private benefits of higher education is both a valuable overview of the literature and a significant contribution in its own right to the Australian analysis of this topic.

My criticisms relate primarily to the conceptual framework given in the original brief from the Department of Education, which I will turn to in another post. This brief in turn was based on an idea with a long history in Australian higher education politics, that there should be a ‘balance’ between public and private contributions to higher education costs, which should be related to public and private benefits.

The 1988 Wran report, which led to the introduction of HECS, argued that students should contribute to the cost of their education because they typically derived a private financial benefit from a degree. It noted that there were public as well as private benefits from higher education, but it was hard to apportion them (p. 53). This was a reason for not using analysis of either to set student contribution rates – instead, they went for a percentage of costs rather than benefits. In the version of HECS announced by the government there was a flat student contribution rate equivalent to about 20 per cent of average per student costs.

Empirically, the Wran committee could not find a way to make a distribution of public and private benefits work as a pricing mechanism. Conceptually, however, there was a certain logic to it. If students should pay for the private benefits they receive, shouldn’t the public also pay for the benefits it receives?

In 1996, announcing big cuts to per student public spending on higher education, the government echoed the Wran report, saying that although the ideal balance between public and private contributions could not be precisely established, the private benefits were substantially greater than those implied by the current HECS rates. Private benefits ended up doing almost all the policy work – the new ‘differential HECS’ rates were mainly linked to assumed future income. The higher the potential income, the higher the HECS rate. Read more »

England and Australia: two higher education income contingent loan systems with very different consequences

The recent debate about student debt in England was triggered by this very interesting paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. I have used some of their analysis to think about how their situation differs from Australia’s, despite both having income contingent loans.

1) Total tuition costs. As I noted in my post last week, tuition charges are higher in England than in Australia, with most courses a flat £9,000 per year, or about $15,000 on current exchange rates. Australian annual student contributions this year range from $6,349 (arts, education, nursing) to $10,596 (law, medicine, commerce). The British pound has a low exchange rate at the moment; if we use $US purchasing power parity English courses are between 1.7 and 2.9 times more expensive than in Australia.

The high English tuition fees are partly because there are no tuition subsidies offsetting them in many courses, while all undergraduates at public universities in Australia receive tuition subsidies. But it is also because of their flat fee system, which means that students in low-cost fields are charged more than the total cost of their course.

While undergraduate courses are cheaper in Australia than England whichever way we compare them, in Australia we don’t have a good understanding of how HECS-HELP debt for undergraduate courses is interacting with FEE-HELP debt for postgraduate courses. But further study in full-fee courses is likely to be one reason why we are seeing strong growth in total HELP debts above $50,000. Read more »

Is university research activity increasing again?

Last year I reported, using ABS statistics, that the long boom in university research spending had stalled between 2012 and 2014. A combination of reduced Commonwealth research spending and couple of weak years for international student revenue in 2012 and 2013 were likely major contributing factors.

The research commercialisation survey results released yesterday also contain a question on total research spending for 2015. While universities are asked to use the ABS methodology, there is provision for estimates in non-ABS survey years (which 2015 was). There are also some universities that did not submit data.

With these caveats, on a same-university basis reported research spending increased by about 5 per cent in real terms between 2014 and 2015. However, other indicators suggest research activity was still flat in 2015. Research only staff on a full-time equivalent basis dropped by 5.6 per cent between 2014 and 2015, with a small increase in teaching and research staff.

In the same period, teaching-only staff (including casuals) increased by 8.5 per cent. It would need a detailed analysis to work out exactly what was going on, but possibly a more competitive student market after demand-driven growth slowed in 2015 was putting more focus on teaching.

The 2016 head count staff data (which excludes casuals) shows a 4.7 per cent increase in teaching only, a 1.8 per cent increase in research only, and 0.3% decrease in teaching and research staff.

With international student enrolments and revenue again booming in 2016 and 2017, these numbers suggest that teaching staff are increasing to meet the needs of additional students. International students are highly profitable in some universities, and the modest increase in research only staff is consistent with those universities feeling confident enough in future financial surpluses to expand their research activity.

Are English university students right to be upset about high fees?

Since the British Labour Party did unexpectedly well in last month’s UK elections, on the back of strong support from young people in particular, university fees have turned into a big issue there. The Australian‘s High Wired column hints that this ‘international narrative’ might arrive on our shores.

Both free and high-fee higher education systems can perform reasonably well on measures such as levels of educational attainment. The chart below has lagged fee data to capture the time 25-34 year olds went to university, but the broad patterns are evident. People living in high fee countries tend to have relatively high rates of holding university qualifications. Low attainment countries have low or zero fees, but there is also a cluster of low or zero fee countries with high attainment.

There are many country-level complexities in this analysis (for example, German low attainment may not be a problem given the structure of their economy and strong vocational system). But generally the cost of high attainment has to be met with high taxes or high fees. Read more »

Have universities enjoyed ‘rivers of gold’?

The Australian‘s High Wired column is bemused at the apparent contradictions between UQ VC Peter Hoj’s narrative of funding cuts and Simon Birmingham’s claim that universities have benefited from ‘rivers of gold’ in public funding in recent years.

It’s true that there have been some cuts to research funding, although it remains high by historical standards (some trends at page 51 of this pdf). Some increases in equity funding from the Gillard era were trimmed, and performance funding abolished. But these funds were not supporting long-term programs.

It’s much harder to claim that there have been cuts to core teaching grants, coming via the Commonwealth Grant Scheme and HELP (which as I keep pointing out, is heavily subsidised). The chart below shows the trend – up 50 per cent in real terms since 2008. From the Commonwealth’s perspective, this certainly looks like a river of gold.

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HELP is not a profit-sharing scheme

In today’s Oz, John Bryon argues against lowering the HELP repayment threshold by arguing that HELP is a profit-sharing scheme:

HECS (by whatever name) is not a loan so much as a profit-sharing scheme: the commonwealth not a bank but a venture capitalist. The public finances education for its own collective benefit, both economic and social.

It is rational to recruit potential students as widely as possible; it is also expensive.

So those deriving conspicuous personal benefit are asked to tip some of those dividends back in, up to a limit based on their time (and, today, disciplinary location) within the system.

It is unjustified to lower the repayment threshold below the average wage.

Now there are versions of income contingent payment scheme ideas which can be seen as profit-sharing. Milton Friedman’s original idea was along these lines, in which people pay a percentage of their income for a fixed period of time. Some people would pay nothing for their education, while financially successful graduates could pay many times their original fees or costs of their course. In theory, this could permit a high threshold, if the lender was confident that total repayments would at least cover costs.

But HELP isn’t a profit-sharing scheme. It is a partial cost recovery scheme, in which the most the Commonwealth can ever receive is the amount that it lent plus indexation (or loan fee, for some FEE-HELP students). Recovering costs in a labour market where many people work part-time means that the initial threshold cannot be high, and indeed it is relatively low in other jurisdictions that have income-based repayments such as New Zealand, England, and some US loan schemes.

The partial link with average weekly earnings in Australia was about the late 1980s politics of ending free higher education and probably a view that it wasn’t going to be hugely costly, given that at the time average wages was much less driven than now by people who didn’t have degrees (in 1989 10 per cent of workers had degrees, now it is 30 per cent). It was never a mechanism for profit sharing.

Rival fairness arguments in the university fees debate

This week I am on a panel discussing a fair price for students to pay for their university education. Both those who want students to pay more and those who want students to pay the same or less draw on fairness arguments.

Fairness arguments for higher student charges

Fairness to other taxpayers: Critics of free or cheap higher education have long thought subsidising students was unfair to other taxpayers. Way back in 1972 Malcolm Fraser criticised Labor’s free tertiary education policy on the grounds that it would lead to a ‘wharf labourer paying taxes to subsidise a lawyer’s education’. The 1988 Wran report, which recommended the introduction of HECS, justified it partly on the basis that ‘taxpayers carry most of the burden of higher education [but]…most taxpayers are not privileged members of society and neither use nor directly benefit from higher education.’

Fairness to other taxpayers is perhaps the lead trigger idea in reducing public spending and increasing student charges. Two of the three proposed nominal cuts in per student public spending of the last 30 years (1989 was the exception) occurred when there was a Budget deficit, creating an active choice between increasing taxes or charging students more.

A fair price: Underlying the fairness to other taxpayers notion is also an argument that it is fair to ask people to pay for what they receive. This has led to a recurring idea that there should be a ‘balance’ between private and public contributions to the cost of higher education. It appears in the Wran report, the arguments for the 1996 funding cuts and HECS increases, the Lomax-Smith review of funding (never acted on), and again in the Pyne and Birmingham policy documents. Students should pay for the benefits they receive, and the public should pay for the benefits it receives.

The public-private balance idea has had little influence on policy detail. Public benefit calculations have never been used to set public funding rates, and private benefits have been used to set private funding rates only once, in a back of the envelope way, in introducing differential HECS for 1997. This created the idea that student contributions should be linked to likely future earnings. Differential HECS connects to a market idea of a ‘fair’ price – pay more, get more. But it also links to progressive notions that the relatively rich should pay more, or get less in taxpayer-funded benefits. This is a common idea in the Australian welfare system. Despite the weak association with policy detail, repeated use of the balance metaphor suggests it reflects intuitions about how higher education should be funded.
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The non-ether origins of a $42,000 HELP repayment threshold

The Australian‘s High Wired column reports on an exchange between education minister Simon Birmingham and his Green shadow Sarah Hanson-Young on how the government’s proposed $42,000 threshold for HELP repayment was set:

The Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young was in her element in Senate Estimates yesterday. First up, she wanted to find out where the $42,000 new HECS repayment threshold came from. ‘Plucked out of the ether’ was the answer she was looking for. Which she didn’t get, but the Grattan report on reducing the HECS threshold was mentioned. (And where did that figure come from? Plucked out of the ether, maybe.)

The $42,000 figure was proposed in this Grattan report released in March 2016. There is no science that says exactly what the initial HELP repayment threshold should be. There is always going to be some policy and political judgment involved. But our report did make a non-ether case for a substantial lowering of the initial threshold, which at the time the report was released was based on policy and political judgments made in 2003 (the base level) and 1993 (AWE indexation).

In the intervening years just from 2003, HECS had become HELP and turned into a very different, and much larger, program – with many more students in the core public university undergraduate programs, thanks to the demand driven system, and many extensions of income contingent loans – to higher education students outside the public university system, to diploma students in vocational education, OS-HELP, SA-HELP and other loan systems such as for student income support that use the same basic repayment system.

Total HECS/HELP lending more than tripled between 2003 and 2016, and the risk of non-repayment also substantially increased as we brought in debtors with weaker earnings prospects than was the case with a smaller, more educationally elite, group of eligible borrowers.

It’s sometimes said that the threshold should be high to provide a financial benefit before repayment is required. Arguments like that were made in the late 1980s, and have stuck in popular understanding of HELP. But it is not clear that there is any principle behind this idea. In our report, we argue for seeing HELP in the context of other government income protection programs, rather than a special, very generous deal that graduates should receive for unclear reasons. $42,000 is still a bit on the high side by that standard, but we took into account previous Labor statements that $40,000 would be too low. We want a stable system, so looked for a threshold that Labor would at least keep in office, even if it opposed it on introduction.

So while $42,000 is not pure science, unlike the current threshold it is based on something more than long ago policy decisions made with different circumstances in mind.