Category Archives: Higher education

The boom in HELP debtors

The latest ATO taxation statistics come out today, giving us some new information on HELP.

Although growth in higher education student numbers moderated in 2015, VET FEE-HELP was still out of control in the period covered until mid-2016, contributing to a substantial increase in total debtor numbers. They grew by nearly half a million (a 24% increase) between 30 June 2014 and 30 June 2016. With big policy changes in vocational education taking effect in 2016 and 2017, along with continued moderate growth in higher education numbers, the rate of growth should slow substantially in the year to 30 June 2017.

On current policy settings, however, the number of debtors repaying is not likely to accelerate rapidly. Only 22 per cent made a repayment in 2013-14 and the number is likely to to be lower still in 2014-15 (there is a 2014-15 number in the chart, but these have a history of significant upward revision due to late tax returns, so it is too early to say exactly what proportion made a repayment).

The 2014-15 repaying share is likely to be lower because of the number of people who are still students, the high initial repayment threshold of nearly $55,000 a year is delaying repayment for recent graduates, and a large proportion of VET FEE-HELP borrowers are unlikely to earn enough to repay.

There is speculation that the initial threshold for repayment will be reduced in the Budget. These numbers explain why the idea needs considering.

How bad is student mental health?

The media this morning is reporting some dramatic figures on student mental health. According to Headspace, a youth mental health organisation, two-thirds of students responding to an NUS survey reported high or very high psychological distress over the last twelve months, and a third experienced thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

I’ve recently been doing some reading on this subject, as part of a project on student attrition. I’m convinced there is a problem, but I am not so sure that it is this bad.

The latest ABS National Health Survey from 2014-15 shows that the main student demographic, those aged 18-24, has worse mental health than any other age group. This is only moderately so for men, with 11 per cent reporting high or very high psychological distress on the Kessler scale, compared to 10 per cent for all adult men. But it is dramatically so for women, with 20 per cent reporting high or very high psychological distress, compared to 13.5 per for all adult women.

According to other ABS sources, about half of 18-24 year olds are students. An analysis of an earlier NHS (along with HILDA) found small overall differences between students and non-students, especially after adjusting for demographics, with students being on average younger and more likely to be female than the general population. The NHS survey found 10 per cent of its student sample were experiencing high psychological stress, while it was 21 per cent in HILDA.

One important reason for different results is that the ABS surveys and HILDA ask about mental health issues over the last month, while the Headspace/NUS survey asks about the last twelve months. Mental health issues tend to be episodic, so we should expect more people to experience one over a year than a month. There seem to be widely varying results even from surveys with similar methodologies, so mental health is clearly something that is difficult to measure at a population level. But Headspace/NUS getting triple the rate of the ABS or HILDA seems high. They have not published their detailed results, so perhaps we will have a better idea of why when they do.

How students study influences course completion rates

My concern about low-ATAR students is primarily about their high risk of not completing a degree. But in this we tend to focus much more on underlying academic ability than on the circumstances in which students study. Completions analysis shows that off campus and part-time students have non-completion risks that are very similar to those faced by below 50 ATAR students, as the slide below shows.

The number of commencing off-campus and part-time students greatly exceeds the number of commencing low ATAR students, as the next slide shows. We are doing some more work at the moment to try to understand the interactions between these factors. In 2015, for example, 24,000 commencing bachelor students were both part-time and off-campus – are these cumulative risk factors, or both just proxies for students with other commitments? Distraction from study could be the actual main risk factor.


Source: Department of Education and Training (domestic students only)

Low ATAR is an issue. But if we are worried about increasing attrition, we have to focus on how students are engaging with their studies and not just how well they did at school.

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Update: The day after I wrote this post, the Department released new completion statistics. They are slightly worse than the numbers shown in the first chart.

Low ATAR enrolments are increasing, but still a small share of all commencing higher education students

This week the main university offer rounds start, and with them the annual ATAR controversy. If the last few years are a guide, demand from low ATAR school leavers has stabilised, as the chart below shows. Offers, however, are increasing. Although most low ATAR applications do not result in offers, the number which did more than quadrupled between 2010 and 2016, from less than 2,000 to more than 8,000.


Source: Department of Education and Training

Last year, the number of low ATAR students accepting their offer increased, but still less than half of offers were accepted, which was about a quarter of the original applications.

When I looked at this last year, I said that a significant proportion of low ATAR applicants who accepted their offer were not enrolled after the first census date. While this is a factor in eventual enrolments, we now think this is less of a factor as some students who are reported as having an ATAR during the applications process don’t have one recorded in the enrolment data. A declining share of school leavers are being admitted based on their secondary education. This has dropped from 87 per cent in 2012 to 80 per cent in 2015.

Of the students who do have an ATAR in the enrolment data, those with low ATARs mostly don’t come direct from school. In 2015, there were 2,830 below 50 ATAR students enrolled who had completed school in 2014 (this includes students in pathway diploma courses, not just bachelor degree courses). But in the same year there were 8,000 students with below 50 ATARs in the enrolment data. Of those not being admitted based on their secondary education, about two-thirds were admitted based on previous higher education or vocational education.

Low ATAR enrolments are increasing, and I am among those who thinks that this is an issue. However, it is an issue that needs to be kept in perspective. Only 3 per cent of commencing bachelor degree students have ATARs below 50, and only 7 per cent have ATARs below 60.

Loan fees and the expert panel

As I expected, there has been comment (here, here, or here) about my release of a report on HELP student loan fees at the same time as I am on a government higher education policy advisory panel.

Due to the panel consuming my time for the last couple of months, the loan fee report has appeared later than originally intended. But other than that the report’s release follows a plan developed a year ago to complete reports on two weaknesses in HELP’s finances, the thresholds for repayment and interest costs. They are companion reports for our report on doubtful debt and recovery of HELP debt from deceased estates in 2014.

Loan fees are not new, and nor is my support for them something I suddenly arrived at after being appointed to the panel. I said in response to the proposed Pyne reforms that rather than abolishing loan fees we should extend them. What this week’s report does is work through in more depth whether interest subsidies are necessary to income contingent loan schemes (no); the relative merits of real interest, hybrid real interest and CPI indexation, and loan fees (loan fees better); and arrive at a method for setting a loan fee rate (likely interest costs over the life of HELP loans). It’s the detail that is appearing now, not the broad recommendation to use loan fees.

When the government asked me to be on the advisory panel I said I could only do it if I could also meet my existing Grattan commitments. They agreed to this. The panel is providing private advice to the minister and the department. It is a different situation from a review with a final report I need to agree with my panel colleagues and which the government will publicly accept or reject. So while the timing is not ideal, the loan fee report does not pre-empt other people’s decisions.

Should teacher education places be capped?

NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli has long been a critic of universities over-supplying the teacher education market. In this morning’s Australian, he is calling for caps on student places. If accepted, this would be the second course after medicine to be capped.

It would also be a major precedent, as it would set a low benchmark for justifying capping. According to employment surveys education graduates do slightly better than average in finding full-time work. Among those finding FT work, education graduates do significantly better than graduates in other fields in getting jobs that use their qualifications. That said, full-time employment for education graduates is down 11 percentage points on 2008, the recent peak of graduate employment rates.

The strength of the demand driven system is not that student and universities will always make the right call about where the job market is going, but that it can adapt as new information becomes available. Over the last few years, the message that the teacher market is saturated has been well publicised. Commencing student numbers were already past their peak by 2015, as the chart below shows. The trend would have been further down except for a major move by Swinburne Online, which went from no students in 2014 to 8.5 per cent of the national commencing market for initial teacher education in 2015.

commecning ed students
Source: uCube

There are bigger falls in education more generally – down 10% percent in commencing students between 2014 and 2015 and 13 per cent in full-time equivalents (presumably part-time enrolments at Swinburne Online are affecting that). Under the legislation, capping occurs in full-time equivalent places, not on a head count of students.

The initial 2016 applications and offers data suggests a fall of 2.4 per cent in applications and 4.7 per cent in offers for education, so a further drop in student numbers seems likely.

Cutting student numbers under the pre-demand driven system was a slow, politically painful process. With demand driven funding, it is happening quickly with few people even noticing.

Should we use the OECD’s analysis of the private financial benefits of tertiary education?

I’m quoted this morning in The Australian‘s report on graduate earnings across the OECD, which is in the latest issue of Education at a Glance.

The reported numbers seemed low compared to work Grattan and others have done for higher education, and I have had a bit more time since to work out why.

An issue I noted in the Oz is that the analysis included people with diplomas. In 2012, diploma holders were 28 per cent of everyone with a diploma or higher qualification. Their lower average earnings will bring down the overall average.

Another issue is that the OECD’s data source may be understating graduate income. They used a source I had never heard of for analysing educational returns, the ABS Disablity, Ageing and Carers survey. It was a general population survey so the issue is not that it is a sample of graduates with a disability. However, looking at the way the unit record data is made available to researchers it seems income is only available in ranges, the top one of which is $1,730 a week or more. We hit this problem in the 2011 census as well, with their top range of $2,000 a week or more. 11 per per cent of diploma holders, 21 per cent of bachelor degree holders, and 33 per cent of postgraduate degree holders reported incomes of $2,000 a week or more. As some of these would have incomes well over $2,000 a week, the average is artificially held down by the income category cap.

The OECD numbers are net present value, which means that income expected to be received in the future is counted as of less value than income received now. There is plausible time value of money theory for discounting the future – for example, an 18 year old prospective student would probably rather receive $1,000 now than $1,100 when they finish their 3 year degree, even though there is a favourable implied interest rate on offer.

But in our Graduate Winners report that was not the way we presented the data, which we left undiscounted in the key sections. This was partly because the undiscounted number is easier to understand, and partly because despite the plausibility of time value of money theory in various contexts I was not sure it was so persuasive in this one. In my view, one reason people pursue higher education is so that they will have a good job and a high income in 30 years time. How much theoretical sense does it make to heavily discount the value of achieving a major objective?

Some interesting data on male hourly earnings by years of experience from the latest HILDA report highlights this issue. For the first five or so years, male graduates don’t earn much more per hour than men with vocational education. But after that time a wide earnings gap develops – in the later years that are most discounted by the OECD methodology.

male hourly earnings

The discounting also affects another issue, which is that they assume students don’t work while studying, and the consequent assumed forgone earnings appear with a low discount and are deducted from gross earnings. But in Australia most students work while studying, so the forgone earnings cost is exaggerated, while future income benefits are under-valued.

There is no perfect method of doing educational returns analysis, and every data source in Australia has limitations. But overall I think the OECD numbers are less useful than existing Australian research on the financial benefits of education.

University research expenditure growth finally moderates

In a Grattan report released last year, I argued that research spending was increasing rapidly, with profits on teaching supporting that growth.

The latest ABS statistics on research spending, released every two years, suggest that this trend might be moderating. Although I have not had time to update the complicated analysis we did to estimate the contributing of teaching revenues to research, the long boom in research spending has stalled. After double-digit real growth rates between 2002 and 2012, from 2012 to 2014 there was only 1% real growth, to $10.1 billion (see chart below).

research spending

As overall university expenditure has not stopped growing in this time period, research expenditure as a share of all university expenditure dropped from the record 41% in 2012 to 39% in 2014 (see chart below).

research as a share of university expenditure

Closer examination of the ABS figures by expenditure type shows that one of the reasons for the moderation in research growth is that capital expenditure dropped by $200 million between 2012 and 2014, but 2012 was an unusually high year for capital expenditure. The ABS records capital expenditure in the year in which it occurs, which means that big projects can skew the results for particular years. That $200 million drop accounts for about 0.7% of the drop in the research share of university expenditure.

Still, it does appear that there may be at least a pause in the trend towards research consuming an ever-larger share of university resources. A small decline in research only staff and a small increase in teaching only staff would also support this conclusion. Whether this moderation is just a pause through a period of Commonwealth Budget constraint and a less lucrative international market, or a more lasting slight re-ordering of university priorities, remains to be seen.

Should people use their superannuation to pay off HELP debt?

For some time former Liberal adviser John Adams and Senator Chris Back have been promoting the idea of using superannuation to pay off HELP debt. Adams put his case on Catallaxy last year, and Senator Back is in the AFR again today on the subject. At The Conversation, Geoff Sharrock has a different take on the same idea, proposing that annual superannuation payments by employers be diverted into meeting that year’s HELP repayments.

You would have to be a bit desperate use superannuation, on which you can reasonably hope to earn a 5-10% a year rate of return on average, to pay off a debt with 2-3% interest. But the proposals are about cash flow, not long-term financial advantage. Any HELP debtor who earns the repayment threshold has to repay more than $2,000 a year, and someone on $100,000 a year will have to repay at least $8,000. While people on these incomes are not poor by general community standards, they could reasonably regard their current needs as more important than additional wealth or consumption in the future.

There is good evidence that people manipulate their income to stay below the HELP repayment threshold (see for example figure 22 on page 40 of our recent report), even though many of them probably will repay eventually. So there would probably be some demand for trading in super for repaying HELP. The Sharrock plan is likely to have more voter appeal than the Adams plan, which will only have the desired effect for debtors who have enough accumulated superannuation to clear their entire debt (as HELP repayments are only based on current income, not outstanding balance*). Most new bachelor-degree graduates will have too little in their super accounts to clear the $20,000 to $40,000 they will typically owe after completing an undergraduate degree, but as Sharrock shows the 9.5% of income annual compulsory superannuation investment is always higher than the compulsory HELP repayment.

But should the government allow superannuation to be used in this way? The two big issues are whether superannuation should be diverted from its core retirement savings purposes, and whether it will save the government money as well as being more convenient for debtors.

Adams is aware of the criticisms, particularly around the long-term impact on retirement income. He says people could be required to make up the contributions later. As with HELP repayment on family income, this would be complex to administer and enforce. It needs a counter-factual amount that would have been saved, and a plan for how it is going to be reached. Sharrock just observes that in his plan most graduates would still have decades of work ahead of them. In part, how big an issue this is will also depend on the level of HELP debt.

Perhaps the bigger danger to retirement savings is the precedent using superannuation for HELP would set. While people who have not been to university don’t have HELP repayments, they do on average have lower incomes, so it is hard to say that HELP debtors have any unique cash flow issues (apart, perhaps, from those created by lifestyle expectations). Adams provides an intellectual differentiation between using HELP for other purposes, such as buying a house, and using it to repay HELP. But inevitably the details would be lost as other people tried to free their superannuation savings for more urgent uses.

The other big question is the effect on the government’s finances. There is value to the government in earlier repayment of HELP debt through lower interest subsidies, and possibly in reduced doubtful debt (although people who think they might not repay in full will be less likely to use their super for early repayment). But the government will lose the taxation it would receive on superannuation funding earnings. Super for HELP also seems open to rorting, by salary sacrificing into superannuation and then using the money to repay HELP debt. It would be a back door way of restoring the bonus for repaying ‘early’ that will otherwise be abolished next year. Many years in the future, there may also be additional issues with people whose super savings are too low for retirement who end up having to rely on government payments.

While I do want HELP debt to be repaid more quickly, on balance I don’t think diverting money from superannuation is the way to do it.
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*Unless HELP repayment is completed during the year.

Should HELP repayments be based on family income?

The Fairfax papers this morning have stories on a ‘push’ to repay HELP debtor from family income, in which I am quoted extensively. This idea is considered in our latest Grattan report on lowering the HELP threshold for individual debtors, but we did not propose it.

The appeal in the idea is that our analysis suggests that many HELP debtors who are not currently repaying, and likely a much larger proportion of debtors at risk of never repaying, live in reasonably affluent households. The reason they are not earning more than the $54,000 threshold is that they don’t need to, because another family member makes enough money that the household can maintain reasonable living standards without two full-time earners. It’s a little hard to read, but the slide below from the report shows the disposable (ie after tax and with non-taxable benefits) income of the households affected by our proposed $42,000 threshold. That’s not the whole situation – it excludes households where all HELP debtors earn less than $42,000, or over $54,000. But it illustrates how personal HELP debtor income is not a good guide to overall personal living standards.

family income

While repaying HELP from family income would make a big difference, it was not recommended for a range of reasons:

* How would we determine whether a couple was a couple for HELP repayment purposes? There are some clear potential markers, such as marriage or kids. But only about half the 20-something graduates who were living together as a couple in the 2011 census were legally married. What if you were legally married but had split?

* It would make life more difficult for employers, who currently deduct most HELP repayments. Now they can use their own payroll; in future they would have to know spouse or partner income as well. More people would make incorrect repayments during the year, and could be hit with major additional repayments at tax return time.

* Who would be legally liable to pay? Presumably it would have to be the debtor, with an assumption that partners would often choose to cover it. But that could mean people getting bills that exceed their income. If the principal income earner refused to pay, it would mean that HELP caused default, which it is not supposed to do. If the principal income earner was forced to pay, it would be an unusual case of someone becoming liable for debts they never took out.

While I would not say we should never, ever, consider a different basis for calculating repayment income, for this report I thought there were too many practical and philosophical issues for it to make the list of recommendations.