Category Archives: Higher education finance

University finances in reasonable shape

The annual summary report of university finances has been released. Overall, it shows that university finances continue to be in reasonable shape, especially compared to the period up until 2004 (2008 was the writing down of asset values due to the global financial crisis). The operating surplus in 2014 was $1.9 billion, or about 7 per cent of revenue. It peaked at 9 per cent of revenue in 2010.

uni finances

Of course, aggregate figures like this can hide trouble at particular institutions. In 2014 compared to recent preceding years there was an increase in the number of institutions reporting deficits from one to three, although this is much better than in earlier years.

Unis reporting deficits

The three universities with deficits in 2014 were Victoria University, University of Tasmania and University of Canberra. The latter two had small deficits, but VU lost $16 million. Most of that was due to its TAFE division, suffering from the general turmoil in the vocational education market. Of the three, only VU has been on the deficit list before in the last 5 years.

Things might be a little worse for 2015, with government grant and student contribution indexation rates low and an efficiency dividend being applied to some grants. However, the international student market will be likely be adding to its already significant profits, which will ease the pain.

Pursuing the demand driven reforms without fee deregulation

According to media reports, new education minister Simon Birmingham is considering proceeding separately with extending the demand driven system to sub-bachelor courses and to higher education providers outside the public university system. Fee deregulation would be dumped.

This is the strategy I have been advocating for months. While it is not a certainty in the Senate, it at least has a realistic chance.

For the reasons outlined in the demand driven review, I believe that it makes policy sense. Politically, it offers a way for the Coalition to limit Labor’s higher education political advantage.

Labor has been going hard on higher education affordability. Yet Labor’s opposition to extending the demand driven system creates a contradiction in their policy. While campaigning strongly against a 20% cut to per student subsidies for students in public universities, they are happy for students in other higher education providers to get no subsidies at all. While campaigning strongly against deregulated fees in public universities, they are ensuring that students in other higher education providers stay in price deregulated courses. Under a revised Coalition package, accepting fee regulation would be the price higher education providers pay for entering the Commonwealth supported system.

From the Coalition’s perspective, the main internal obstacle to this strategy is paying for it. Under the revised package, extending the system would be less costly than as it was announced in May 2014. If higher education providers have to be able to manage within overall Commonwealth supported rates, fewer of them will enter the system. Work we did at Grattan last year (summarised in this Senate submission) estimated that about 60% of courses in non-university providers had total fees at or below Commonwealth supported rates, suggesting that entering the demand driven system would be viable. I don’t know how many students those courses have, but there would be fewer providers entering the system without fee deregulation.

Abandoning fee deregulation for public universities would also provide savings compared to the current forward estimates. There is a common misconception that fee deregulation saves the government money, but in reality it is expensive via HELP interest subsidies and bad debt. The government only saves money if it reduces public funding and replaces it with private funding within a capped system.

I am not opposed to reducing per student Commonwealth contributions to distribute the total pool of Commonwealth funding more fairly across higher education students. But the first priority for controlling higher education expenditure should be dealing with HELP’s costs. Senator Birmingham has made a good start with this through his VET FEE-HELP reforms.

Rather than abandoning loan fees, as proposed under the Pyne package, they should be levied on all students who borrow. There is a sort-of loan fee already for Commonwealth supported students. The discount for paying up-front is another way of saying there is a fee for not paying up-front. But this discount does not generate any extra revenue for the Commonwealth, and it needs to be converted to one that does. There are also a range of other desirable reforms to the initial threshold for repayment (in the original Pyne package), indexation of thresholds, and recovery from deceased estates.

Getting savings measures through the Senate is always more difficult than getting spending measures approved. But there now does seem to be a chance that the Coalition can make a positive higher education reform in this parliamentary term, while still getting higher education to play its part in controlling the deficit.

Some first thoughts on Labor’s higher education policy

Labor has released its higher education policy today. Some first thoughts:

The sensible

* They want to build on the new QILT website (itself a big improvement on MyUniversity) to provide better information to students and parents in making informed choices. It’s not in Labor’s policy, but I would suggest that there are two big information gaps for prospective students at the moment. For QILT, the units of analysis are the course and the university. However, as the attrition rates reported elsewhere in Labor’s policy imply the more important unit of analysis may be the prospective student – ie, student attributes matter more than university or course attributes in predicting completion. The other issue is that while prospective students are getting improved information about choices within higher education and vocational education (see the MySkills website), there is not much on the choice between higher education and vocational education. But that’s the choice people with weaker academic backgrounds need to be considering.

* They would keep the demand driven system. Previous talk of using compacts as a backdoor way of steering the supply side of the demand driven system is absent from this document, and if it has been dropped I think that is a good thing.

* There would be better processes: a green and white paper to sort out the detail of their policy once in government. They are also proposing a Higher Education Productivity and Performance Commission. The main discussion about the Commission is on labour market forecasting, but there is much else it could do to meet the goals implied by its title.

The neutral

* They are promising a ‘Student Funding Guarantee’, which they say will boost per student funding by $2,500 ‘compared with the Liberals’ plan’. Perhaps compared to the 2014 Budget policy, but not so far as I can see compared to the status quo, which is the most likely outcome under the Liberals as well, even if they would rather spend less. Just indexing the current average per student funding rate by 2.5% a year I get quite similar projections to Labor. Incidentally, 2.5% is less than universities would like, but in recent times weak wage growth means that the indexation system Labor introduced last time they were in office is not producing the increases in grants that universities thought it would.

Incidentally, the wording in the document is not always as careful as it could be, blurring the distinctions between per student funding and per student government funding. Universities won’t be 40 per cent better off per student each year under Labor; without spending cuts or fee deregulation it is just that more of their money will come from government. The accountability pressures may differ slightly depending on whether the government or students pay, but a dollar is a dollar regardless of where it comes from. Apart from ideological considerations around public-private funding shares, so far as I can see universities will be financially indifferent between Labor in 2018 and the status quo (which is just Labor policy as of 2012).

The not so good

* Labor’s plan to write off the HELP debt of 100,000 STEM graduates was controversial when it was announced in May. As I said at the time, it is at best wasteful and at worst will encourage prospective students to take high employment risk courses. The Higher Education Productivity and Performance Commission will be able to identify the problems.

* They will not implement the Kemp-Norton report recommendation to extend the demand driven system to non-university providers or sub-bachelor degrees. However, they will announce further policies regarding the TAFE system and pathway programs prior to the election.

No need to spend more than $2 billion promoting STEM subjects

Unfortunately Labor’s promise to write-off the HELP debt of 100,000 science, technology, engineering and maths graduates suggests that they have learned little from their previous mistakes in this area. Following a 2007 election promise, to boost science and maths they cut student contributions and introduced a HECS-HELP benefit, under which around $1,700 a year of HELP debt is written off if graduates work in specified occupations related to their degree.

The cut in student contributions was strongly promoted, and there has been on-going advocacy for STEM disciplines from the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. There has been a big increase in science demand and domestic undergraduate enrolments – up 35 per cent between 2008 and 2013, or more than 21,000 full-time equivalent places. By far the largest increase has been in the biological sciences, which made up nearly 40 per cent of the total. Engineering, which did not have a cut in student contributions, increased by 32 per cent over the same period, with more than 8,000 additional full-time equivalent places. Science demand kept growing in 2013 and 2014, despite student contributions being put back up again.

As I have long argued, there has never been any evidence that we need a significant boost in bachelor-level science graduates. The latest employment data confirms that the surge of completions in science is only leading to serious un- and under-employment among science graduates, who have been hit especially hard in the general graduate employment downturn. So it is hard to argue that there is any general problem to solve in the first place.

sci take 3

Possibly there are still some niche employment issues in say secondary maths and science teachers – although they have fallen off the skills shortage list. But a promise to write off a few tens of thousands of dollars in student debt is unlikely to change how many people see a teaching career. Even for financially motivated students, the cost of university is not high relative to career earnings for full-time professionals. Perhaps the main thing that will drive graduates to teaching is that they may have few other options, thanks to the over-supply of graduates.

Course and career choices are primarily about interests and aptitudes, with long-term earnings a factor. These can be influenced – people have multiple interests and are not necessarily aware of all the suitable course and career opportunities. But this influence can be achieved without writing off more than $2 billion in student debt (we get similar numbers to the government). A few million dollars in marketing expenditure would probably have the same effect, if this was a desirable outcome – which it is not. Labor’s latest policy is, unfortunately, only likely to to encourage people to make choices that put them at high employment risk.

The Budget significantly understates likely student-driven higher education spending

Compared to last year, for higher education the 2015-16 Budget is uneventful. But the problem with the Budget papers is that they assume that several things that are unlikely to occur will happen. In particular, they assume that Commonwealth contributions will be cut, domestic undergraduate student fees will be deregulated, and that students at private universities and non-university higher education providers will enter the publicly-funded system. While I think only fee deregulation is completely impossible with the current Senate, on the government’s current legislative strategy it is not clear how any of these proposals will become law.

The government’s reform package not passing the Senate will have both positive and negative effects on the Budget forward estimates. The reform package had two significant costs: added subsidies from more students becoming eligible for Commonwealth-supported places, and added doubtful HELP debt from fee deregulation. From this perspective, the Budget is over-stating likely higher education spending.

However, the Budget is also assuming that per student subsidies will be lower than in fact they will be, as the government is still pursuing per student funding cuts averaging 20 per cent. It is also, I think, assuming an efficiency dividend (I can’t see it mentioned but I have not seen an announcement that it is no longer being pursued), and a change to the grant indexation system (although this change would not deliver any significant short term savings). From this perspective, the Budget is under-stating likely higher education spending.

Calculating the net effects of these changes is difficult on the information presented in the Budget. We have used varying scenarios about public university-only student numbers, indexation and the efficiency dividend. Based on these scenarios, the forward estimates understate likely government spending on the Commonwealth Grant Scheme by between $2.5 billion and $3.7 billion. In other words, universities will receive between $2.5 billion and $3.7 billion more than the Budget papers suggest.

On currently available information, we cannot provide a sensible revision to projected HELP costs. Compared to information on HELP published late last year, HELP’s costs have been revised down. The 2015-16 Budget papers suggest that VET FEE-HELP borrowers will shrink from 225,500 to 128,000 between 2014-15 and 2015-16. If so, that is a remarkable response to current efforts to clean up the vocational education industry. They are also predicting fewer HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP borrowers.

The ‘performance indicator’ for the proportion of new HELP loans that are expected not to be repaid has been reduced by two percentage points across the comparable forward estimates years, so that by 2017-18 it is anticipated to be 21 per cent instead of 23 per cent. While an improvement would flow from fewer VET FEE-HELP borrowers, these proportions still look to be on the optimistic side.

Would restoring or increasing discounts for up-front student contribution payments improve’s HELP’s finances?

The Australian this morning is giving a lot of attention to this paper by Neil Warren and Richard Highfield on HELP repayment.

It is a good paper, analysing ‘bunching’ of HELP debtor incomes below important repayment thresholds. The significance of this (for both the government and the debtor) is that if the debtor’s income crosses one of the thresholds they have to pay a higher percentage of all their income in repayment.

This has turned out to be a valuable aspect of HELP’s repayment system compared to those of other countries, where students pay at the margins (eg 9% of income above the threshold). In Australia, anyone who consistently earns above the initial threshold (about $53K this year) is likely to eventually repay all their debt, as they will pay back $2,000+ each year. But in other countries, earnings slightly above the threshold result in only very small repayments. This is one reason that, bad as Australia’s student doubtful debt figures are, they are not as bad as England’s.

However, because crossing a threshold has a high cash cost there are temptations to keep income below it. I have to admit that long ago I considered turning down a pay increase because I thought it would reduce my take-home pay more than I can afford, as someone who at the time had a very tight financial situation. In the end, what was to my boss a generous increase boosted my take-home pay by some token amount (and of course sped up my HECS repayment). What Highfield and Warren present is evidence that some people are using deductions for education, work and charity to bring their taxable income below thresholds.

Their policy suggestion is to change the definition of HELP repayment income so that some or all of these deductions are not included. This is a strategy the government has adopted before to tackle negative gearing and fringe benefits. I need to think more about the education and work deductions, but support removing charitable deductions (the taxpayer would still get the deduction for income tax purposes).

Another suggestion is to revisit the issue of discounts for paying student contributions upfront. The discount was cut from 25 per cent to 20 per cent in 2005, and then to 10 per cent in 2012, with a bill to eliminate it entirely stalled in the Senate. Money never lent will never cause repayment problems, so this has an obvious attraction – if the savings from the reduced lending outweigh the discount’s cost.

However, I am not convinced that the discount is having a big enough effect in encouraging up-front payment to warrant keeping it. The proportion of students paying upfront is in long-term decline, as seen in the chart below. The halving of the discount in 2012 did cause the biggest year-to-year decline in upfront payment in this time series, but it really only sped the trend up, rather than marking an obvious major turning point. We are talking perhaps about 1 to 2 extra percentage points of students paying upfront if they had a stronger financial incentive.

HECS-HELP discount

Cutting the discount has been based in part on the assumption that many of the people paying upfront are not principally motivated by a financial calculation. They are parents paying for their kids, employers paying for their staff, or individuals who don’t want to hold debt even on very low interest rates. Overall, the government is probably better off trying to collect the full student contribution amount via HELP than giving windfall gains to people who will pay upfront anyway.

While it has always made sense to borrow under HECS or HELP, due to the very favourable lending conditions, I am not entirely sure why we are seeing such a strong trend. An increasing share of low SES students might explain some of it, but I suspect there is more going on.

Years to repay student debt as a way of setting student contributions

In The Australian this morning, Melbourne University VC (and my former boss) Glyn Davis has an op-ed saying:

As the 2011 Lomax-Smith report made clear, there is no consistent principle guiding public and private contribution to university study. A law or economics student pays about 83 per cent of the cost of their education while students in other disciplines enjoy a much larger public subsidy. This is not fair.

I have no dispute that the current system of setting overall funding rates and student contributions is untidy. It is the accumulated result of ad hoc decisions going back 25 years. There has been no careful empirical work to ensure that either funding rates or student payments reflect clear funding principles.

That said, I do not believe that the current principles for setting student contributions are inherently ‘unfair’. When different student contributions for different courses replaced previously flat HECS rates in 1997, the stated rationale was the new fees would reflect a mix of private benefit and course costs.* The higher the private benefit, the higher the student charge, with some but not primary acknowledgement of course cost. If course cost is not the major factor in setting the fee, it is not clear that calculations based on course cost denominators tell us much. The implied denominator for a private benefits approach is future earnings or some other measure of private advantage.

The reason law and economics student pay most of their course costs is their high private benefits/low course costs combination. But the idea behind differential HECS was to get a more even outcome on a student costs/graduate private benefits calculation.

I think one interesting way to look at this is to calculate how many years it takes graduates in different disciplines to repay their HELP debt. Based on 2011 census data, we think it would take a median male graduate about 10 years to repay their HELP debt. The chart below shows that even though law students pay high fees, they are estimated to take less time than average to repay, because their salaries are higher than average. Business graduates are estimated to take 11 years, a little above average.

median years reapy

From an egalitarian perspective, something like this system means that graduates across the disciplines put in more similar work effort to repay their debts than a system in which their subsidies are a more consistent percentage of course costs. For example, if we had a 50:50 public/private funding system law graduates would get higher subsidies and take less time to repay, despite already being on the shorter side of the median. Science students would get lower subsidies and take more time to repay, despite already having an above-median repayment period. It was counter-intuitive outcomes like these that sunk the Lomax-Smith recommendation of a 60:40 public/private split.

From a public benefit subsidy perspective, the current system also has some merit. In this analysis, students make some calculation of private benefits (financial and non-financial) from a course and compare these with the costs (also financial and non-financial). If we want to encourage more people to take education generally or particular courses via subsidies we can alter private financial benefits to make them more attractive. But if private benefits are already high, we don’t need subsidies at all or to the same extent. This means that we can charge students in high private financial benefits courses more, regardless of cost.

To reiterate, this is not a defence of the detail of the current system. But there are good reasons not to be too worried about what numbers we get from a student contribution/total course costs calculation, and to look at other rationales for setting student charges.

* I am using ‘course costs’ a bit loosely here; the calculations are actually student contribution/Commonwealth-supported student funding rate. The funding rate is typically around the actual costs, but this varies between disciplines and institutions.

Should New Zealanders be entitled to Australian student loans?

Although tough measures against refugee boat arrivals sometimes give the opposite impression, Australian migration rules overall are about as liberal as they have been since federation. We have multiple uncapped long-term although often temporary visa categories including New Zealanders, 457 work visa holders, international students, and working holiday visas. At the end of 2014, there were nearly 1.4 million people in the country on these visas. Only a small number of people seem to be really thinking through the implications of such a large number, although ad hoc issues come up regularly.

One of these is the status of long-term New Zealand residents of Australia in Australian higher education institutions, a subject mentioned in today’s Australian. Contrary to what the article says, New Zealanders are entitled to subsidised places in Australian public universities, as Australians are in New Zealand universities. However, New Zealanders are not entitled to the HELP student loan schemes, and therefore must pay their student contributions or fees up-front. Australians can borrow in New Zealand if they have lived there for at least three years.

The available statistics don’t tell us exactly the scale of the issue, but in 2013 there were 16,400 New Zealand-born people enrolled as ‘domestic’ students and 16,400 full-time equivalent students paying undergraduate student contributions up-front because they were not entitled to HECS-HELP. There is a bit of coincidence in the numbers as the latter figure includes permanent residents from other countries, while the former number includes postgraduates. But many New Zealanders who have been in Australia for much of their lives, went to Australian schools, talk with Australian accents, and consider themselves Australian for most purposes will nevertheless be paying upfront.

The policy intent behind this rule is reasonable enough. It’s one of several measures designed to ensure that people unlikely to be paying taxes in Australia, and therefore unlikely to repay HELP loans, don’t get to borrow (although it raises the question of if they are not going to stay, why give them any support at all?). But it is out of alignment with the social reality of many of the people it affects.

This has been recognised by the government, and they have an amendment that would allow New Zealanders who have been here ten years or more to be eligible for HELP loans. Unfortunately it is embedded in the ill-fated Pyne higher education reform package bill, and so unlikely to pass the Senate. It’s another reason why we need a three bills strategy to get higher education policy moving again, with this amendment going in a Budget measures bill.

It’s also worth noting that this would have been much less of an issue in the first place if we had measures to collect HELP debt from people living overseas. There are already signs that Australia and New Zealand are moving to assist each other in getting student debt repaid. If international repayment mechanisms were in place, we could have a more integrated Australia-New Zealand higher education market with short waiting times on student eligibility.

OECD comparisons are a poor guide to higher education funding policy

Rodney Tiffen’s Inside Story article on university funding reflects conventional wisdom: that there should be more public funding of higher education. But as is common in these pieces, it only really alludes to possible arguments, rather than spelling them out and exploring their implications.

We start with the familiar claim that Australian spending on higher education is relatively low, as a share of GDP, compared to other OECD countries. There are problems with the data used as it does not include the significant subsidies via the HELP loan scheme, but the basic point is right: on a per place basis Australian students pay more than is common in the European countries that make up most of the nations in the analysis.

Tiffen describes Australia’s low position as a low rank, when in reality the information on public spending is just a list. A rank only makes sense if higher numbers are inherently good and low numbers are inherently bad. But even relying purely on OECD numbers the available evidence counts against this conclusion. Consider higher education attainment rates compared to fees. As the chart below shows, low attainment is mostly found in low fee countries.

I have described this before as the paradox of public funding: that high subsidies can lead to low attainment. A low fee policy is usually aimed at demand-side considerations. But in higher education the problem is usually the supply of student places rather than demand for them. When public funding is limited, it is better to give smaller amounts to a larger number of people (eg Australia) than larger amounts to a smaller number of people (eg many European countries).

fees and attainment 2
Note: 2003-04 fees data used to approximate fees likely to be have been paid by the cohort in the attainment data.

This is a paradox, not a political science law. As the Scandinavian countries show, it is possible to have no fees and high attainment. But this typically occurs as part of a much broader political and economic system. High taxing countries have high public spending on social services, low taxing countries have high private spending on social services. Again OECD data can show the pattern as it applies to higher education.

fees and tax

For graduates, the difference between paying high taxes generally and paying extra ‘tax’ via HELP repayments is likely to be subtle. It is possible that the free-on-delivery mode of education shifts education expenses to a later period in life, when high annual tax bills are more manageable. That could be a benefit of the Scandinavian system, but I have not seen any research that demonstrates the point. But there are mostly likely to be significant issues when there are high taxes and high fees, as seems to be the case in England.

OECD comparisons are heuristics rather than arguments. If Australia differs markedly from other countries it is worth asking if this matters. In Australia’s case, I’d say the answer is no. Fees that are high compared to other countries, but modest compared to private benefits, have helped us deliver higher education to the masses on a tax take that is less than many other OECD countries.

A three bills strategy could break the higher education impasse

The government’s higher education reform package faces its second defeat in the Senate this week. Over the last week controversy has focused on the government’s threat to not renew $150 million in funding to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). This is being denounced today as reckless and bullying.

While threatening not to fund NCRIS looks like a tactic to pressure the Senate to pass fee deregulation, it also reflects the narrowing of options to achieve another important goal of the Pyne package, which is to control total spending on higher education. This has increased rapidly in recent times, with the main teaching subsidy program up 40 per cent in just five years. The previous government tried to introduce cuts, the current government is trying, and the next government will try. With big Budget deficits forecast, higher education cannot escape attention.

In my view the issue is not whether higher education will be cut, but how to do it in ways that cause least harm to public policy objectives in teaching and research. The situation we are in now is that programs are going to be cut according to whether or not the measures need parliamentary approval, not whether the affected programs are low priority or could be funded in other ways.

NCRIS is vulnerable because unlike most other university programs it is funded via the annual Budget appropriations bill. All the government has to do is not include its funding in the bill and the money is saved. The Parliament will not get to consider a bill on NCRIS. I think the demand driven system is also vulnerable in the medium term. From 2017 funding agreements between the government and universities could be used to freeze funding (which is all the government is trying to do; the 20 per cent cut proposed to per student funding is what is needed to control spending while student numbers grow). The Parliament has no power over funding agreements, so they are an obvious way to save money.

The minister doesn’t want to pursue either of these options. He has made much of securing conditional support for NCRIS, which Labor had left out of the forward estimates. He likes the demand driven system so much that he wants to extend it. But with internal government requirements to deliver savings, these programs are among the few feasible options if the Parliament won’t co-operate.

The multi-purpose bill higher education bill currently before the Parliament – with Budget measures, the demand driven reforms and fee deregulation – is complicating efforts to get a good outcome. If Senators are opposed to any of it, they will vote against all of it. Fee deregulation faces the strongest opposition, so leaving it in the bill is an obstacle to achieving the bill’s other two objectives.

In a couple of Senate inquiry submissions I have explained the different sources of the Pyne package and suggested proceeding with them separately.

I think we need three bills: Budget measures, demand driven reform, and student funding rates. One of my submissions suggests reforms to HELP that are not in the current bill but which would save money, lessening the need for big cuts to per student subsidies. While it would still be difficult to get a higher education savings bill through the Senate, it would have a better chance than one that includes fee deregulation. It would also give the government a better political position on NCRIS – indeed, it could include a special appropriation for NCRIS so that it is clear that this is just a Budget issue, and not a tactic around fee deregulation.

So far as I know, none of the cross-bench Senators opposes the demand driven reforms. If there were offsetting savings in the Budget legislation, the government could bring a separate demand driven bill forward and expect it to pass the Senate.

Fee deregulation as it stands will almost certainly fail to pass the Senate. As there is no consensus on alternatives, we need more time to work through the issues. The universities want the extra revenue deregulation would bring, but I don’t think this is urgent for 2016. While the government has invested a lot of political capital in fee deregulation as the big idea of the reform package, a sequenced legislative strategy would maximise their chances of achieving something in higher education in this parliamentary term.