Category Archives: Student loans

Should uni students pay a fixed share of total course costs?

In a Conversation article today, Louise Watson revives an idea from the 2011 base funding review (on which she served): that the government and students should each pay a fixed share of the total funding rate for the course the students take. She says:

The wide variation in subsidy levels from 16% to 71% of total course costs is the product of incremental political decisions made by previous governments. Pyne’s proposal to cut government subsidies by 20% across the board does not address these anomalies. It would be fairer if all government subsidies met the same percentage of course costs, regardless of discipline, even though this would cause an increase in some students’ HECS liability.

In the base funding review a 40 per cent student/60 per cent government ratio was suggested; in today’s article Watson refers to a National Commission of Audit suggestion of 45/55.

My Graduate Winners report was a detailed critique of this idea from the perspective of using higher education subsidies to produce public benefits.

But I don’t think the fixed ratio idea is much better from Watson’s perspective of fairness to students. Under the current system, student contributions are mostly based on presumed private benefit from a degree, with a nod to cost differentials in delivering courses. This is how we get apparent anomalies – law has high private benefits but low delivery costs, and therefore the student contribution is a high percentage of the total funding rate.

While the private benefit categorisations are old and were always rather back-of-the-envelope, their practical effect is to even out the number of years it takes to repay a loan. The chart below shows, using 2011 census data, how long it would take male graduates to repay their HELP debt, if they were earning the median income for someone with a bachelor degree in their discipline.

HELP repay

Under the current student contribution system, most repayment times are clustered around the overall average of 10 years.

Under the base funding review flat rate subsidy recommendations, science and agriculture would become much more expensive, even though they already have relatively long repayment times. Law and IT would become cheaper, even though their graduates are already relatively quick to repay. It’s not obvious to me how this improves on fairness.

These issues arise because although we spend more than $6 billion a year on the main tuition subsidy program, nobody knows exactly why. But I think the main practical effect of this spending is that it shortens student debt repayment times, and keeps them clearer of the cash-constrained child-rearing years. This is one of the main things I take from this year’s debate on fee deregulation – while the arguments were often under-developed, people were expressing concern about women carrying debt while they were out of the workforce with kids, and about delays in the capital accumulation needed to enter the property market.

The current student contribution system helps with income smoothing, with graduates eventually paying via high marginal tax rates later in their careers. By causing already long repayment times to extend further, and already short repayment times to reduce still more, the Watson proposal would work against this policy objective.

HELP and vows of poverty

On Twitter I was challenged on the religious colleges point, that there was a difference between being eligible for FEE-HELP loans and directly receiving tuition subsidies. Having just checked the census income numbers, looking at ministers of religion and graduates of ‘religious studies’, it seems that in this case there may not be so much difference between the two.

In 2011, the year of the last census, the threshold for repayment of HELP was an annual income of about $47,000. Unfortunately that does not neatly fit with the census income categories, falling into one with the range of $800-$999 a week.

The slide below shows incomes for ministers of religion, with 47 per cent definitely earning below the threshold (the bars show the cumulative percent of ministers), with another 16 per cent in the income range including the threshold.

ministers of religion

The results for people with degrees in ‘religious studies’ are even worse. For this group, 56 per cent earn less than threshold and another 12 per cent have an income in the the threshold’s income range.

religious studies

By contrast, for graduates generally 34 per cent are clearly below the threshold and another 12 per cent have an income in the threshold range.

There are many people who are below the threshold in a given year who will still repay eventually, as they are temporarily out of the workforce or working part-time. But religious vocations are often characterised by the religiously-motivated forgoing of material luxury, and also payment-in-kind by the church, such as free or heavily subsidised accommodation. These factors are likely to put some ministers of religion below the threshold for their careers, despite working full-time.

This means that the effective costs of extending tuition subsidies to religious colleges is likely to be less than what I estimated yesterday, as some of the tuition subsidies will just replace debt that will never be repaid anyway.

What proportion of uni graduates leave Australia permanently?

In our Grattan report on HELP doubtful debt, we struggled to get long-term data on graduates leaving Australia. We were interested in this issue because currently there are no provisions for recovering HELP debts from graduates living overseas.

The latest HILDA Statistical Report doesn’t report on HELP debtors, but it does include information on people with a bachelor degree or above. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are more likely than people with other qualifications to leave Australia permanently, as seen in the figure below.

emigration by level

Based on general emigration data, our report assumed that graduates with personal or family links to another country would be more likely to emigrate. HILDA confirms that this is the case, with people with both parents born in a non-English speaking country having three times the emigration rate as people with both parents born in Australia. However, 87% of people with NESB parents remained.

emigration by parent birthplace

Reflecting the general Australian population and the education focus of many migrant groups, nearly half of Australia’s domestic students in 2011 had at least one parent born overseas. While HELP debtors going overseas is a much smaller issue than the deceased estate write-off, these numbers suggest that it would be worthwhile to do more to recover HELP from overseas debtors. The Grattan doubtful debt report discusses some of the practical issues in doing so. Since the report was released, the government has said that it has had discussions with the English about mutual efforts to help collect student debt.

Parent birthplace 2011 students

Higher education reform clarifier #3: Would compound interest on HELP debt be new?

At a conference I attended yesterday there seemed to be some confusion about the government’s plan to index HELP debt at the 10 year bond rate, capped at 6 per cent, rather than at CPI. There was a lot of concern about introducing ‘compound interest’.

In the context of HELP, compound interest is the paying of interest on previously accrued interest added to a student’s debt. This has been a feature of Australia’s income contingent loans, HECS and then HELP, from the start. What’s changing is not the fact of compounding, but the rate of interest. Based on recent history, this is likely to be 1 to 2.5 per cent higher than now.

The main alternative to these variable real interest rates is a loan fee. Undergraduates borrowing under FEE-HELP pay a 25 per cent loan fee. This provides an incentive to pay up-front, avoiding the taxpayer subsidising interest payments on loans from people who have the cash to pay for their education, and contributing to the cost of interest. Upfront payment allows the government to avoid the risk of doubtful debt. However, once the loan fee is incurred it does not provide much incentive to repay early.

The government is removing the FEE-HELP loan fee. It was certainly unfair that full-fee undergraduates had to pay it, but not full-fee postgraduates. HECS-HELP borrowers also make no contribution to the cost of their loan other than the CPI interest.* But I am not sure that the idea of a loan fee should be dismissed. It makes the total cost of higher education more predictable for borrowers, and manages the risks of periods of earning less than the threshold for repayment. At the same time, a loan fee could substantially reduce the cost of HELP to other taxpayers.
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Higher education reform clarifier #1: Will NIDA students pay more?

The higher education reforms announced on Budget night are causing some confusion. Complex reforms are being added to an already complicated system. I am planning on a series of clarifying blog posts to explain what is happening, of which this is the first.

The SMH is running a story on prospective students concerned about fee hikes at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, NIDA.

NIDA is unusual in being subsidised out of the arts budget rather than the education budget. I can’t see anything in the relevant portfolio budget papers about whether NIDA has taken a hit to its funding.

This means that even though NIDA’s students are subsidised, they are classed as full fee by the HELP scheme and borrow under FEE-HELP rather than HECS-HELP. The higher education legislation does not regulate the tuition fees NIDA charges.

For FEE-HELP undergraduates, there is currently a 25% loan fee (eg, a student who borrows $10,000 will have a $12,500 debt recorded). This will be abolished, reducing the initial cost of attending NIDA assuming no further fee changes. However, students will in future be charged an interest rate based on the 10-year bond rate rather than CPI.

NIDA has typically pitched its fee around the level of undergraduate student contributions in comparable courses. If these increase at universities then it is possible that NIDA will see market space to increase its own fees. But there is nothing in the Budget higher education reforms that will require them to lift their charges.

The SMH article quotes 23-year old Oliver Wicks, soon to complete an arts degree, as reconsidering pursuing an education at NIDA due to potential increased cost. However, any increased fees are the least of his worries. As Grattan’s recent HELP doubtful debt report found, a high proportion of performing arts graduates don’t earn enough to start repaying.

Will the new Student Start-up Loan save money?

Today the Liberals introduced legislation for Labor’s conversion of the Student Start-up Scholarship into a new income-contingent loan, the Student Start-up Loan.

Overall, its design is closely linked to the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). However, people who take out SSLs will not have to start repaying until after they have repaid their HELP debt. Potentially, that is not for a very long time.

Experience with the former Student Financial Supplement Scheme, under which students could trade in $1 of income support for a $2 loan, suggest that there is significant adverse selection with income support loans.

From figures given during discussion of closing the SFSS down in 2003, I estimate that about $2.7 billion was lent between 1993 and 2003. The Department’s annual report for 2012-13 says that $1.8 billion is still owed, of which they class 63% as doubtful debt. Doubtful debt for HELP is estimated at 23%.

Presumably this is from a mix of people taking out loans they never expected to repay and income support entitlement being a proxy for other characteristics that put people at above-average risk of being bad debtors.

In this case, the Commonwealth can’t be financially worse off. This is a loan replacing a grant, so long as repayments exceed administration costs they will come out ahead.
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Does HELP kill price competition?

In The Australian this morning, Bruce Chapman returns to one of the few topics on which we disagree: whether there can be price competition under an income-contingent loan scheme.

“Price competition is not on because the behavioural responses are close to nothing,” Professor Chapman said. “Governments should set the fee where they think it’s fair.”

We need to be careful here in distinguishing different circumstances.

I think Bruce is largely right for the school leaver market and the yes/no decision as to whether to go to uni. This has been confirmed again by recent British experience. Despite a near tripling of average fees, demand from 18 year olds is at near-record levels.

But that is not the same as saying that prospective students do not take price into account in comparing similar programs. The figure below compares MBA costs at different unis in the Melbourne and Sydney markets (Melbourne’s MBA is very expensive, but its pricing structure is so confusing that I have not included it on annualised basis). There are fairly predictable patterns based on reputation and prestige. But Deakin, RMIT, UTS and UWS get themselves into the market by charging more affordable fees.

MBA fees

It has to be true that HELP fosters higher fees. As with any loan system, it increases the number of people with enough capital to buy. But that does not mean that particular institutions will not compete on price. Strict price control is unlikely to be desirable, because it puts less-prestigious unis at a competitive disadvantage and limits scope for product innovation.

To me the policy question is whether supporting the very high fee courses with HELP is sensible investment in human capital, or whether it is just supporting largely wasteful status competition between universities.

New book on the Dawkins higher education revolution

Last night The Dawkins Revolution 25 Years On, which I co-edited with Simon Marginson, Julie Wells and Gwil Croucher, was launched by the Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, with a right of reply by John Dawkins himself.

In my chapter on the Coalition, I described Dawkins as the most important education minister yet to hold office. Gillard’s combined tenures as education minister and then prime minister might yet see her take that title, but for now it is both the scale and durability of what Dawkins did that puts him in the top position.

These include:

* The mergers of many institutions and the transformations of former colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology into universities (discussed in chapters by Simon Marginson and Ian Marshman and Gavin Moodie).

* The introduction of HECS (discussed in a chapter by Bruce Chapman and Jane Nicholls).

* The introduction of a system of setting funding rates by discipline that is still the basis of today’s rates (discussed in a chapter by Ross Williams).

* A substantial expansion in student numbers (discussed in a chapter by Richard James, Tom Karmel and Emmaline Bexley).

* Increased the role of competitive grants in funding research (discussed in a chapter by Gwil Croucher and Frank Larkins).

* Contributed substantially to the opening up of Australian higher education to international students, including a prior period as trade minister (discussed in a chapter by Margaret Gardner).

* Started deregulation of postgraduate coursework markets.

Most reforms since then have built on the foundations of Dawkins. As I argue in my chapter, the 1999 Kemp reform proposals (which I worked on as his higher education adviser) were the only major attempt to over-turn Dawkins in favour of a more market-driven system.

Those reforms were destroyed after the Cabinet submission was leaked to Labor. Ironically, it was Labor ten years later that introduced a version of the ‘voucher’ system proposed in 1999.

Should the HELP debt be sold?

The government is now hosing down yesterday’s speculation that the accumulated student HELP debt will be sold.

There are good financial reasons for not selling, as Matt Cowgill explained yesterday. Investors would only buy the HELP debt if they could get it for less than they thought it was worth, in which case the government should not sell unless it is desperate for cash. But for now at least financial markets are willing to lend to them at low interest rates.

I believe that there are also good political reasons not to sell now. HELP’s costs are very high, mostly at the moment due to a prediction that 19% of new loans will not be repaid (at p.93 of the portfolio budget papers). Due to the low interest rates government is paying at the moment that is not currently a big expense. But with total debt likely to be over $30 billion now, even small increases in government bond rates can translate into major additional outlays.

These costs need to be brought down. But rule changes to benefit investment banks will not be an easy political sell. It’s hard enough to sell public interest rule changes that help bring total government spending back down towards total government income.

The $2.3 billion higher education ‘saving’ that nobody is talking about

In April, there was fury in higher education circles over billion of dollars in cuts to higher education-related spending (how much depends on how many years of the forward estimates you count). But comparison of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 budget papers suggests that the government is anticipating another large saving that nobody is talking about – revised down estimated future costs of the HELP loan scheme.

The chart below shows that over the future overlapping years of the two budgets (2013-14 to 2015-16) the saving will total about $2.3 billion. A small part of this reduction is the announced removal of the discount for paying student contributions up-front and the bonus for repaying early. But most of it is a big reduction in future anticipated interest costs.

HELP saving

The method they use for calculating the interest cost is apparently in accordance with accounting standards, though it is very confusing and does not aid understanding of the policy issues. The method we have used at Grattan (pages 42-45) is more straightforward (so far we arrive at similar numbers to the Department). We look at the difference between the interest the government is paying on its debt and the CPI inflation interest they are charging on outstanding HELP debt. The difference between them is the interest subsidy (or profit; it’s happened once).

Essentially, the government is borrowing quite cheaply at the moment, and they anticipate that this will continue in the few years covered by the forward estimates. But due to the huge amounts outstanding on HELP even small movements in bond rates could have major cost consequences. At the end of the forward estimates period, every 1 percentage point gap between the bond rate and CPI would add around $500 million to the interest subsidy.

The loan scheme gets little attention from universities; money they or currently enrolled students don’t receive is invisible to them. But HELP is a major part of higher education funding, and controlling its costs needs to be part of an overall higher education funding policy.