Category Archives: Student loans

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.

Most HELP debtors are not currently repaying

Yesterday the ATO released tax statistics for the 2010-11 financial year. With the education department seemingly no longer publishing its annual higher education report the ATO tax statistics are the main source of information on some aspects of the HELP loan scheme.

Only about a quarter of HELP debtors, or 383,000 out of 1.57 million, made a repayment in 2010-11. The ATO classifies 593,000 people as ‘paying off’ their debt, presumably counting people who have made a repayment but have since fallen back below the threshold or have disappeared overseas (the number of people who are listed as overseas or with an unknown postcode more than tripled to 32,365, but I think this number is unreliable).

The reason is that HELP debtors are clustered in the lower income groups, as seen in the figure below. Many of them will still be students, but the largish number (122,000) in the $40,000-$49,999 range suggests that fiddling with the threshold for repayment, which was $45,000 in 2010-11, might substantially increase the number of people repaying. At the other end of the income spectrum, 5 HELP debtors had taxable incomes exceeding $1 million.

HELP debtor incomes 2011

The number of HELP debtors with $50,000+ debts increased from 15,143 in 2009-10 to 23,664 in 2010-11. This probably reflects FEE-HELP borrowers and more people staying in the system for long periods of times, such as those doing initial professional entry qualifications under the Melbourne Model.

Repayments through the tax system are increasing, as seen in the figure below. Repayments increased by more than repayers (7%/3%). But there is still far more being lent than being recovered (they don’t report on financial years, but I would estimate $3.5 billion in lending versus $1.3 billion in compulsory repayments).

HELP repayments

Is the student amenities fee loan scheme constitutional?

On the 7.30 current affairs program the other night, constitutional lawyer George Williams suggested that the Williams case High Court ruling might have implications for universities.

The case revolved around the constitutionality of the school chaplains program. Though reported in the past as about religion, the court in the end found for Williams on a ground concerning the executive power of the Commonwealth to act without legislation.

University funding does have a legislative basis. Its main constitutional backing is in section 51

(xxiiiA) the provision of maternity allowances, widows’ pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, medical and dental services (but not so as to authorize any form of civil conscription), benefits to students and family allowances; (emphasis added)

Three of the seven judges had something to say about what ‘benefits to students’ meant. Justice Kiefel said:

Social services provided to students might take the form of financial assistance, for example payment of fees and living and other allowances, or material assistance, such as the provision of books, computers and other necessary educational equipment, or the provision of services, such as additional tutoring. The term “benefits” in the context of s 51(xxiiiA) does not extend to every service which may be supportive of students at a personal level in the course of their education.

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Should HELP be extended to vocational education students?

Yesterday the Prime Minister said the government would extend income contingent loans to students studying for ‘high-level’ vocational skills (diploma-level voc ed courses already have HELP loans in some cases). Various concerns have been expressed in today’s paper.

One of my concerns is that this would be overly costly for taxpayers if the existing HELP loan scheme is used. This is because the repayment system is designed for graduate level income, not the incomes of people with vocational qualifications. It is not entirely clear what Gillard is proposing, but in 2009 the median annual income of someone with a certificate III or IV qualification was $45,600. In that year the threshold for repaying a HELP loan was $43,151.

The median is all workers, so the median for new workers would be lower (though in these lines of work, income tends to plateau early). This suggests that there would be large numbers of slow or non-repayers, with consequent interest and bad debt costs for taxpayers.

The HECS-HELP handout nobody is taking

Back in 2007, I thought that Labor’s election promise to introduce HECS remissions for people entering specified occupations might have something going for it, at least compared to other mechanisms for steering labour market preferences via higher education funding.

It’s not paid unless the graduate actually enters the desired occupation, and provides near-term financial relief, which is more attractive than cuts to student contributions – which effectively mean that someone entering first year will typically gain financially in 8 to 12 years time (when they finish repaying earlier than they would have otherwise). (The ATO site on the scheme is here.)

However a report in The Australian this morning shows that only 405 people applied for the benefit for 2009-10, and only 232 were approved.

This is consistent with some analysis of graduate occupational choices by Graduate Careers Australia, done at my request comparing the first year of the program (2009) with the year before. Statistically, the two years were identical in the proportion of graduates entering the occupations being favoured by the government. I did not publish the data at the time because GCA argued that the scheme was new and that 2009 was a bad year for graduate employment, so more people could have tried to enter those occupations but failed (though if there are no jobs anyway, a policy aimed at increasing demand for non-existent jobs is not necessary).

The 2010 data should be examined, but the very small numbers claiming the benefit suggests that this scheme is so unsuccesful that the government can’t even give money away (far more than 232 would have been able to claim just for pursuing the career they were going to pursue anyway).

Perhaps this policy escaped the last couple of rounds of higher education cuts because its failure meant its costs were much lower than anticipated. But as the government is imposing cuts on the public service, getting rid of a complex and bureaucratic policy that is not obviously achieving anything would make sense.

A degree and net worth

Last Friday the ABS put out their latest report on household wealth and wealth distribution. This includes average ‘study loan’ debt, though there is nothing in the ‘assets’ section on the value of human capital. This is not a criticism of the ABS; human capital is not a directly tradeable asset and there are substantial methodological issues in valuing it.

Nevertheless, for most younger people their human capital is their most important asset. If what we are hoping to measure is capacity to command resources over the longer term (superannuation is included), then excluding human capital gives a fundamentally misleading idea of how wealth is distributed.

Combining numbers from two tables gives us an idea of what impact this has. The highest average HECS debt is in the households with the lowest net worth. Unfair! Students impoverished by debt! But looking at average HECS debts by gross household income quintiles things are reversed – the highest average HECS debt is in the top income quintiles. Equity! The rich being forced to pay their way!

What I suspect is happening here is that the net worth numbers are picking up many new households, graduates starting to earn good salaries but still renting and with little superannuation. But the household income numbers are picking up graduates living together; since they tend to overtake the incomes of non-graduates early in their careers putting two or more graduates together in a household gives them high collective earnings.

Because there are very large life cycle effects in wealth distribution, it will always be far more equal over a lifetime than at any one time. HECS/HELP will make it mildly more progressive.