Category Archives: Male and female

The university gender gap

My semi-regular piece in the higher education section of The Age was this week on the gender gap at universities, with women making up 58% of domestic enrolments. The figure below shows the post-WW2 trend. Since 1957 there has been only one year in which women did not gain enrolment share, and that was last year – men picked up 0.08 percentage points of total enrolments.

My initial intuition was that this imbalance was a serious problem, but in the end I was a bit equivocal. Higher education’s loss has been vocational education’s gain, and though fewer people with voc ed than higher ed get very high salaries, upper-level vocational qualifications are as good as insurance against unemployment as a degree.

Due to the relative reluctance of female graduates to work full-time, the uni gender balance clearly has major implications for workforce supply. But apart from the health professions the policy of flooding the labour market with graduates has meant that shortages are occasional and cyclical rather than chronic.

Long ago I suggested that the imbalance was contributing to a shortage of suitable male partners for university-educated women. It’s certainly impossible for every female graduate to find a husband who is also a graduate, though at the time of the 2006 census female graduates were only slightly less likely than male graduates to be partnered.

For male uni students and graduates the imbalance is probably a plus, due to less competition in labour and marital markets.

For the guys doing well enough at school to at least get a certificate III or IV the overall situation is not a disaster. It’s the men with no or lower-level qualifications who are in trouble.

The workforce supply of female graduates

I’m writing a piece for The Age on the feminisation of Australia’s universities. In 2009, 59% of domestic commencing students were women. Overall the proportion of students who are female is a little lower, as there are strong male biases in education in some source countries for overseas students.

The gender shift in enrolments has big implications for the future labour supply of graduates. Though the 2006 census is getting a bit out of date, the figure below is striking. After their 20s, only a minority of female graduates work full-time except for age 50-54, when 51% are full-time workers. Obviously parenting responsibilities are a major factor in this, but even childless women are much less willing to work full-time than men.

I thought these numbers might offer some insight into the finances of the HELP loan scheme, but the ATO tax statistics don’t support this hypothesis.

Women owe 56.6% ofthe outstanding HELP debt, much what we would expect given their share of the student population. The average female balance of $12,361 in 2008-09 is lower than the average male balance of $13,914. I can think of a couple of possible reasons: the strong female majorities in cheap (to the student) courses such as education, nursing and arts; and a larger number of female than male graduates who have old unpaid debts, but at lower totals due to cheap HECS rates in the past.

If the gender age-work patterns persist, it does however raise questions about what happens if student contributions increase. Historically, the average repayment time for HECS/HELP debts is about 8 years. So on lower student contribution amounts, women who graduate in their early 20s could clear all or much of their debt by the time they leave full-time work to raise kids. But if initial debts are larger, that may not be the case.