ATAR and higher education admission

In this morning’s papers, there is controversy over the declining proportion of Victoria universities publishing ‘clearly-in’ ATARs – the ATAR above which all applicants are admitted. In Victoria, the share of courses with a clearly-in ATAR has declined from 40% last year to 25% this year.

Some universities say that ATARs, and especially ATAR cut-offs, can be misleading. ATARs are not necessarily the basis of admission or the only basis. As the chart below shows, in the lower ATARs a significant minority of recent school leavers are admitted to university on some basis other than their secondary education. More will be admitted based on secondary education but without relying on ATAR.

ATAR school leavers

The overall admission process is larger and more complex than for recent year 12 students. For 2014 commencing undergraduate students at public universities, people who had completed school the previous year were around two-thirds of those with ATARs in the enrolment data. The remainder were people who had finished school in earlier years, and people admitted on other grounds, the largest of which were prior vocational education, prior higher education, and mature age entry.

As can be seen in the chart below, this pushes down the share of people admitted based on secondary education, especially in the lower ATAR groups. Only just over a quarter of people with ATARs below 50 were admitted based on their secondary education. The biggest single category was vocational education (31% of admissions). About half of people with ATARs who were admitted based on vocational education had ATARs below 60, confirming it as a pathway into higher education for people who did not feel ready for higher education, or could not get into higher education with their school results alone.

ATAR admission color switch

I’ve consistently opposed minimum ATARs as too blunt a tool for regulating admissions. But the universities have conflicts of interest in this area. They want to fill all their places and avoid any reputational issues from admitting low-ATAR students. Given what we know about the link between low ATAR and non-completion, going to university may not be the best option for low-ATAR students (and indeed most don’t go to university).

And while the published ATAR cut-offs can be misleading, information on the range of ATARs that previously resulted in offers or enrolments would be helpful. They would give prospective students a guide to whether they are likely to be admitted, and to the academic strength of their potential fellow students.

Graduate employment improves a little – but still the second worst outcome ever

The latest graduate employment data supports what ABS data suggested a few weeks ago: that the worst of the graduate employment downturn might be behind us. Early this year, the proportion of new graduates seeking full-time work but without work or only working part-time was fractionally lower than it had been at the same time in 2014. As the chart below shows, though, it is still at historically high levels.

GDS major trend

The discipline-level data shows, unsurprisingly, a less tidy picture. There has been a rebound in construction related occupations, and small improvements in outcomes for big fields such as education and commerce. Mining engineering employment, unsurprisingly, is still heading down and there was an on-going decline in nursing and law. All of these declining fields still have above average levels of graduate employment, but negative trends.

I have been pointing out for many years that, contrary to continuing pro-STEM rhetoric, science is not a good employment option. For the second year running, life science graduates are only narrowly avoiding having the worst employment outcomes of any discipline (visual and performing arts graduates reliably come last in looking for jobs). While outcomes this year were slightly better than last year, 51% of life science graduates were still looking for work 4 months after graduation. Maths, chemistry and physics all trended down, although with small numbers of respondents.

Another STEM discipline, computer science, did slightly worse than the overall average, with 33% un- or under-employment. Of the STEM disciplines, only engineering produces employment outcomes that are significantly better than average, with most improving on 2014.

Labor supports reducing HELP costs

In a surprise move, Labor has agreed to back abolition of the 10% discount for paying student contributions upfront and the 5% ‘bonus’ for voluntary repayments of HELP debt.

For reasons we don’t fully understand, the proportion of people paying upfront has been in decline for a long time, as the chart below shows. Halving the discount in 2012 accelerated a long-term trend but was not a major turning point. The government will hope that the latest change will not dramatically affect the numbers, as borrowing has costs and risks for them.

Previous research has suggested that many of the upfront payments are from parents wanting their kids to be debt free, so perhaps the final abolition won’t make much of a further difference. Indeed, discount abolition may already be partly evident in the data, as anecdotal evidence suggests many people believe it has already been abolished, following on from the original publicity in 2013 when Labor first proposed it (to pay for Gonski; they later reversed their support saying the Coalition was not meeting Gonski commitments, before going back to their original position today).

HECS-HELP
Source: Department of Education Student liability statistics, various years

Any further decline may be due in part due to expanded eligibility for HELP loans. Currently New Zealanders and permanent residents are entitled to a subsidised place have to pay student contributions upfront, but soon some long-term NZ residents will be able to take out HELP loans.

Abolition of the 5% bonus for voluntary repayments is a sensible move. Previous ATO data suggested that it was mostly used by people towards the end of their repayments anyway, when the government would be better off just waiting a little longer and getting the full face value of the loan.

Removing the bonus will also weaken an incentive to borrow under FEE-HELP. Some students can borrow unnecessarily and then repay ‘early’ (ie pay the full amount much later than they could have) and use the bonus to pay less than the face value of the loan. I did this a few years ago to draw attention to this rort. I’m glad it is finally going to be abolished.

Hopefully this signals that Labor is taking HELP’s costs seriously. There is plenty more to do.

Graduate employment up, but fastest growth in less-skilled occupations

Today’s release of the annual ABS Education and Work publication has some good news on graduate employment. After a couple of years in which the total number of graduates with jobs stagnated, in 2005 compared to 2014 they were up by 7.5%. Growth in the number of graduates with managerial and professional jobs, the jobs the ABS classifies as requiring bachelor degrees or above, was lower at 5.3% – but that was still much better than in the two preceding years.

Converted to a percentages of the graduate population the improvement is harder to see. This is because the total number of graduates keeps increasing, up by 287,000 in a year according to this survey (completions according to the Department were 215,000 domestic students and 104,000 internationals – but the total number in the population is affected by migration in and out).

In 2015 the proportion of graduates in work with managerial or professional jobs was about 71%, while the proportion of all graduates with professional or managerial jobs was about 57%. While the time series is complicated by definition changes these are probably the lowest figures yet recorded, as seen in the chart below. However, the numbers are not as bad as recent graduate employment figures might suggest. This is partly because employment numbers improve over time, and partly because it takes time for new cohorts of graduates to significantly influence the total survey. Even with recent big graduating classes, the new entrants to the graduate pool are only about 6% of all graduates.

Ed and Work

Higher education demand still strong

The 2015 final applications data has been released. One important point for me is that there has been a revision to the 2014 unique applicant data – that is, the time series that eliminates double counting to get a count of the number of persons who made an application. As some people use multiple methods of application, applications are only a rough proxy for applicants.

The revision has the effect of turning a stabilisation of demand between 2013 and 2014 into a 2.6 per cent increase. In 2015, total applicant numbers were a further 2 per cent up on 2014, reaching a record 331,460. That increase confirms the conclusion that whatever political impact the Labor/NUS/NTEU $100,000 degree campaign had, there was no discernible impact on market demand.

demand

Growth in offers is more subdued now than it was in the early years of the demand driven system. It increased by 2.4 per cent between 2014 and 2015, compared to 4 per cent or more a year between 2011 and 2013. While universities have slowed their increase in offers, offers have grown at a higher annual percentage rate than applicants every year except one since 2010.

offers

The report does not give us unique acceptances, which would be the strongest guide to first semester 2015 commencing undergraduate enrolments. But acceptance rates for people who applied through tertiary admission centres are up, from 70.3 per cent to 73.4 per cent. Unfortunately TAC time series remain hard to interpret, because this year shows that the long-term move away from TACs for non-school leaver applicants continues.

We’ll have to wait for the enrolment data to know for sure, but the boost in overall offers and the positive TAC applicant response suggests that commencing students will be up again. In one of those ironic policy twists, it might have made Simon Birmingham’s life a little easier if the $100,000 degree campaign had convinced more people that university would be too expensive. Growing student numbers just put more pressure on the system’s fiscal sustainability, and makes savings measures more necessary.

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.

Is the HELP deceased estate write-off a ‘design feature of the policy, not a bug’?

Over at Catallaxy, Sinclair Davidson does not agree with my proposal to recover HELP debts from deceased estates:

Okay so here is the story: Young lady goes to university and meets and marries a high-flyer who earns oodles of money. She raises the children and never works (or works very little) and never pays off her HECS debt. It is really hard to get excited about this issue: people who don’t work or never earn over the repayment threshold are not liable to pay back the HECS – that is a design feature of the policy not a bug. Perhaps some other features should have been included in the HECS design at the time. But as things stand the policy is working as designed and as intended.

This was one of the issues we encountered when writing our report on HELP doubtful debt. Is income contingent repayment the principle behind HECS (or HELP, as it became) or a mechanism for implementing other policy objectives?

The main policy goal at the time was to raise revenue to expand higher education in a way acceptable to the Labor Party, in which many people regarded Whitlam’s free higher education as a major achievement. The Wran review appointed to justify this change made much of the private benefits of higher education, noting that these went disproportionately to the more privileged members of society.

Income contingent repayment, with a threshold at $54,000 now, means that relatively poor people do not have to pay, preserving free education for them. But everyone else has to repay a part of the cost of their education. Income contingency provides risk management for debtors, avoiding the dangers of financial hardship. There is also an income smoothing element to it compared to flat annual repayments, with payments increasing with income.

In my view, risk management and income smoothing are the principles, and income contingent payment the mechanism. The principles restrain but do not abolish the goal of controlling government spending.

The death write-off was never essential to these principles. As risks go, being dead is already as bad as it gets. And while I am no expert on theological theories of the afterlife, I don’t think any of them foresee use of the $A. Income smoothing is no longer required. And the write-off is undoubtedly contrary to the fiscal goals in establishing HECS.

I am not entirely sure why the death write-off was included. We know from released Cabinet documents that the ATO was worried about maintaining records over long periods of time, and bureaucratic resistance to the work involved may have been a factor. They probably thought that the amounts raised would be small, not realising that much of the HELP doubtful debt would be in high-income households. And there would have been political considerations around the small number of young people who die each year with HECS debts. The ATO chasing the $500 in their bank account would not have been a good look.

In our Grattan report, we solve the latter issue by suggesting a $100,000 asset contingent threshold. Anyone owning a house or a share in a house will have that much on death, and we think that will include significant numbers of HELP debtors, but not most young people with HELP debts.

The current write-off policy delivers windfall gains to the beneficiaries of the estates of HELP debtors. Many of these will be the adult children of educated, affluent households in which their mother stopped working or went part-time after they were born. They are not likely to be especially needy members of society. Adding HELP repayments to whatever other debts the estate has is a fair way to reduce HELP’s costs.

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Sinclair’s Catallaxy post assumes the only expense of the write-off policy is the actual write-offs each year. As he says, this cost is not high (they stopped publishing statistics a few years ago, but as of mid-2011 only 10,000 of the 2.7 million people who had ever taken out a HELP loan had died without fully repaying). But each year the Budget includes an expense for lending that year that is not expected to be repaid. In recent times, it has been around $1.5 billion a year.

Why was HECS renamed HELP?

The Australian‘s higher education gossip column High Wired has a suggestion for new higher education minister Simon Birmingham:

HW’s first policy suggestion to Birmo is please reverse the stupid decision to rename HECS as the Orwellian sounding HELP scheme. Can we please go back to HECS? Thank you.

After ten years of HELP I still routinely have to explain that it is like HECS, showing that the HECS brand is very resilient (and still partly there, through HECS-HELP). On the other hand, the shift from HECS to HELP was more than just a re-branding exercise. It reflected the evolution of policy.

Under the original HECS the terminology was mainly about the new payment that students had to make, a Higher Education Contribution. Students accumulated a Higher Education Contribution debt if they chose to borrow the money. HECS ended up describing both the charge and the loan, even though they were two different things.

Even before HELP, there was an accumulation of things students could borrow for on an income-contingent basis but were not ‘contributions’ to the cost of government-subsidised university places: for postgraduate full-fee courses, for OUA courses, and bridging courses for migrants. They all had different names, although the debts were added together for repayment purposes. From 2005 the government decided to also make income contingent loans available to students at non-university higher education providers and for study overseas. Since then, we have added loans for some vocational education students and for the student amenities fees. None of these additional loans are for ‘contributions’ either.

So the decision to call the charge for a government supported place a ‘student contribution’ and to give the loans a single name, the Higher Education Loan Program or HELP for short, seemed to clarify and simplify what was going on (at least until they started lending for non-higher education activities).

In practice, however, there is a lot of confusion. Even people making otherwise reasonably well-informed comments about higher education get the names of the loan schemes muddled. Perhaps it is time to bring back ‘HECS’, as a brand-created word in its own right rather than as an abbreviation, to describe the loan scheme. We could then try to insist on ‘student contribution’ for the charge that can be either paid upfront or borrowed.

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.