Microcredentials should not get FEE-HELP assistance

In the last two years the government – the current and former governments are indistinguishable on this point – has encouraged universities to offer ‘microcredentials’, which certify and sell smaller bodies of knowledge and skills than an AQF qualification.

Government support for microcredentials

Late last month Labor reintroduced a Coalition amendment to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 that would extend FEE-HELP income-contingent loans to microcredentials, although with the potentially limiting caveat of ‘that meet the requirements specified in the FEE‑HELP Guidelines.’

Last week they promulgated a legislative instrument for the Coalition’s ‘microcredential pilot’, which offers subsidies to Table A universities to develop microcredentials. According to the explanatory memorandum ‘the purpose of the program is to examine newer, shorter forms of industry focused learning aimed at supporting people to upskill and reskill in areas of national priority such as health, teaching, IT and engineering.’

The pilot does not seem designed to attract applications – universities would have to give away their IP and accept Job-ready Graduates Commonwealth and student contributions – but the bigger issue is FEE-HELP.

Do microcredentials require government intervention?

Contrary to the impression given by some microcredential discussions, people taking short courses to increase their skills is nothing new. The ABS has asked about structured learning not for a credential many times over decades, and always found it is the most common form of post-school education on a headcount basis. The latest ABS survey is no different. Short courses overtake credentialed education by a person’s late 20s, as the chart below shows.

Microcredentials add certification and perhaps standardisation to short courses, which might increase short course informational value in the labour market. But lack of these things has not stopped this market functioning on a large scale. Proxy indicators of employee suitability such as qualifications are important for young or career shifting job applicants, but for people already established in their careers observation – directly by employers, by reputation or referee report – is usually the main information source.

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Careers in higher education policy – a few reflections at my 25 year mark

Twenty-five years ago today I started my career in higher education policy – although I did not then know I was starting a career rather than a job – when I began in education minister David Kemp’s office as his higher education adviser. Since leaving this role I have been a higher education policy adviser to University of Melbourne vice-chancellors, the higher education program director at the Grattan Institute, and now ‘professor in the practice of higher education policy’ at the ANU.

Few people spend most of their careers in higher education policy. Career paths are limited or at least not easily planned in advance. Three of my four higher education jobs did not exist before I was appointed to them. At various points I considered alternative careers but higher education policy opportunities appeared and I took them.

Since the late 1990s a higher education policy career has, at least in one respect, become easier. Based on my interactions as a ministerial adviser only a handful of university staff at the time had primary responsibilities including government relations and/or higher education policy. Contact was usually made by senior university staff responsible for whatever issue they had to raise, or matters were delegated to the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee (later Universities Australia).

When I started my U of M adviser role, leaving the government after the first of my major higher education political failures, it was a new position. Since the late 1990s, however, new higher education lobby groups and a proliferation of university policy adviser positions have made this kind of higher education policy work easier to find. What influence these advisers have on the direction of institutional and public policy is not clear, but their jobs create career options and a policy community that were not there before.

In other areas, however, higher education policy careers are more difficult. Regular public service ‘efficiency dividends’ have reduced the chance of a job in the Department of Education’s higher education division. The remaining staff spend too much of their time administering counter-productively complex and bureaucratic policies. Senior jobs often go to people with generic public service skills rather than specific higher education expertise.

The Department’s policy analysis and development capacity has been undermined in other ways too. It used to commission research regularly, but now this happens only occasionally. The exception is long-term support for equity research, which is worthwhile in itself but creates an imbalance. We have much more research on small-scale equity programs than multi-billion dollar programs such as the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, HELP and student income support.

The higher education sector also shows a surprising lack of curiosity about itself. The academics working regularly on higher education policy issues are small in number and scattered around the country, with no institution possessing the critical mass needed to pursue a major research agenda outside of equity issues – and equity research would be stronger if integrated with work on the bigger programs that ultimately drive opportunities for equity students.

Politics has its own imperatives and a strong policy community cannot guarantee good policy. But the last few years of government higher education policy have sometimes seemed like one of those Twitter threads that start with ‘wrong answers only’. Would Job-ready Graduates have made it through the policy process if we had accessible research on the drivers of student choices and university supply decisions? If we better understood the relationships between student debt, repayment times, and HELP’s costs to government?

The state of the higher education policy community means that Labor’s Universities Accord process, which sounds like a comprehensive review of higher education policy, is a high risk project. The university submissions will probably be of higher average quality than 20 years ago, but only a limited pool of people have the knowledge and experience needed to produce a politically feasible policy with a reasonable chance of achieving its goals.

The public-private balance: A failed rationale for setting student contributions

A previous post on the reasons given by government for setting student contributions, like this post based on a new paper of mine, listed five rationales used for implemented policies: course costs, private benefits, public benefits, increasing resources per student place, and incentivising course choices.

A sixth rationale has repeatedly been considered but never become policy, the idea that the distribution of benefits between public and private should drive the distribution of costs between public and private, as represented by the government and students. This post explains where this idea came from and why it has always been rejected.

Origins in the justification for HECS

As my earlier post noted, the public-private benefits idea first appeared in the Wran report that led to HECS. Its logic was not explained, but I think it was a corollary of the private benefits argument – that if students should pay for their higher education because they received private benefits then it seemed to follow that the government, on behalf of the public, should pay for the benefits they received. This is a normative argument about who should pay rather than an empirical claim that public subsidies produce public benefits.

The Wran report did not recommend this approach because calculating private and public benefits was too hard.

The balance metaphor

As part of the 1996 Budget the Howard government, with Amanda Vanstone as minister, introduced private benefits as a rationale for specific course contributions. Conceptually, however, this was quite different to the private-public benefits idea. The Vanstone version was the private benefits of a course relative to the private benefits of other courses, rather than the Wran private benefits of a course as a proportion of all benefits private and public or, at a system level, overall higher education private benefits as a proportion of all benefits.

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The five student contribution rationales since 1989

In a new paper published by the U of M’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education I chronicle the history of student contribution rationales – the reasons the government gave for HECS rates and then student contributions.

I argue that five rationales have been used: private benefits, course costs, increasing resources per student place, incentivising course choices and public benefits.

A key turning point is the 1996 Budget, when the government abandoned a flat HECS charge across all disciplines and introduced differential HECS. This required a more complex set of justifications than previously. The government’s arguments had to explain not just why students should pay compared to the previous free higher education system, but also why they should pay more for some courses than others.

The Wran report

The HECS system was recommended in a 1988 review chaired by former NSW Premier Neville Wran. It introduced four concepts that were subsequently influential in thinking about how to charge for higher education: private benefits, public benefits, a balance between private and public benefits, and course costs.

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Higher education participation rates by time of migration and language spoken at home

Some 2021 Census is now available on the ABS TableBuilder site, allowing additional analysis of the social and personal characteristics of higher education students. This posts looks at migration status and language spoken at home, previous strong predictors of higher education participation rates.

Year of arrival

In 2021 migrants who had taken out citizenship were significantly more likely than people born in Australia to be enrolled in university in the post-school 18 to 20 years old age bracket. The participation gap was 19 percentage points for migrants in the decade prior to the 2021 census, 54 per cent participation compared to 35 per cent for young adults who were born in Australia. Migrants who arrived as younger children have a higher participation rate again, at 59 per cent.

Language spoken at home

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Extending the 485 visa by two years will exacerbate the problems of Australia’s temporary migration program

migration should not simply be about bringing in workers in to fill gaps, it should be about helping people put down roots, to join in the life of our country towns and suburbs. To make a home, to raise a family, to join our Australian family – strengthening our economy and our great multicultural society.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Jobs and Skills Summit, 2 September 2022

The rise of temporary migration

Thirty years ago Anthony Albanese’s statement would have restated migration orthodoxy. Australia rejected the ‘guest worker’ model of Germany or Singapore or the Gulf states. Most long-term migrants were permanent residents on arrival, with pathways to citizenship. While over time policy moved from assimilation to multiculturalism, the expectation that most ‘join our Australian family’ was a constant.

But from the mid-1990s temporary multi-year visa migration became more common. Major categories included international students, skilled workers and later temporary graduate visas. Working holiday visas and the long-standing open border with New Zealand also increased non-tourist resident numbers. Their total population peaked at 1.7 million in 2019 but fell to 1.2 million during COVID border closures before starting to recover.

Permanent migration is now typically a two step process. In 2018-19, before COVID, 68 per cent of primary applicants for skilled migration were already in Australia; the 85 per cent in 2020-21 will probably come down with reopened borders. Including partner and family migrants 65 per cent of permanent migrants were onshore applicants in 2020-21.

The problems of temporary migration

Temporary migrants freely choose Australia, but life is not easy for them. They are vulnerable to exploitation in the labour market. They pay taxes but are ineligible for most government benefits (although from mid-2021 they did get disaster payments.) Temporary migrants could never vote and have had other political rights reduced.

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Bonded scholarships for nursing students in Victoria

The Victorian government has announced an incentive program for nursing and midwifery students. For 2023 and 2024, students enrolling in nursing and midwifery ‘will receive $9,000 while they study and the remaining $7,500 if they work in Victorian public health services for two years.’

In a quote provided to the media, Premier Daniel Andrews says “If you’re in Year 12 and you’ve been thinking about studying nursing or midwifery – go for it. We’ve got your HECS fees covered.”

Are student contributions covered?

Student contributions (‘HECS fees’) for a 3 year nursing course are about $12,000 on current student contributions, so the initial $9,000 assistance while studying will not cover them in full.

Student contribution reform may start in 2024. Increasing the current $4,000 student contribution band that includes nursing is a plausible outcome, to reduce the debt burden of arts students. If so, that will increase the gap between the scholarship and student contributions.

On any scenario, nursing students who complete their degree will need to pay student contributions upfront or incur a HELP debt.

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The legal and bureaucratic problems of the government’s 20,000 additional student places policy

Last week the government’s announced the details of how it will meet its election promise of 20,000 additional student places. Many of these details create legal and bureaucratic problems for the government and universities.

General lack of statutory authority

The program guidelines, unsurprisingly given Labor’s election promise, refer explicitly to the allocation of the 20,000 places. While unexceptional in historical policy terms this is not how things work for public universities (‘Table A providers’) under the Job-ready Graduates version of the Higher Education Support Act 2003.

Section 30-10 of HESA 2003, as cut-and-pasted below, does not give the minister the power to allocate student places to Table A institutions except in the case of designation. Only medicine is currently designated. For higher education courses, covering every course except medicine, the unit of allocation is dollars rather than student places.

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How can the government steer teaching enrolments to ‘quality’ courses? And what could go wrong?

The communique from last Friday’s education ministers meeting stated, in part, that:

The Teacher Education Expert Panelwill focus on strengthening the link between performance and funding of ITE [Initial Teacher Education]. This will include but not be limited to advising on how Commonwealth supported places for teaching should be allocated based on quality and other relevant factors. [Emphasis added.]

This post examines how the government might go about doing this and the problems it would face.

Discipline-level funding under Job-ready Graduates

An initial problem is that the government does not allocate Commonwealth supported places to teaching.

Under section 30-10 of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 the government has no power to allocate student places except for ‘designated courses’, of which more below.

Education is not designated. It is funded under a block grant for ‘higher education courses’. Dollars rather than places are the unit of allocation and the entity that receives the allocation is a higher education institution, not a course or discipline. Recipient universities are free to distribute these dollars between courses according to their own priorities.

With its COVID-19 short courses the previous government bypassed the restriction on allocating student places by allocating dollars to specific courses instead. Using the funding agreements to quarantine dollars for education would, however, be a bad move. It is inconsistent with the apparent legislative intent, which is for university flexibility except in the case of designation. We need to restore full operation of the rule of law in higher education policy. Without amending HESA 2003 that means designation.

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More than a million people are now repaying HELP debt, but the average repayment is down

The ATO’s annual taxation statistics release shows that in 2019-20 the number of repaying HELP debtors continued its strong growth, up 23 per cent on 2018-19 and exceeding 1 million for the first time. However, compulsory repayments are not growing as strongly, up 8 per cent on 2018-19 to $3.6 billion.

This post offers a few explanations for overall growth and why repayers are increasing more rapidly than repayments.

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