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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Inflation and higher education

The return of inflation has led to questions about what this means for students, graduates and higher education institutions. This post lists some of the implications.

Indexation of HELP debt

HELP debt is indexed each 1 June. It is based on a two year period of CPI data ending in the March quarter of 2022 (I am not sure why it is two years). Because inflation March 2020 to March 2021 was lower than inflation March 2021 to March 2022 indexation for 2022 was 3.9 per cent, rather than the 5.1 per cent it would have been on a one year CPI cycle. The downside of this reprieve is that after inflation comes down again indexation will still exceed the recent average.

I said at last week’s Universities Australia conference that increased indexation will affect the politics of HELP debt. The big increase in the number of HELP debtors and total HELP debt over the last 15 years occurred at a time of mostly low inflation. Annual indexation rarely attracted much comment. This year there was much more media and social media coverage.

CPI is well above bank interest rates, giving people who can afford to repay early an incentive to do so. Indeed, low bank interest rates may help explain why voluntary HELP repayments have grown in recent years.

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The student income support system under COVID-19

A previous post on my new paper on tertiary student finances under COVID-19 showed that, despite two lockdown-caused crashes in employment, students generally did well out of the COVID-affected labour market. This post looks at the student income support system. It too did well in maintaining and increasing student living standards.

Bonus payments for student income support recipients

The base student income support payments are modest. When COVID arrived in Australia in early 2020 the fortnightly Youth Allowance rates were $304.60 a fortnight for 18 year olds living at home, and $462.50 if living away from home. But COVID-19 bonuses significantly increased the financial benefits of being on student income support.

Students receiving YA, Austudy or Abstudy on 12 March 2020 received a $750 economic stimulus payment. From 27 April to 24 September 2020 they received the $550 fortnightly Coronavirus Supplement. This supplement was then phased down, to $225 a fortnight from 25 September 2020 to 31 December 2020, and then $150 a fortnight from 1 January to 31 March 2021. A student continuously on student income support from March 2020 to March 2021 received more than $9,000 in COVID-related bonus payments.

From 1 April 2021 the base student income support rates were permanently increased by $50 a fortnight.

The number of students receiving income support increased

After March 2020 the number of Youth Allowance recipients increased significantly compared to the same months in 2019, as the chart below shows.

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The bust then boom in tertiary education student employment under COVID-19

In the major 2020 and 2021 lockdowns tertiary student employment in the 24 years and under age group fell by over 100,000, or 20 per cent of the pre-lockdown total. Yet these losses proved to be temporary. As I discuss in a new paper, student employment rates and earnings recovered to record levels. While the strong Australian labour market is obviously a major factor, the sometimes significantly overlapping employment markets for students and temporary migrants made closed borders beneficial for students as workers.

Tertiary student employment rates

The strength of tertiary student employment is most obvious in employment rates, the percentage of the total student population with a job. Tertiary student employment levels and rates vary during the year, driven by movements in and out of both employment and enrolment. Comparisons of the same month in different years can help distinguish a trend from a normal seasonal change. December is not necessarily the peak month for total student employment, since course completions reduce student numbers. But student employment rates typically reach annual highs in December, as seasonal spikes in retail employment coincide with a summer holiday increase in student capacity to work.

As the chart below shows, employment rates fell sharply in April and May 2020 as lockdowns hit, but by August 2020 student employment rates were back at 2019 levels. In 2021 employment rates were consistently higher than in 2019, despite lockdowns in NSW, Victoria and the ACT causing a significant dip. In early 2022 student employment rates remain 10 percentage points or more above their 2019 levels.

Source: ABS Labour force detailed, table LM3
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A few notes on the future of higher education policy

Labor went to the 2022 election with few specific policies on higher education, but with general plans for a different style of policymaking. The teal MPs have a few things to say about higher education. If Labor gets a clear House of Representatives majority, however, the opinions of the yet-to-be-determined Senate crossbench will be more important than those of lower-house teals in the passage of higher education legislation.

Additional student places

Labor’s main specific election promise was ‘up to’ 20,000 more student places. As I wrote when the policy was announced, the ‘up to’ is an important caveat, because under Job-ready Graduates the government allocates dollars rather than places. The same number of dollars can convert into lots of places in arts or business courses with low Commonwealth contributions, or relatively few places in courses with high Commonwealth contributions.

Labor’s costings document also indicates that this money for extra places appears to be temporary, starting to decline before the full impact of demand from the ‘Costello baby boom’ cohort is felt. It may also be too little to offset the inflation impact on Commonwealth-supported places. Commonwealth contributions are indexed to CPI, so as contribution values go up universities need to deliver fewer student places to get each $1 million of Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding.

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