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 Though the 2006 census is getting a bit out of date, the figure below is striking.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.