A degree and net worth

Last Friday the ABS put out their latest report on household wealth and wealth distribution. This includes average ‘study loan’ debt, though there is nothing in the ‘assets’ section on the value of human capital. This is not a criticism of the ABS; human capital is not a directly tradeable asset and there are substantial methodological issues in valuing it.

Nevertheless, for most younger people their human capital is their most important asset. If what we are hoping to measure is capacity to command resources over the longer term (superannuation is included), then excluding human capital gives a fundamentally misleading idea of how wealth is distributed.

Combining numbers from two tables gives us an idea of what impact this has. The highest average HECS debt is in the households with the lowest net worth. Unfair! Students impoverished by debt! But looking at average HECS debts by gross household income quintiles things are reversed – the highest average HECS debt is in the top income quintiles. Equity! The rich being forced to pay their way!

What I suspect is happening here is that the net worth numbers are picking up many new households, graduates starting to earn good salaries but still renting and with little superannuation. But the household income numbers are picking up graduates living together; since they tend to overtake the incomes of non-graduates early in their careers putting two or more graduates together in a household gives them high collective earnings.

Because there are very large life cycle effects in wealth distribution, it will always be far more equal over a lifetime than at any one time. HECS/HELP will make it mildly more progressive.

Separate student amenities fees to return

After much Coalition stalling, the government’s amenities fee legislation passed into law today. However, it is not a restoration of the previous status quo. The key differences are:

* while before 2006 unis could charge what they liked in a separate amenities fee, now it is capped – a maximum of $263 next year, with indexation for future years;

* before 2006, it was an up-front fee, but now it can be deferred through a new income-contingent loan scheme, SA-HELP;

* before 2006, there was no Commonwealth regulation of what they could spend the amenities fee on (though there had been some state legislation), but now there are some restrictions, including on political parties and local, state or federal campaigns;

* before 2006, there was no Commonwealth regulation of universities in their provision of general student and advocacy services, and now there is (same legislation, but not connected to the amenities fee – the trigger is receipt of Commonwealth grants, not the amenities fee).

So overall there is a substantial increase in bureaucratic complexity compared to the pre-2006 situation.

As longtime readers of my blog will know, my position is that both sides to this debate are wrong. A separate amenities fee is a relic of an earlier funding system, in which the Commonwealth paid grants that were specifically for academic matters (some of which they recovered via HECS from 1989), and permitted universities to charge students for non-academic matters.Read More »

When is is ok for politicians to break their commitments?

Today’s Essential Research poll asks about when politicians should be able to break commitments. Unfortunately it is marred by poor wording, especially in the options not being mutually exclusive, but the plurality for the option ‘as situations change, it is reasonable that politicians change their positions’ suggests a pragmatic attitude. It is the common sense morality that I expect most people apply in their own lives – commitment keeping is a virtue, but sometimes things we assumed in making that commitment turn out not to be the case, and that affects the morality of whether or not the original commitment should be kept.

The pragmatic position may well have secured more support had not respondents read it as excusing Julia Gillard’s carbon tax backflip. Other polls conducted in a more neutral context do not show Coalition supporters as more cynical about politicians than Labor supporters. Not only does the correct thing to do change when relevant facts change, but also according to the identity of the people involved.

Please study at home

The bill introduced last month to reduce the discounts for up-front payment of student contribution amounts or early repayment of HELP debts (discussed here and here) contains a previously unannounced policy: to stop Australian students getting tuition subsidies or HELP loans if their course of study is primarily at an overseas campus of an Australian university.

Peter Garrett’s second reading speech explained the rationale:

As students are only required to pay back their HECS-HELP debt if they file an Australian tax return, there is a higher risk that HECS-HELP debts incurred offshore will not be repaid, or not repaid for a longer period of time.

I’m not sure how big a problem this is in itself, but it is a sign that the government is concerned about HELP debt held by people not living in Australia. That the government makes no attempt to recover HELP debt from Australians working overseas is one clear design flaw in the income-contingent loan scheme.

It’s a flaw that has been exacerbated by other changes to law and policy. As dual citizenship has been permitted by Australia and other countries, the number of people with work rights in multiple countries has increased. More people can work overseas, and it would be very surprising if we did not see more people doing so.

The source countries of migration to Australia have also shifted towards the Asian countries in which Australian universities have their overseas campuses. According to the 2010 enrolment data, nearly 7% of domestic students speak an east or south-east Asian language at home (and probably more can speak one, but tend to speak English at home). A similar proportion were born in those countries. It would presumably be relatively easy for them to return to Asia to study at an Australian campus.

The flow of people between Australia and other countries is not a problem it itself. But it becomes a problem when it interacts with a debt recovery system designed for a less mobile world.