The HECS-HELP handout nobody is taking

Back in 2007, I thought that Labor’s election promise to introduce HECS remissions for people entering specified occupations might have something going for it, at least compared to other mechanisms for steering labour market preferences via higher education funding.

It’s not paid unless the graduate actually enters the desired occupation, and provides near-term financial relief, which is more attractive than cuts to student contributions – which effectively mean that someone entering first year will typically gain financially in 8 to 12 years time (when they finish repaying earlier than they would have otherwise). (The ATO site on the scheme is here.)

However a report in The Australian this morning shows that only 405 people applied for the benefit for 2009-10, and only 232 were approved.

This is consistent with some analysis of graduate occupational choices by Graduate Careers Australia, done at my request comparing the first year of the program (2009) with the year before. Statistically, the two years were identical in the proportion of graduates entering the occupations being favoured by the government. I did not publish the data at the time because GCA argued that the scheme was new and that 2009 was a bad year for graduate employment, so more people could have tried to enter those occupations but failed (though if there are no jobs anyway, a policy aimed at increasing demand for non-existent jobs is not necessary).

The 2010 data should be examined, but the very small numbers claiming the benefit suggests that this scheme is so unsuccesful that the government can’t even give money away (far more than 232 would have been able to claim just for pursuing the career they were going to pursue anyway).

Perhaps this policy escaped the last couple of rounds of higher education cuts because its failure meant its costs were much lower than anticipated. But as the government is imposing cuts on the public service, getting rid of a complex and bureaucratic policy that is not obviously achieving anything would make sense.