Can more per student higher education public funding reduce higher education attainment?

One criticism of Graduate Winners was that I should have paid more attention to OECD comparisons. I am wary of ‘OECDitis’– taking OECD averages as normative when they are merely descriptive. In my view, higher per student public spending on higher education in some other countries reflects their overall political and economic systems, and does not make their higher education systems better.

But could higher per student spending make their higher education systems worse? I don’t think this is automatically the case. But I think high per student spending creates a greater risk of what I call the paradox of public spending: it may increase demand, but it also tends to decrease supply. Even big-spending European social democracies have budget constraints (as they are very painfully finding out). So if they can’t control spending by making students pay more, they control spending by reducing the number of students.

The figure below uses figures from OECD Education at a Glance showing average student fees at public institutions and overall higher education attainment rates. The Nordic countries tend to combine low fees and reasonably high attainment, but many other European countries have free or very cheap higher education and relatively low attainment.

Overall the higher fee countries have higher attainment than low fee countries (correlation of .35 between fees and attainment).

I don’t know enough about the particularities of each country to confirm my paradox. But given it is easier politically to control numbers than to increase fees (because the losers are less obvious, and less prone to rioting), it is likely that politicians in many OECD countries have capped supply of higher education, and reduced their rates of higher education attainment.

Misreadings and criticisms of Graduate Winners

The AFR published a response to Graduate Winners from Caroline McMillen, VC of the University of Newcastle. It provides an opportunity to respond to misreadings and criticisms.

Article starts, my responses in block quotes:

Access to a high-quality university education is the key to a stronger Australian workforce, economy and society. In turn, these are all important contributors to establishing a stronger place for Australia in the world.

An accessible university education is essential to ensure that Australia in what has been called the Asian century becomes a beacon for innovation and competitiveness.

The proposals contained in the Grattan Institute’s Graduate Winners report would jeopardise that future.

The report, which was made public last Monday, presents in measured language a reductive future for higher education in Australia, where students are motivated only by their graduate earning potential and the state withdraws its funding from what is currently recognised as a world-class university system.

Incorrect: The report shows (pages 56 to 59) that interest in the field of study is the top reason for choosing a course, and that a financially-based motivation model cannot explain why so many students with good ATARs choose humanities and performing arts, which have relatively poor employment and income outcomes.

The proposal is to shift the entire benefits and the risks of undertaking a university degree onto each individual student.

Incorrect: The report recommends a 50% cut in tuition subsidies for most courses; the taxpayer further takes risk through the HELP repayment threshold of $49,000 a year.

Read More »

Why do university lobby groups under-sell their product?

As expected, my Graduate Winners report generated plenty of controversy. Two of the university lobby groups put responses on their websites (Universities Australia here; Innovative Research Universities here). A couple of VCs added hyperbole to the sober complaints of their representative organisations:

Administrators and students alike have hit out, with Central Queensland University vice-chancellor Scott Bowman likening it to a “funding regime of which North Korea would be proud”.

Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven slammed the report’s focus on numbers while failing to recognise the wider community value of higher education. “This seems to be a calculator with a personality disorder,” Professor Craven said.

One common criticism was that Graduate Winners does not count every possible public benefit of higher education (though it has the most detailed empirical analysis of this issue yet published in Australia, it is true that not every public benefit claim was investigated). But you would struggle to realise from just reading the lobby group reaction that Graduate Winners also has generally very positive news about graduate prospects. The vast majority of graduates do well financially out of their degrees, and enjoy other non-financial benefits as well. And there was no criticism for not pursuing this issue further.

In other words, the VCs appear to think that total course cost increases of between $7,000 and $19,000 for most courses would have disastrous effects and must be loudly fought, but lifetime benefit, including financial gains from their services averaging hundreds of thousands of dollars, were not worth mentioning.

I think this one-sided reaction reflects the history of higher education in Australia, and mindsets that have not changed despite the underlying realities having substantially shifted.Read More »


Hello all, your friendly Ozblogistan Tyrant here.

This weekend I will be performing one of the biggest changes made to Ozblogistan in several years.

I am moving the site from its current home to a new one.

The new service is a company specialising in WordPress hosting. They will be taking responsibility for all the scut-work of making the site go.

Once the move is finalised, I expect that Ozblogistan will be snappier than it is now. I also won’t have to worry about fixing security problems, doing backups, finding out why plugin X has stopped working, working out why the site has suddenly died and so on. These will now be responsibilities I can delegate to the providers.

This has been in the works for some time. While I was a student I could afford the time it takes to keep Ozblogistan working relatively smoothly. As a professional I no longer have that time. So it makes sense to hire other professionals to do it for me.

The security problem we had a few weeks ago (and which is still causing false positives) was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Moving providers is never pretty. Things are going to break this weekend. And various things will probably appear broken into the new week. It’s all for the good. Ozblogistan will shine out ever brighter.

Update Saturday 2:17PM WST: Failure. I will probably have to try again on Monday night. I’ve re-enabled comments.

Are low SES people more worried about fees than other people?

My new Grattan report, Graduate Winners: Assessing the public and private benefits of higher education was released tonight (Canberra Times covering it already).

The basic argument is that given high private benefits, higher education will generally be produced with or without a tuition subsidy. Therefore we can start phasing down tuition subsidies. I suggest 50% over 4 years for most disciplines.

The usual reaction to such suggestions is that the low SES people in particular will be put off higher education. I report the contrary Australian evidence. There is interesting English evidence in this report. What the English have done is far more radical than anything I am suggesting. Except for the clinical and lab subjects, they haven’t cut 50% over 4 years. They have cut 100% over 1 year. Combined with some scope for overall funding increases for universities, some student charges will nearly triple.

For the school leaver group, overall demand dropped by one percentage point of the age cohort compared to 2011, or about 15,000 people (like Australia before 2012, the UK has a capped system with demand exceeding supply, so this will have no effect on the total number of students). Read More »