Should high university fees be taxed?

If domestic undergraduate fees are deregulated most people, including eminent education economist Bruce Chapman, believe that at least some universities will charge significantly higher fees than now. Chapman has now detailed a proposal to tax excessive fees, to ‘inhibit and limit the extent of price increases’ (number one in this list of Senate inquiry submissions; The Australian‘s version here.)

The basic idea is that the government will establish different bands of fees, which are taxed at different rates – the tax being a reduction in grants that would otherwise be payable to the university. To take an example from Chapman’s paper, fees for humanities up to $6,499 a year (a bit higher than current student contributions) would pay no tax, fees between $6,500 and $11,499 would pay 20% on the margin, fees between $11,500 and $16,499 would pay 60% on the margin, and fees of $16,500 and over would pay 80% on the margin.

The effects of this can be seen in the context of UWA’s plan for a flat $16,000 fee for all undergraduate courses. The tax would be about $1,000 for the $5,000 in the first marginal section, and another $2,700 for the $4,500 up to $16,000. With current subsidies of around $5,500 a year for humanities courses, UWA’s subsidy would be reduced to around $1,800. (For high fees in low subsidy disciplines, the fee tax could mean that the government taxes more than it contributes for that discipline).

Chapman is not endorsing these particular tax rates; they are to illustrate the concept. However, I am not sure that conceptually this is the best way to target the problem of high fees. First, we need to be clear about what the problem is with high fees.

As Chapman says, it is likely that some fees will be well in excess of the costs of teaching. Much of the profit is likely to fund research. There are two public policy problems with this. The first is that students/graduates will incur higher private costs without a commensurate increase in private benefits. The second is that higher fees will generate higher costs for taxpayers, through the interest subsidy on HELP debt and HELP debt that won’t be repaid.

To solve the first problem, the tax policy relies heavily on deterrence. To the extent that universities do charge taxable fees the problem is exacerbated – the money goes to the government, which is even less likely to benefit the student than the university spending money on research. Research spending might at least contribute to the general prestige of the university and the graduate’s qualification.

To solve the second problem, the tax policy is likely to be more effective as it raises revenue that will offset some of HELP’s interest and bad debt costs. However, it means that students who pay upfront are compensating for costs that they won’t generate. Other students who do borrow could over-compensate. Using the tax rates in Chapman’s submission, and a fee of $30,000 for a law student, we estimate a tax of more than $11,000, leading to government savings of $3,000 in excess of the additional HELP costs.

If we are worried about higher private costs without increased private benefits, it might be better to target university spending rather than revenue. In the UK and USA universities report on spending classified according to function (teaching, research etc) that allows us to see the relationship between student-driven funding and spending. If we did that in Australia we could prohibit public universities from moving beyond certain ratios between student funding and spending, and taxing them if they did. That way the student isn’t any worse off than he or she would otherwise have been, since the money wasn’t being spent on them anyway, and it is only the university’s profit being taxed.

For HELP costs, we should tackle HELP’s problems directly rather than focusing on the students paying high fees. Loan fees payable only by those who borrow would assist in dealing with HELP’s costs without hitting the students who pay upfront. Plus there are several other ways of controlling HELP’s costs, as I have pointed out many times before.

Policy considerations aside, this is a complex policy when the government needs a clear, simple and positive case for fee deregulation.

4 thoughts on “Should high university fees be taxed?

  1. Andrew

    Agree with your conclusion that the Chapman/Phillips “tax on public subsidies’ is complex and therfore obscure. Why have a complex policy solution to a simple problem. If you are worried about excessive fee increases why not simply continue to cap fees.

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  2. I very much doubt that profit is likely to fund research. Most likely it will go to executive bonuses and increasing the size of the bureaucracy. The standard research funding model is that researchers are expected to get their funding from government granting bodies (eg Australian Research Council). A new hire may get startup funds to fund research but this is only expected to be a temporary thing until grant funding comes through. There is precious little university funding available to the research community.

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  3. Normally super profits lead investors to expand supply. But when high margins are captured by managers and workers instead of flowing to investors then the investment incentive is dissipated. And when the actual structure of the institutions are “not for profit” to begin with then supply is likely to be very unresponsive to price. The cure for high fees is a market populated by institutions in which profits substantially flow to private investors.

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