University finances, the census date and COVID-19

On Facebook I have seen undergraduate petitions calling for university classes to be suspended.  One person claimed that their institution was stalling until after the census date. This is the day when students became liable to pay their student contributions and the university becomes entitled to receive Commonwealth contributions, their government tuition subsidy.

In the Grattan report on dropping out I co-wrote a couple of years ago, we argued that the census date is an interesting and unusual feature of Australia’s higher education system. Effectively, it gives students a free try-before-you-buy option for every subject they take.

By law this period is at least 20 per cent of the semester, but on our analysis the median period before the census date was a quarter of the semester. Four weeks is common, with a census date at the end of March for first semester (earlier for universities with trimester systems).

In the other English-speaking countries we looked at students usually only have one to two weeks to change their minds without financial cost.

The late Australian date for dropping subjects or courses without cost transfers some enrolment risk from students to universities, who end up teaching students who never generate any revenue. Overall I think that is a good thing, as it creates pro-student incentives that would otherwise be lacking.Read More »