Can enabling courses survive?

Enabling courses are niche product of the Australian higher education system. Although quite diverse, they aim to improve academic preparedness for higher education study. Enabling courses often target general academic problems, but also discipline-specific gaps.

Public universities can offer enabling courses on a full-fee basis with a FEE-HELP loan, but most enabling students are in Commonwealth supported places they get for free. In 2018, universities had nearly 22,000 CSP enrolments, who used just under 12,000 EFTSL (most enabling courses are short).

CSP enabling places are funded from a mix of the normal discipline-based Commonwealth contribution and an ‘enabling loading’ in lieu of a student contribution. Both funding sources come from the Commonwealth Grant Scheme.

From 2011 to 2019, enabling places came from an allocation for sub-bachelor places, but with an implied enabling allocation, the set number of places that received the loading. The ‘fully-funded’ loading was about $3,400 per student place in 2018, but due to over-enrolments – students above the allocated number – it averaged about $2,700. This compares to a weighted average student contribution of $8,100 if these had been charged.

The government moves against enabling courses

The 2020 funding agreements, which are slowly appearing on the Department’s website, show the start of a move against enabling places.

Generally the new funding agreements make CGS funding more flexible. Universities can freely move student places between sub-bachelor and postgraduate levels; previously the funding agreements prohibited such transfers.

But for enabling places policy is headed in the opposite direction. The funding agreements now specify a maximum amount of CGS money that can go towards enabling places. Universities can take funding out of enabling courses, but if they do they cannot put it back in.

The practical effect is that ‘over-enrolments’ of enabling places are funded at $0 – no Commonwealth or student contribution. While not a medicine-style hard cap on numbers, zero funding is a strong disincentive to ‘over-enrol’.

Job-ready Graduates restricts eligbility

Job-ready Graduates would continue the policy of restricting enabling funding and only permitting funding transfers away from enabling places.

The Job-ready Graduates legislation would abolish the enabling loading. The government plans to move the around $33 million currently spent on the loading to the the new Indigenous, Regional and Low SES Attainment Fund (IRLSAF).

This creates two problems. The first is that the IRSLAF policy states that ‘universities must apply their IRSLAF allocation for the benefit of Indigenous, regional and low SES students’. This would leave no enabling loading for students who don’t fit into the equity categories, although these places could still get the CGS funding cluster payment.

I can’t calculate how many non-equity students take enabling courses (due to equity students who are double or tripled counted due to being in multiple categories), but I estimate upwards of 30 per cent of the total.

This restriction made Southern Cross University anxious, and their submission to the Senate inquiry contains some reassurance from the minister:

The draft Guidelines will be amended to it make clear that the enabling loading grant is to assist providers to enrol students in enabling courses, “with a focus on students with educational disadvantage, such as those from a low SES background, regional and remote areas, and Indigenous people”.

This could help, but it highlights the policy confusion behind IRLSAF. Educational disadvantage and equity group membership are correlated, but not the same. General educational funding should stay in the CGS.

Job-ready Graduates reduces CGS funding

Job-ready Graduates reduces average Commonwealth contributions. On my calculations, based on 2018 enabling EFTSL, the weighted average contribution goes down by 15 per cent, much the same as for the sector as a whole.

But for enabling places, as distinct from student places in other courses, there is no offsetting increase in student contributions. This means that a cut to the Commonwealth contribution rate for enabling places translates into a larger cut in total per student funding.

Given the low total funding rate for enabling courses universities would have to find money elsewhere to maintain viability. Perhaps IRLSAF will be the source – but if so that means less money for other equity activities.

IRSLAF redistributes funding

IRLSAF will be funded from the current enabling and regional loadings, and from the HEPPP, which is based on low SES student numbers. When it is fully implemented these previously distinct funding criteria and purposes will be lost. IRSLAF’s funding formula will be 45 per cent weighted according to a university’s share of low SES students, 45 per cent according to a university’s share of regional students, and 10 per cent according to a university’s share of Indigenous students.

Under this formula regional universities will take a larger share of the total funding pool. Transitional funding will help the overall financial position of metropolitan universities until 2023, but they will put more of their HEPP and enabling funding into the IRLSAF pot than they will get out again.

The end of enabling courses?

Enabling courses are being hit from many directions at the same time. If Job-ready Graduates passes the Senate its hard to see how CSP enabling programs can survive in their current form at metropolitan universities. And while IRSLAF itself favours regional universities, they are relatively disadvantaged by cuts to overall CSP funding rates.

The financial crisis in higher education, a crisis that Job-ready Graduates would exacerbate, means universities will consider moving their enabling places to courses that bring in student contribution revenue.

Some universities might offer or expand full-fee enabling programs. But previous research indicates that enabling courses being free is an important part of their appeal. A full-fee enabling market would be much smaller than a CSP market.

There are sufficient restraints to minimise misuse of enabling courses

I appreciate that the diversity of enabling programs, and the lack of common, externally set, standards has created concerns about them. The demand driven review, which I co-authored in 2014, held back from recommending enabling courses enter the demand driven system for this reason.

But the new block grant system being created by the government lessens my 2014 concerns. Under demand driven funding there would have been no constraint on enabling numbers – no TEQSA regulation, no student contribution, all costs transferred to the Commonwealth.

But under block grant funding, every student place a university allocates to enabling courses is a place they cannot use for other students. With the enabling loading, universities still forgo the larger amount they could have earned from student contributions. Enabling numbers are not likely to increase without good educational or equity reasons. If universities think that enabling courses are the right thing for students they want to attract, we should leave that judgment to them.

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