New allocations of money and student places in the university funding agreements

Update 7/7/21: Some of the data in this post has been updated here.

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Last month I wrote an overview and critique of the new university funding agreements. This post looks at new allocations of funding for student places, while a subsequent post will look at total funding allocations. Not all my numbers match previously announced total funding for the relevant program, so that is a caveat on both posts.

Under Job-ready Graduates universities are free of sub-bachelor and postgraduate student places being allocated by funding cluster, but the funding agreements show that universities have significant additional work to do in applying for and reporting on a range of small programs.

Numbers of universities getting different allocations

Job-ready Graduates introduced several new or substantially revised pots of money. Not all universities receive each of these. As the chart below shows, programs driven by criteria or formulas set out in legislative instruments (NPILF and transition funding) or the legislation itself (demand driven funding for Indigenous students from regional and remote areas) benefit the largest number of universities. Apart from the general grants for higher education courses (sub-bachelor through to masters coursework, except medicine), the ministerial/departmental discretion programs benefit fewer universities.

Short courses funding

According to the funding agreements, 27 of the 37 public universities have received once-off 2021 funding for undergraduate certificate and/or graduate certificate short courses. When a university’s funding agreement reported $0 for short courses I cross-checked against CourseSeeker with its ‘short course’ filter on and found three more universities. I am not sure whether this is because those universities adopted the ‘short course’ brand without a specific funding allocation, or because their funding agreements are yet to be updated, or because CourseSeeker is wrong. My adding up of the value of funding agreement short courses gets me to $213 million, out of the $252 million allocated for 2020-21 in the October 2020 Budget.

Through a Freedom of Information request I asked the Department for a spreadsheet of short course allocations, along with further spreadsheets for national priority places, innovative places, and how each university was affected by the transition to Job-ready Graduates. These were all refused on the grounds that it would create too much work, including the time spent consulting with the universities whose allocations and JRG adjustments would be released.

For the funding of places especially I am unpersuaded by this argument. I’d be surprised if the Department spent hundreds of millions of dollars allocating money to courses without keeping a consolidated list, and I can’t see why, to use the FoI Act’s words (section 47G), a disclosed list of courses and their associated funding ‘would, or could reasonably be expected to, unreasonably affect that person adversely in respect of his or her lawful business or professional affairs or that organisation or undertaking in respect of its lawful business, commercial or financial affairs.’ 

But I decided it was not worth spending further weeks in FoI correspondence when data for the largest program, short courses, is already public albeit scattered across the funding agreements. The results of my cut-and-paste of short course allocations can be downloaded here.

On my count 609 courses have short course allocations, 398 graduate certificates worth $126.4 million and 211 undergraduate certificates worth $86.5 million. These numbers include non-university providers. That’s higher than the 526 courses showing today on CourseSeeker, so while it has some courses I don’t in my spreadsheet, I have dozens that it is not showing. I am not sure of CourseSeeker protocols but it would be sensible to exclude courses with enrolments that have closed or are not yet open.

Among the funded undergraduate certificates, the course with by far the largest allocation is the University of Tasmania’s Undergraduate Certificate in Sustainable Living, with $8.1 million. This suggests low levels of political involvement in which courses are funded, as I doubt this mix of green thought and gardening tips was what the Cabinet had in mind when it approved short course funding to help workers get new jobs after the COVID-19 recession.

The second-largest grant is $4.7 million for a new Edith Cowan University Undergraduate Certificate in Higher Education, which I can’t find on CourseSeeker or the ECU website. This is intended as a general pathway course. Maybe this is ECU adapting to the reality that the government does not like the enabling courses that are an historical ECU strength. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that ECU can offer undergraduate certificates at all past 31 December 2021, and even if they can the money will come out of their general funding for all domestic coursework places, as specific short course funding is only for 2021.

For graduate certificates, the courses getting the most funding look more like what the government had in mind for the short course program: $3.2 million for QUT’s Graduate Certificate in Nursing and $3 million for Charles Sturt’s Graduate Certificate in Applied Data Science.

National priority places

The national priority places are, like the short courses, once-offs but with funding that runs 2021-2024 to support a bachelor degree. But unlike the short courses the specific national priority courses receiving funding are not listed in the funding agreements (I argued in my previous funding agreement post that this has implications for whether DESE can legally require universities to deliver the specified places).

In times past new places were an ‘announceable’, at least if the university was in a government MP’s electorate or a marginal seat. But information that was previously in a media release now cannot be discovered even by a FoI request. So I cannot tell you exactly which courses have been funded.

But I can say that the funding agreements allocate $55.2 million for 2021 national priority places, of which Western Sydney University gets by far the largest allocation of $12.4 million. Nineteen universities received at least some national priority funding.

I am not confident that the funding agreements on the DESE website last week capture all the allocations that have or will be made. My total for 2021-23 is less than half the $298.5 million announced in the October 2020 Budget. The provider FAQs said that there would be 12,000 national priority commencing places for 2021, but if that is what happened the average Commonwealth contribution was only $4,600, which seems unlikely given the general policy of favouring courses with high Commonwealth contributions. I gave up trying to code the short courses to funding clusters because it was too time consuming, but FWIW the 40 I did, covering six institutions, were all in $13,250 or $16,250 clusters.

The totals that are published, however, show how the Department is organising the ‘pipeline’ of funding – the on-going funding for the 2021 commencing students who continue their studies. In every university the 2022 grant is 76.5 per cent of the 2021 grant. This is despite significant differences in year-on-year attrition between universities and between disciplines for completions. For most universities the 2023 funding level is 58.5 per cent of the 2021 starting point, though for some reason one university spikes to above 2021 levels, altering the overall figure.

I have never seen an empirically-based pipeline model, which would need to take into account both attrition and varying study loads. But one-size-fits-almost-all does not seem right.

Innovative places

Unlike short course or national priority places, innovative places are on-going indefinitely. There were only ever supposed to be 300 of them for the entire sector, barely worth putting in the effort to apply. But at least five universities did so anyway according to the funding agreements, sharing $2 million between them. Again I suspect the funding agreements don’t capture all that is going on, with an average Commonwealth contribution of $6,600 if the 300 places had been allocated.

Regional university centre places

The funding agreements show thirteen universities have received funding for student places as part of the regional university centres program, which provide locations for regional students without easy access to a campus to study and get academic and pastoral assistance. The RUCs are mostly funded via the ‘Other Grants’ provisions of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, but places are financed via funding agreements.

As I noted in my previous post on the funding agreements, specifically allocating places, except in the case of designated courses (only medicine now), is problematic under the Job-ready Graduates version of HESA 2003. A note to section 30-10 specifically says that ‘The Minister does not allocate places to Table A providers in relation to higher education courses or demand driven higher education courses.’

The earlier post noted that the funding agreements side-stepped this by allocating specific sums of money to named courses, a de facto allocation of places which avoided the language that would bring it into direct conflict with the section 30-10 note. But for the Regional University Centres they forget to do this, as the example below from CQU’s funding agreement shows.

As the March post also said, arguably there is a gap in the Job-ready Graduates version of HESA 2003 around new places. Adding some detail to new funding does not fundamentally undermine the block grant flexibility that JRG introduced by merging previously designated (sub-bachelor and post-graduate) with non-designated (bachelor) Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding. Specific-purpose new funding was common practice in the past. But that is not what HESA 2003 currently provides for, and so I will add this to my list of things the Department is doing without clear statutory authority.

Conclusion

My analysis has been hampered by my FoI request being refused. Or was my otherwise innocuous FoI request rejected because it would have shown an underspend? I start with the view that stuff-ups (including potentially my own in missing or misunderstanding something), or perhaps in this case unfinished processes as not all funding agreements currently on the DESE website are likely to be final, are more probable than conspiracies. But I will put a not-previously-disclosed underspend on my list of potential theories of what is going on. If any university would like to help with additional information please email me at andrew.norton@anu.edu.au. I would not publish any identifying information without specific permission.

2 thoughts on “New allocations of money and student places in the university funding agreements

  1. I had difficulty in understanding this post given its detail and the uncertainty surrounding the data. Perhaps it’s my incompetence.

    I also look hopefully at the conclusion in the expectation that there would be an explanation of the implications of any political biases evident in the funding allocations. Is there for example any conclusions that might be drawn from the substantial allocations for Western Sydney? Is there provision in the funding agreements for overheads that might aid university finances to help them through the Covid induced financial crisis?

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  2. My LinkedIn version of this did come with the warning ‘For university planning or lobby group staff only: my analysis of new allocations of student funding and places in the university funding agreements.’

    Claims or bias or favouritism go with the territory of discretion based schemes, but I was not analysing the data I had from that perspective. It would be hard to make a convincing case without seeing the original applications.

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