Early in the pandemic I thought there might be a moderate increase in school leaver applications and a larger one for mature age students. The primary reason in each case was the counter-cyclical aspect of higher education demand, with some people studying when work is hard to find.
On top of this, under Job-ready Graduates the government introduced significant changes to student contributions, so that some courses cost 2021 commencing students much more than those who commenced in previous years, while other courses cost less.
The trend in total domestic application numbers is complicated by a change to the Queensland school starting age in 2007, which produced a dip in Year 12 numbers in 2019 with negative consequences for university applications for 2020 and a rebound in 2021. DESE has produced trend lines with and without QTAC figures to account for this issue, with the non-QTAC figures producing an increase of 2.3 per cent between 2020 and 2021 (4.4 per cent with QTAC). It’s not super-fast growth, but the 2.3 per cent is the highest since 2015.
School leaver applications
The school leaver trends are hard to interpret. Although the number of students enrolled in Year 12 increased in 2020, the number of Year 12 applicants decreased. Year 12 applicants are defined as ‘applicants who attempted an Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Certification Authorities (ACACA) Year 12 program or the International Baccalaureate in the year of application.’
Year 12 serves multiple purposes. If more students take Year 12 via VET in Schools or other non-ATAR pathways the percentage of all Year 12s going on to university will decline. But the continuing decline in Year 12 applications despite a recovery in total Year 12 numbers seems surprising, unless growth in the latter is coming entirely from non-ATAR students.
Intriguingly, the time series of applications from people aged 19 years or under tracks the Year 12 school numbers better than the Year 12 applications. This is a complicated group as it includes people who did Year 12 in the preceding year, potential new entrants who did Year 12 in an earlier year, and people who are already students but are trying to change courses. But it raises the issue of whether there is some trend to delay applying rather than applying and then deferring, if an offer is received.
Depending on which time series we think is the best indicator of underlying school leaver demand we have a either a decrease or an increase. One point I made last year stands: with flat demographics, high Year 12 retention rates and high 70+ATAR application rates pre-COVID there is limited scope for big increases in demand from recent school leavers.
Mature age applications
For older applicants growth is in the 25 years or older group. I don’t have a time series by narrower age groups for all the years in the chart, but in 2021 compared to 2020 all the growth came from the 25-39 age group. 20-24 and 40-plus applications were both slightly down.
For older people counter-cyclical enrolments would be more at the postgraduate than undergraduate level, but I would class these trends as at most moderately consistent with the overall hypothesis. The COVID recession was much milder and shorter than I expected early last year, but there was still significant doubt about economic prospects when most of these applications would have been lodged, in late 2020.
Applications by field of education
Job-ready Graduates was not intended to change total applications but which courses students applied for, using the price signal of higher or lower student contributions. The chart shows absolute changes in application by field, colour-coded according to favourable (green) or unfavourable (red) student contribution changes.
At either end of the chart things seems to be going roughly to plan. The fields with the largest growth have lower student contributions and the fields with the largest reductions in demand have higher student contributions. ‘Society and culture’, a broad ABS category including humanities, social sciences, psychology, social work, law and other things is going against the incentives, growing despite higher prices. I have coded it red because most of the constituent fields have higher student contributions, although languages are an exception. As universities are busy closing language courses I doubt applications for them could explain the trend. We need disaggregated data to work out what is driving this increase.
That application trends were mostly in the direction promoted by Job-ready Graduates does not mean that the changed student contributions were their cause. Student contribution incentives are largely redundant, since applications for more vocationally-oriented courses already move in line with the labour market.
The chart below shows that the 2020/2021 trends were already underway prior to Job-ready Graduates, although the spike in nursing is very large. On the other hand, nursing was very much in the news during 2020, and strong demand for health staff would have been a major influence on demand with or without lower student contributions.
Applications from equity group members grew by more than the overall increase, especially low SES, up by 5.4 per cent. At an informed guess, the strong numbers for nursing, 25-39 year olds and equity applicants are all interlinked. Nursing is the only course that interests some applicants, and draws in people who would probably not otherwise go to university.
On an initial examination of the data, neither Job-ready Graduates nor macroeconomic COVID factors look to have had large effects on the pattern of applications. The effects of COVID were mainly via making health-related courses more attractive.