Domestic student enrolment increases in the first year of COVID-19

The 2020 higher education student data has finally been released, giving us the first detailed look at potential COVID-19 influences on enrolments. This post is on domestic students. Another post examines international students.

Aggregate trends

Overall domestic student trends were positive for both undergraduates, up 2 per cent after a decline between 2018 and 2019, and postgraduate coursework, up 14 per cent after six years of stagnation or low growth. Postgraduate research was an exception, down by 577 enrolments or 1.3 per cent. Including enabling and non-award students total domestic enrolments were 1,133,519, 4.4 per cent up on 2019.*

Student ‘load’ – full-time equivalent enrolments ā€“ was up by less, 2.6 per cent. The headcount share of part-time students, defined as less than 75 per cent of a full-time equivalent study load, is only up by .7 of a percentage point, suggesting more part-time students with light study loads and/or more full-time students not at a 100 per cent study load.


Mature age students drove bachelor growth

Domestic bachelor degree commencing students were up 1.8 per cent between 2019 and 2020. As the chart below shows, that growth was due to older commencing students, with recent school leavers aged 19 and under down by 3.3 per cent. With fewer Year 12 students to draw on the decline in teenage commencing higher education students is not surprising.

The increase in mature age commencers is more interesting. Back in 2019 I wrote about a drop in mature age applicants and commencing students. At the time I wondered whether this was structural. With the demand driven system more people went to uni after school, so there was less need to study later in life. But the trend could also be cyclical. With a then relatively strong labour market perhaps fewer people saw the need to add qualifications. While these explanations are not mutually exclusive, a mature age increase in a year with a brief but big decline in employment suggests that cyclical factors can still influence decisions to enrol in university.

Bachelor field of education

As usual, trends were not uniform across fields of education. Growth was strongest in the agricultural and environmental category and also double digit in IT. Four of the eleven broad fields had fewer commencing students in 2020 than in 2019.

Introductory course enrolments strong despite weak funding incentives

While bachelor degree numbers showed modest growth, more introductory courses did well. The consistent pattern of growth occurred despite funding incentives varying. The government capped enabling funding, and because there is no student contribution for enabling courses enrolments above the cap are funded at $0 each.** Yet enrolments still grew. While 2021 was different, in 2020 my understanding is that only some institutions received additional public funding for the half-a-diploma undergraduate certificates, and student contributions were a discount $1,500 or $2,500 depending on discipline. Despite the reduced funding rate 2,142 students were enrolled in undergraduate certificates. For diplomas universities could charge the full student contribution, but for 2020 the government put diploma Commonwealth funding into a common pool with postgraduate coursework. Some universities would surely have been tempted to transfer the money upwards ā€“ demand for postgraduate education was clearly strong. But undergraduate diploma numbers were well up.

Of the universities that offer enabling courses slightly over half increased their enrolments, but Charles Sturt is a standout adding 1,111, or 37 per cent on their 2019 total. The data released by individual university aggregates all the AQF sub-bachelor courses into ‘undergraduate other’, so I can’t distinguish between diplomas and undergraduate certificates. Most universities increased their sub-bachelor enrolments, but again there is a standout, the University of Tasmania, which more than doubled numbers to 9,835. UTAS has a history of wild enrolment increases followed by high attrition, so we will see how they go with this one.

The rise in introductory course enrolments, as for bachelor degrees, was driven by older students. Perhaps universities decided that without recent academic performance evidence it was safer to start them on something more introductory than a bachelor degree. The government has gone quiet on its performance funding scheme, but universities may also have had an eye on the fact that in its previous iteration performance rewards and penalties attached to bachelor degrees only. Better to cull the students who are unlikely to complete a bachelor degree at the enabling or sub-bachelor stage.


Attrition rates lag a year behind the other time series, so the chart below shows the proportion of domestic commencing bachelor degree students from 2019 who were not enrolled at any higher education provider in 2020. It shows the lowest attrition rate since 2012, 13.23 per cent. Most universities contributed to this, with only six recording increased attrition. This points to sector-wide factors.

I would expect attrition to go down in a recession, since employment is a common reason students give for dropping out. The previous drop in attrition coincided with the global financial crisis. But the timing only partly works, since most first semester re-enrolments (or non-re-enrolments) would have occurred before COVID-19 hit. Australia as we knew it did not end until March 2020.

Re-enrolment could occur anytime in 2020, so perhaps people who did not return in semester one did so in semester two. If students were taking a break to work or travel COVID-19 may have rendered that impossible, and so it was better to get back into study.

Pass rates

Subject pass rates for 2020 went up 1 percentage point on 2019 for domestic commencing bachelor students to 85.85 per cent. Many universities extended their census dates beyond the normal 31 March cut-off, giving disengaged or failing students time to drop subjects before having a fail officially recorded. Perhaps special consideration was more generously available than usual. Or maybe with socialising and work reduced during lockdowns students spent more time on their academic work.

Postgraduate coursework

Domestic postgraduate coursework commencing numbers grew by an extraordinary 26.7 per cent. Every broad field of education had double digit growth, but IT enjoyed a spectacular 105 per cent increase. All but one Table A university increased domestic postgraduate coursework commencing students, most with double digit growth rates.

The increase in postgraduate coursework is consistent with more mature age commencing undergraduate students. Recessions change the economics of further study and lead to higher enrolments. Mature age markets are less constrained by demographics than school leaver markets. A decline in international students left universities with spare postgraduate teaching capacity and a strong financial incentive to recruit domestic students. But despite the employment downturn I am surprised they found so many willing customers.

Increases in total postgraduate enrolment were across different qualifications, but with the largest spike in graduate certificates, one of the government’s ‘short courses’. As for the undergraduate certificates, in 2020 (although not 2021) some of these were offered at discount student contributions of $1,500 or $2,500, depending on discipline.

In absolute terms full-fee postgraduate coursework increased by more than Commonwealth-supported (14,778/13,572) but from a higher base, so CSP rose from 34 to 36 per cent of the total.

Online postgraduate study

Forced remote learning makes on/off campus trends hard to assess, but the statistics are striking. On-campus postgraduate coursework was in decline long before COVID-19 and closed campuses meant that it could not benefit from the significant increase in postgraduate enrolments.


On a total domestic commencing students basis all the policy priority equity groups were up: disability + 11.3 per cent, low SES (first address) + 7.8 per cent, Indigenous + 10.6 per cent, regional (first address) + 4.4 per cent, remote (first address) +6.5 per cent.

Reflecting more subdued enrolment growth for bachelor degrees the undergraduate commencing numbers were not as strong: disability + 8.5 per cent, Low SES (first address) + 3.9 per cent, Indigenous + 6.6 per cent, regional (first address) -.4 per cent, remote (first address) -1.6 per cent. Regional undergraduate numbers have been trending down for a few years, reflecting weak demand. I am not sure whether there are underlying demographic issues or other factors influencing these numbers.


In 2020 claims were made that female enrolments were down due to COVID-19, which added to women’s caring responsibilities. I re-analysed the ABS data source used for these claims and concluded that, although there was no decline in domestic female enrolments, there was some survey evidence to support the carer hypothesis.

Unfortunately the DESE data release does not report by age and gender together, but we can now be confident that COVID-19 did nothing to reverse or even slow the feminisation of higher education. In 2020 the female share of domestic enrolments reached an all-time high of 59.55 per cent.

*There are some discrepancies between DESE’s pivot table of enrolments and the more standard spreadsheets. This is not unusual due to data revisions. I use the pivot table where possible including for these aggregate trends as I think it contains revised 2019 data. However for some of the more detailed analysis I use the standard spreadsheets comparing this week’s release with its 2019 equivalent. This is because the pivot table lacks the necessary detail.

**A few institutions offer full-fee enabling courses.

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