Did COVID-19 reduce female domestic enrolments?

After the annual release of the ABS Education and Work data last November articles appeared suggesting that female university enrolments might have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

I could think of a couple of plausible mechanisms. With children sent home from school and childcare restricted women might have given up study, at least temporarily, to look after their kids. The difficulty of doing required clinical placements and teaching rounds during COVID-19 workplace disruptions might have triggered deferrals, which would probably affect women more than men due to their their large majorities in health and education courses.

On the other hand, the quoted fall in female enrolments – 86,000 – was struggling to pass my ‘does it look right?’ test. And the source, Education and Work, which is conducted each May, has a history of rogue results. It is a sample survey of Australian residents rather than being derived directly from enrolment data. The further users drill down into Education and Work sub-categories – gender, type of enrolment, age group etc – the less reliable it gets (the ABS is upfront about this, and publishes relative standard errors).

Last November I used the TableBuilder version of Education and Work (expensive paywall; university staff can use it) to exclude international students. That caused the female decline in enrolments to go way and became a small increase, although with a narrowing of the gender gap. In 2019 Education and Work reported 1.5 female students for every 1 male student, which declined to 1.42 to 1 in 2020.

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Should ‘first in family’ be an equity group?

Australian higher education equity policy and analysis tends towards cultural explanations of differences in higher education participation rates. The official definition of low socio-economic status is based on the ABS Index of Education and Occupation, not direct financial factors. Parental education and occupation provides a role model for their children and shapes the expectations parents have for their children. University-educated parents can also more easily help their children navigate the path to university.

The relationship between parental education and child outcomes has occasionally led to suggestions that ‘first in family’ – the children of parents who have not been to university – should be an official equity group. There was another such call in an article in The Conversation last week, based on a recent academic journal article by Sally Patfield, Jenny Gore, and Natasha Weaver.

Is first in family at university unusual?

Although the data is rarely released, parental education has been in the official enrolment data collection since 2010. In some figures I have from 2015, of the students who reported parental education first in family were just in the majority, at 50.1 per cent. But the true number was probably significantly higher, with don’t knows or missing data from about 15 per cent of enrolments. At minimum these students had parents who did not regale them with ‘when I was at uni’ anecdotes, blocking one path of influence on educational choices.

If we think back on the history of higher education first in family could never have been unusual. With each generation experiencing much higher participation rates than the one before it, large numbers of students must have had parents who didn’t go to university. According to figures in Anderson and Vervoon’s Access to Privilege, at Melbourne University in the 1960s and 1970s around a quarter of the fathers and 10 per cent of mothers of students had a university qualification – high for the era, but still leaving a big majority of students as ‘first in family’.

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Youth Allowance and course completion

The annual cohort completions statistics published by the Department of Education show that low SES students complete courses as lower rates than medium or high SES students. On the most recent figures 67 per cent of low SES commencing students had completed a degree by nine years after commencement. The equivalent figures were 72 per cent for medium SES students and 78 per cent for high SES students.

Youth Allowance and completion rates

In analysing the factors affecting completion, a Department of Education data integration project joins higher education enrolment variables with other government data, including income and student income support.

Their analysis suggests, as seen in the chart below, that receipt of Youth Allowance or Austudy is associated with increases in completion at the six-year point for students in all but the most advantaged areas, with the largest effects for students living in areas with the greatest levels of economic disadvantage.*

The analysis of the results is quite brief, making it hard to fully understand the effects of student income support. If I understand them correctly, they have controlled for full- or part-time study status. However, I would see getting students to study full-time as a major benefit of student income support. In the Grattan Institute dropping out analysis, studying part-time is the single biggest completion risk, and this is supported by the Department’s analysis, which includes additional variables Grattan did not have.

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Recurrent critiques, concerns and crises in Australian higher education

In a previous post on Gwil Croucher and James Waghorne’s Australian Universities: A History of Common Cause, I noted a range of significant changes in Australian higher education over the last century. This post looks at recurrent themes.

Debate about the purpose(s) of the university

From the start Australia’s universities served multiple purposes, with on-going tensions between knowledge for its own sake, typically most strongly supported by academics, and meeting practical needs, typically most strongly supported by governments.

At the 1920 meeting that Croucher and Waghorne mark as the start of a national organisation of universities, University of Sydney Chancellor Sir William Cullen warned against ‘adopting too enthusiastically the current preoccupation with ideas of “national efficiency”‘.

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Key differences between Australian and British higher education: regional versus national markets and institutions

In two previous posts on higher education parallels between Britain and Australia, prompted by reading Peter Mandler’s book on Britain, I also noted that there were some important differences, which this post explores.

National versus regional systems

Mandler argues that in Britain a national higher education system emerged out of a ‘patchwork of institutions dating back to the middle ages’. Although local funding has been part of higher education finance in Britain, national funding was more significant early in the 20th century, and dominated the post-WW2 expansion of higher education. Universities were linked in a common funding system.

As a recent book by Gwil Croucher and James Waghorne explains, in Australia state governments were significant funders of higher education until the national government took over in 1974. Laws regulating the foundation of universities were state-based until 2011, although agreements between the states created a high degree of uniformity from 2000.

In Britain, free higher education from 1962 and a means-tested maintenance (income support) grant helped universities recruit nationally. Britain had a national applications and admissions system from 1961. However, devolution in the UK means that there are now differences in higher education finance between jurisdictions.

Free or consistently-priced undergraduate education across Australia since 1974, along with means-tested student income support, has not fundamentally changed the largely regional nature of Australian higher education. Most students attend universities in their state, and usually in their home city. Australia’s admission systems remain state-based.

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What’s changed in a century of Australian higher education?

Gwil Croucher and James Waghorne’s Australian Universities: A History of Common Cause is an easy-to-read history of Australian higher education, told with attention to the history of university peak bodies. Universities Australia commissioned the book to mark the centenary of the regular meetings of university leaders that began in 1920.

The Australian university system in 2020 is in many ways very different from what it was in 1920. But despite the transformations some issues recur repeatedly over the decades, which I will discuss further in a later blog post. I will start with what has changed the most, prompted by the Croucher and Waghorne book, but adding other material and my own take on events.

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A farewell to arts?

I am on a panel discussion this evening called ‘A Farewell to Arts? On the Morrison Government’s University Legislation’. I will do my preparation in public via this blog post, working through the event questions.

Why does the Morrison Government want to dissuade students from enrolling in an Arts degree? [A reference to more than doubled student contributions.]

As the policy name ‘Job-ready Graduates’ suggests, the main stated reason for changes to student contributions is to promote graduate employment outcomes. Or as the JRG discussion paper puts it ‘incentives in the current funding system could encourage sub-optimal choices for students and institutions, leading to poorer labour market outcomes and returns on investment in higher education.’ The assumption is that if arts becomes more expensive students will instead choose a course with lower student contributions and better employment prospects.

Employment outcomes can be measured in many ways, but every method shows that graduates in fields typically taught in Arts faculties are at an elevated risk of disappointing outcomes.

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The social and political causes of increasing educational participation from the 1980s

In my previous blog post, a discussion of Australian educational trends inspired by Peter Mandler’s post-WW2 history of education in Britain, I finished in the 1970s, a rare period of decline in school completion and university participation rates.

School completion increases again

Whatever the reasons for 1970s educational trends, in the 1980s rates of school completion rapidly increased, as the chart below shows. According to Simon Marginson’s book Educating Australia, increasing the proportion of students completing Year 12 was a deliberate policy goal, supported by state governments and the Commonwealth.

With these older teenagers, in the 1980s compulsion was not a politically acceptable policy tool for increasing school retention. As recently as 2007 in Victoria and 2009 in NSW the school leaving age was still only fifteen. Incentives were needed. According to Marginson, the Commonwealth significantly extended income support for secondary school students, with recipient numbers increasing six-fold between 1982 and 1990.

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The rise and then slight fall of school completion and university participation rates in Australia and Britain, 1870s to 1970s

A recent reading highlight for me is Peter Mandler’s The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Higher Education since the Second World War. I reviewed it on the GoodReads site.

Despite its title, Mandler’s book does not neatly belong to either educational merit genre; it neither bemoans the excessive influence of academic ability in allocating social and economic goods, nor laments the decline of academic standards in schools and universities. Instead, its core theme is how changing attitudes, aspirations and expectations drove up British educational participation and attainment after WW2. There are many interesting parallels with Australia.

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How will performance funding work under Job-ready Graduates? (I don’t know, but here are some possibilities)

How performance funding will work under Job-ready Graduates remains unclear, to me at least. Some recently published FAQs on Job-ready Graduates, which are a cut-and-paste from a previous statement, indicate that performance funding will continue:

From 2021, the PBF scheme will be adjusted to make approximately $80 million amount of growth funding per year contingent on performance requirements. Performance funding will grow each year to a total equivalent to 7.5 per cent of funding for domestic, non‑medical bachelor places to incentivise university performance. This measure is in line with the PBF model implemented in 2020. [emphasis added]

Is performance funding a condition of other announced CGS increases?

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