Patterns of international student enrolment decline in the first year of COVID-19

For international students the 2020 higher education enrolment data released this week is already very out-of-date. The international branch of DESE produces more current aggregate numbers, and has been circulating up-to-date figures to experts and stakeholders. Peter Hurley used these in a recent Conversation article. It’s a model for what, after a recent IT upgrade, could and should be done for domestic enrolments (my long-after-the-fact analysis of the 2020 domestic results is here).

Although more recent current total international enrolment figures are available, a few things in the recently released 2020 enrolment data tell us more than is publicly available elsewhere.

Attrition

International bachelor degree students have much lower attrition rates after first year than their domestic counterparts. Flying to a foreign country and paying sometimes exorbitant fees is a strong incentive to get the degree. But while attrition for 2019 commencers into 2020 declined for domestic students, the international rate increased nearly 3 percentage points to 12.73 per cent. The most likely reason is that some international students could not get back to Australia due to travel bans.


Commencing and continuing students

Increased attrition meant fewer continuing students than would have been the case without COVID-19. But the prior boom years for commencing students meant that continuing students still increased in 2020 on 2019 figures. This is one reason why the overall decline in international students was contained to 6.6 per cent, despite an 18.2 per cent decrease in commencing numbers.

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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 – 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.

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How much the government paid for Centre Alliance’s Senate vote, and other updates from the funding agreements

This post updates one I wrote in April, including new information from revised university funding agreements posted on DESE’s website.

South Australian university Senate special deals

The updated funding agreements let us see how much the government paid to get Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff to vote for Job-ready Graduates, which is $68.6 million for South Australian universities over the 2021-2023 funding agreement period. Unlike much of the other additional money in the funding agreements, these increases are ongoing rather than temporary.

I am not sure what criteria were used in dividing the money between the South Australian universities. In 2021 Adelaide gets 1.9 per cent more than it presumably would have otherwise, Flinders 2.7 per cent, and the University of South Australia 3.1 per cent.

More short course places allocated

In my earlier post the allocated short courses fell short of the announced budget value of $252 million. Now they slightly exceed it at $258.7 million, divided between 256 undergraduate certificates valued at $102.9 million and 491 graduate certificates worth $155.8 million. My updated spreadsheet of short courses is here.

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Would universities have received JobKeeper under more favourable rules?

In 2020 the Australian government JobKeeper policy provided eligible employers and employees with a wage subsidy, which was designed to sustain employment during a COVID-related shock to the Australian economy.

Public universities were eligible for JobKeeper, but its regulations were changed several times to reduce the chance that they would qualify. I assessed the merits of the government’s university JobKeeper decisions in a previous post. No university received JobKeeper directly, although some benefited from it via their subsidiaries.

With most university annual reports now published I can partially investigate the effects of the government’s university JobKeeper decisions. As at 6 July 2021 I have 2020 financial results for 32 public universities. I am missing the South Australian universities, the University of Canberra, the University of Tasmania, and Charles Sturt University.

Time period of revenue loss

For all organisations JobKeeper eligibility involved comparing revenue in 2020 with the same period in 2019. Most organisations could choose a month or quarter, but for universities it was changed to the six month period from 1 January 2020. In my previous post, I rated this as the least defensible government university JobKeeper decision.

Early on, before the six month period was introduced, some universities thought that they could qualify (eg Sydney and La Trobe in April).

The original one month comparison option, starting with a calendar month that ends after 30 March 2020, seemed to create opportunities for some universities. Government payments arrive in fortnightly instalments, while fees are paid around due dates. In particular months international student fees received for the next semester may be a large percentage of all university income. A big drop in fee revenue in one of those months might have triggered the revenue decline threshold that made an employer eligible for JobKeeper assistance (the relevant level is discussed below).

At least at Sydney, most first semester 2020 student fee due dates were prior to 30 March (I could not find La Trobe’s dates). And Sydney is one of the ‘China universities’ affected by a border closure to China from 1 February 2020. The ‘India universities’ are unlikely to have had a March trigger month, as Indian students mostly arrived before the international borders closed completely to routine travel on 20 March 2020.

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How defensible were the government’s JobKeeper decisions for public universities?

The Australian Government’s JobKeeper program was intended as a temporary scheme to keep people in jobs during COVID lockdowns and business restrictions. It was originally scheduled to run until late September 2020. With some more limited extensions it finished at the end of March 2021. The government made several decisions that reduced the chance that a public university would qualify for JobKeeper support. This post evaluates those decisions from a public policy perspective. A subsequent post assesses how the various decisions affected public university JobKeeper eligibility.

In the rush to implement JobKeeper, the public university aspects were not well implemented or explained. University hopes were raised only to be dashed, feeding a sense of persecution as well as cutting off potential funding. I will argue, however, that the final policy position reached by the government, except for the time period for comparing 2019 and 2020 cash flows, was not wrong in principle.

More importantly, JobKeeper was never the right response to the higher education sector’s COVID-related problems. It was a short-term program aimed at helping employers maintain staff through domestic lockdowns and restrictions on activity. Regulations affecting the day-to-day activities of people in Australia were, and remain, very disruptive to universities but are not leading to a major loss of income. The financial problem is an international border closure that will last for more than two years. This will cause significant continuing revenue losses from international students into the mid-2020s.

The eventually announced extra government money for research and temporary new student places were more like what is needed. My critique of the government’s higher education response to COVID is that these policies were only announced late in 2020, and largely terminate before borders are predicted to re-open. Additional assistance for 2022 should be arranged.

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The competitive education market for workers updating their skills

In 2019 I wrote a series of posts on declining participation in formal education and training by people already in employment. Falling enrolments ran counter to claims that technology-driven disruptions to work would make further education more necessary than in the past.

The 2019 blog posts identified nine sources of survey and administrative data that should be trending up if the workforce disruption analysis was right. All seven data sources on individuals were instead trending down, while two employer surveys respectively showed a small increase in informal training and a larger increase in online training.

Informal training is not or is poorly measured in the individual person surveys. If it is increasing while structured learning is decreasing then this may signal a change in how people educate themselves after their initial formal education.

Prompted by this week’s release of new data on one of my trend indicators – ATO self-education expense claims – this post updates my 2019 analysis. Most indicators show signs of recovery but on the latest available data three are still trending down.

Postgraduate education

Postgraduate coursework education returned to growth in 2019. Commencing on-campus numbers continued to decline but were offset by online commencements. People moving straight from undergraduate to postgraduate study complicate my analysis, as they are trying to start rather than advance their careers. On the publicly available data I cannot distinguish the two groups.

Postgraduate numbers for 2019 remain below their earlier peak, but I expect 2020 and especially 2021 to be growth years. This is partly because I see postgraduate education as counter-cyclical, with COVID labour market disruptions in 2020 encouraging further study. If this hypothesis is right data noise complicates analysis of longer-term trends, but convenient online postgraduate options are attracting students.

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How many jobs are there in higher education?

COVID-19 has been bad for jobs in higher education. Last October, the NTEU estimated that since March 2020 more than 12,000 jobs had been lost. According to Universities Australia in February 2021 at least 17,300 jobs were lost in 2020. But how many jobs were there to begin with?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The official DESE staff statistics give us a headcount as at 31 March each year of people employed on an on-going or fixed term contract at public universities and Bond, Notre Dame, University of Divinity and Avondale University College. At the end of March 2020 these institutions had just over 130,000 employees.

But as the chart below shows, the full-time equivalent count is always higher than the on-going or fixed term headcount, because it includes casuals. On a FTE basis, about 18 per cent of all staff are casuals, including nearly a quarter of academic staff. But DESE does not collect headcount data on casuals.

Casuals

While DESE does not provide a casual headcount, two datasets that include higher education providers, produced by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, include casual figures.

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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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Can universities just close loss-making courses?

As international student fee revenues fall universities are closing loss-making subjects and courses. Musicology at Monash. Maths and gender studies at Macquarie. Arts and social science subjects at Sydney. Neuropsychology at La Trobe.

Generally, universities have significant autonomy over what they teach. Changes in courses and subjects occur every year, in good as well as bad economic times.

But the funding agreements universities sign with the government impose some controls over course closures.

For courses leading to occupations deemed to be experiencing a skills shortage, and subjects teaching ‘nationally strategic’ languages, universities have to get government approval prior to closure.

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Why did universities become reliant on international students? Part 4: Trying to maintain a teaching-research academic workforce

In my previous post in this series, I argued that international student fees help pay for under-funded government-sponsored research grants. But these research projects are not the only partially-funded research universities are trying to finance. They also have many teaching staff on contracts that include research time, but who do not attract equivalent research income.

For academics, the expected and preferred academic career is generally to have a teaching and research or research only role. For most academics, however, teaching is not their top priority. A survey about a decade ago found that, among teaching-research academics, nearly two-thirds leaned towards or were primarily interested in research.

This bias is reinforced by the academic recruitment process, which favours people with PhDs. In 1987 less than a quarter of academics in the Colleges of Advanced Education, which by then taught the majority of higher education students, had PhDs, and 69 per cent of university academics. In 2018, across the now unified system, nearly 74 per cent of academics have a PhD.

Not surprisingly, most people who do PhDs are interested in research. In a 2010 survey, only six per cent of research students planning an academic career nominated a ‘mainly teaching’ role as their ideal job.

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