Student employment is at record levels, but can it last?

In March 2020, as Australians realised that COVID was a major problem, I wrote a pessimistic post about student employment. For a while during 2020 that pessimism was justified. But not in 2021. Tertiary student employment is at an all-time high, driven by more jobs and less labour market competition.

Retrenchment

For the ABS Participation, Job Search and Mobility survey the sample is full-time students who have completed Year 12 but have no post-school qualifications. For this group retrenchments were high in 2020. Of the people who were students in February 2021, and had been employed in February 2020, 6.5 per cent had been retrenched over the previous 12 months. This compares to retrenchment rates of about 2 per cent a year in the 2016-2020 period.

The ABS monthly and quarterly labour market reports do not include retrenchments by student status, but do provide a time series for 15-24 year old workers. About 24 per cent of those workers were full-time tertiary students in 2020. As the chart below shows, retrenchments for 15-24 year olds spiked in the May and August quarters. In the May 2020 quarter they were 31 per cent of all retrenchments. JobKeeper slowed overall job losses from the end of March, but this demographic is relatively high on people not meeting its personal eligibility criteria. Temporary migrants such as an international students were not included in JobKeeper and casuals needed to have been in their job for 12 months.

Employment to population ratio

The main analysis supported by the labour force statistics is full-time tertiary students aged 15-24 years. The chart below shows that just between March and April 2020 the proportion of tertiary students in employment fell significantly, down nearly 9 percentage points. Student employment levels were already coming off their summer peak, with employment rates declining from 65 per cent in December 2019 to 46 per cent in May 2020.

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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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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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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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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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Financial influences on job-seeking university applicants

In an earlier post, I argued that student interests drive course choices, but also that more than 80 per cent of first-year students hope for improved employment outcomes.

It follows from this that, within their cluster of interests, prospective students would plausibly choose courses with the best apparent employment and income outcomes.

This theory helps explain trends seen in applications data. While supply-side and timing problems mean we do not always have enough ‘job-ready graduates’, rarely do we lack ‘job-ready applicants’.

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Jobs, interests and student course choices

The Tehan higher education reforms aim for ‘job ready graduates’. In that, the government’s goals align with those of most students. In recent ABS surveys asking students about their main reason for study, more than 80 per cent of bachelor-degree respondents gave a job-related reason. About 10 per cent gave interest or enjoyment as their main reason (chart below).

However, interest and work reasons are not mutually exclusive. When multiple reasons can be given interest in the field of study is the most popular answer, with over 90 per cent of respondents saying it is important (chart below). Training for a specific job is nominated by about three-quarters of respondents, with another ten per cent hoping to improve their job prospects without having a precise occupation in mind.

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