How bad is the international student English language problem?

The English language abilities of international students keep coming up as an issue. Despite reassurances from the regulator and universities, there is little publicly-available evidence to support a conclusion that the language issues are too infrequent or not serious enough to be a major concern.

Although we should always be careful with statistics on self-assessed abilities, they can provide a rough guide. If someone says that they do not speak English very well chances are that they will struggle in an English-speaking university.

One source of data on self-assessed English is the 2016 Census. The Census does not directly identify people on student visas, but I have used a number of filters – enrolled full-time in university, non-citizen, and arrived in Australia 2014-2016 – to identify likely international students. I also removed people who are monolingual English speakers. It’s likely that the data still includes some visitors to Australia and domestic students, such as those on humanitarian visas, but it should be dominated by international students.

As the chart below shows, the vast majority of likely international students say that they speak English well or very well. However, 9 per cent say that they do not speak English well.

English language overall

Read More »

The case for redefining low socioeconomic status in higher education

(This post also appears on the Grattan Institute blog.)

Since the early 1990s, higher education statistics have defined someone as of low socio-economic status if they are from a region classified in the lowest 25 per cent in Australia according to the ABS Index of Education and Occupation.

Universities are rewarded for enrolling students from these areas. A participation fund of about $135 million is distributed between universities according to their share of low SES students. A university’s success in the new performance-funding scheme will depend in part on it enrolling low-SES students.

The low-SES definition has been criticised over the years, usually because it often misclassifies individuals. High-SES people live in low-SES areas, and vice versa. But we need a balance between precision and practicalities. To recruit additional low-SES students, universities need to first identify them. Geographic areas are easier to find than individuals with particular family characteristics.

Although geographic SES measures should be retained, the lowest 25 per cent definition needs reconsidering. As the chart below shows, in 2016 higher education participation rates in the lowest quartile were not clearly distinct from the second quartile. Generally, the weighted average participation/attainment rates at the ABS SA2 geographic level cluster at around 25 per cent for people aged 18-23 across the lowest 50 per cent of areas by the Index of Education and Occupation. An SA2 is roughly the size of a postcode.*

Read More »

Is HELP doubtful debt likely to increase?

In February last year, when introducing legislation to change HELP repayment thresholds and rates, along with other HELP reforms, the government said that:

The fiscal challenge for the government is that HELP repayments have not kept pace with HELP lending growth. From 2010-11 to 2016-17, the level of new debt not expected to be repaid increased from 16 per cent to 25 per cent.

But unfortunately there is a disconnect between the stated purpose of the legislation and its likely effects. The thresholds and rate changes are unlikely to reduce doubtful debt , and indeed may increase it. Using  ATO tax data,  at the Grattan blog Will Mackey estimates that the new HELP repayment thresholds will produce slightly lower total annual student debt repayment than the previous thresholds.

The reason is that although some low and high income earners will repay more each year, most of the more numerous middle-income earners will repay less, producing a total repayment estimate of about $50 million a year less than if the previous thresholds and rates had been retained.

Read More »

Will the number of Commonwealth supported student places fall?

A couple of opinion pieces about university performance funding last week suggested that the government’s policy is aimed at increasing student places with population growth. That may be the impression the government is trying to give, but their policy provides a financial incentive to decrease the number of student places.

The government’s promise is to increase nominal funding for bachelor-degree places in line with increases in the population aged 18-64, for those universities that meet performance targets. But because percentage population increases are likely to be below inflation,  total Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding will decrease in real terms each year, even if universities get 100 per cent of their performance funding.

Although maximum CGS payments will probably increase at less than the rate of inflation the underlying Commonwealth contributions are still being indexed to the CPI. As noted last week, the demand driven funding calculation is still going on as well, so that universities receive the lesser of their demand driven or maximum grant amount. The practical effect of this is that universities can decrease the number of Commonwealth supported places each year and still get their maximum CGS funding amount.

The chart below illustrates the logic, using nursing as an example. Under the Wellings review recommendations, universities are pretty-much guaranteed 60 per cent of their maximum performance funding. So on the left-hand side of the chart below I have indexed the maximum funding amount to that and divided it by the indexed Commonwealth contribution. Next year a university could offer 4 per cent fewer nursing places than in 2017 and still get its maximum funding amount. 100 per cent performance funding does not make much difference. Read More »

The legal basis of performance funding

In December 2017, the Commonwealth froze maximum Commonwealth Grant scheme funding for bachelor-degree places for the next two years. In subsequent years, the maximum payment will increase in line with growth in the 18-64 year old population, conditional on universities meeting performance indicators.

Just before the 2017 announcement, I outlined its legal basis. It used university funding agreements to set the maximum amount, with the method chosen because it did not need parliamentary approval.

At least initially, performance funding will be administered via the funding agreements, which include a standard statement that should the university meet its performance targets it will be advised of a new maximum funding amount.

A drawback of this method of allocating performance funding is that there is no performance fund. The underlying demand driven funding system is still operating, and under section 33-5(5) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 universities receive the lesser of their demand driven funding amount (bachelor-degree full-time equivalent student places times the relevant Commonwealth contribution) and their maximum funding amount.

All the Commonwealth is doing is promising universities it will pay a little more of what they would have been entitled to anyway under demand driven funding. Read More »

Current higher education policies are the unsatisfactory result of political misjudgements in 2017. There are better ways of balancing the interests of students, universities and taxpayers.

Higher education is one of the sectors most affected by Saturday’s surprise election result. Labor’s biggest promise, restoring demand driven funding from 2020, would have delivered universities funding for all bachelor-degree students, with Commonwealth  contribution rates 5.3% higher than they were were in 2017. This did not require legislation; the current funding freeze was imposed through university funding agreements and could have been ended the same way.

By contrast, if the Coalition’s current policies stay in place there will be no demand driven funding and most universities face limited nominal increases in total Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding for bachelor-degree students (a few unis have special deals that will deliver larger increases). The best-case scenario for most universities is an annual total CGS funding increase linked to growth in the 18-64 year old population, if they meet yet-to-be-announced performance criteria.

The mention of population gives the impression that the policy will respond to demographics, but this is not correct. As the chart below shows, the projected increase in the 18-64 year old population is below even recent low CPI increases. In real terms total funding for bachelor-degree students will continue to decline.

population funding

If universities decide to maintain per student funding they would provide fewer student places each year (the logic is explained in this submission). It’s not clear to what extent this will happen. Commencements were down in 2018, but quite possibly due to weak demand for student places rather than a reluctance to supply them.  Existing enrolment projections, based on numbers universities give to the Department, suggest modest growth to 2022. But whether this would be sustained long-term with annual real funding cuts is unclear.Read More »

Young people were less likely to enter higher education in the years after Whitlam than before. Demography and deficits were against them.

The three politicians with the greatest impact on higher education participation were Robert Menzies, John Dawkins and Julia Gillard. Yet I never hear anyone say, depending on their age, that “I only went to university because of Menzies/Dawkins/Gillard”.

Yet for Gough Whitlam the story is different. Last week USQ VC Geraldine Mackenzie was reported in the Australian saying “I was very fortunate to go to university after the Whitlam years when it was all free. Otherwise I may not have had that same opportunity.” And in February shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek told the Universities Australia conference that “it feels like every week, I meet someone in their 60s or 70s who reminds me about how Gough Whitlam was responsible for them going to university.”

I have argued before that Whitlam, Prime Minister 1972-1975, was very significant in the history of Australian higher education and has some lasting legacies. But I think the lesson from Whitlam’s time for now is that the biggest drivers of participation are supply-side policies on student places, and in particular how they interact with demography and fiscal policy. Because both these factors were significant in the free education era, the long-term trend towards increased higher education participation was interrupted.

Free education lasted from 1974 to 1986 (there were small charges in 1987 and 1988, before HECS started in 1989). The chart below shows that 19-year-old participation rates went up in 1976 but then fell and did not return to the previous peak until 1986. At the low point in 1982, the 19-year old higher education participation rate was 2 percentage points lower than it had been in 1975 (unfortunately, my data source starts in 1975).

19 year old participation

Read More »