A few notes on the future of higher education policy

Labor went to the 2022 election with few specific policies on higher education, but with general plans for a different style of policymaking. The teal MPs have a few things to say about higher education. If Labor gets a clear House of Representatives majority, however, the opinions of the yet-to-be-determined Senate crossbench will be more important than those of lower-house teals in the passage of higher education legislation.

Additional student places

Labor’s main specific election promise was ‘up to’ 20,000 more student places. As I wrote when the policy was announced, the ‘up to’ is an important caveat, because under Job-ready Graduates the government allocates dollars rather than places. The same number of dollars can convert into lots of places in arts or business courses with low Commonwealth contributions, or relatively few places in courses with high Commonwealth contributions.

Labor’s costings document also indicates that this money for extra places appears to be temporary, starting to decline before the full impact of demand from the ‘Costello baby boom’ cohort is felt. It may also be too little to offset the inflation impact on Commonwealth-supported places. Commonwealth contributions are indexed to CPI, so as contribution values go up universities need to deliver fewer student places to get each $1 million of Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding.

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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For international students the 2020 higher education enrolment data released this week is already very out-of-date.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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University offers under Job-ready Graduates

In an earlier post I looked at how university applicants responded to COVID-19 and the new Job-ready Graduates student contributions. In this post I look at how universities responded, based on the offers statistics released yesterday. All the numbers are for domestic undergraduate applicants only.

The incentives faced by universities

In the lead up to 2021 university offers university leaders made various statements about trying to meet expected extra domestic demand, as COVID cut job and travel alternatives to study. But universities also faced, and face, a difficult finanacial situation. They are simultaneously being hit by the Job-ready Graduates policy, which reduces their per student funding in many fields, and by the loss of international student revenue, with the borders now closed to new international students since March 2020. These events compromise university capacity to fund domestic undergraduate student places that do not cover their own costs

Capacity aside, Job-ready Graduates creates complex incentives. By funding at average teaching costs it creates an economies of scale model. That’s one reason why we see the closure of low enrolment subjects and courses. If there is no longer any profit on some courses that may also disincline universities from expanding. On the other hand, if universities want to maintain a course then driving up enrolments may the key to it, by spreading fixed or semi-fixed costs over larger numbers of students. And in the $14,500 student contribution fields – arts (with a few exceptions), business and law – there may be a de facto demand driven system.

Universities also need to consider a complex short-to-medium term negative effect caused by JRG only partially grandfathering pre-2021 students. The link has explanatory detail, but the practical consequence is that more of a university’s total Commonwealth teaching grant has to be spent on continuing students, leaving less money for new students.

Yet another complexity for universities is that COVID-19 made estimating student numbers more difficult. For admissions, the key risk was that offer acceptance rates would be higher than usual, and the university would end up with loss making ‘over-enrolments’ (enrolments that earn a student but not a Commonwealth contribution). This created an incentive to be cautious about offer levels.

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The first Job-ready Graduates university applications data

The 2021 university applications data is out today, of more interest than usual due to two big events, COVID-19 and the Job-ready Graduates policy changes.

Early in the pandemic I thought there might be a moderate increase in school leaver applications and a larger one for mature age students. The primary reason in each case was the counter-cyclical aspect of higher education demand, with some people studying when work is hard to find.

On top of this, under Job-ready Graduates the government introduced significant changes to student contributions, so that some courses cost 2021 commencing students much more than those who commenced in previous years, while other courses cost less.

Total applications

The trend in total domestic application numbers is complicated by a change to the Queensland school starting age in 2007, which produced a dip in Year 12 numbers in 2019 with negative consequences for university applications for 2020 and a rebound in 2021. DESE has produced trend lines with and without QTAC figures to account for this issue, with the non-QTAC figures producing an increase of 2.3 per cent between 2020 and 2021 (4.4 per cent with QTAC). It’s not super-fast growth, but the 2.3 per cent is the highest since 2015.

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What can the government do about student associations and free speech?

The Australian this morning reports that ‘Education Minister Alan Tudge is considering cutting off funding to student organisations that ­attempt to stop the airing of views they oppose on campus.’ The trigger is an issue with the ANU student association, and whether an anti-abortion group and the ADF should be able to set up stalls at the association’s market day.

As is usual in these cases, the facts are not entirely clear. The student newspaper Woroni quotes the student association’s social officer as saying the groups were excluded. But the association told The Australian that the groups did not apply and therefore no application from them has been rejected.

Either way, ‘Mr Tudge told The Australian he was considering ways to block student unions that impede free speech from taking compulsory student fees which fund their services on campus, and tying them to a model code of free speech that now applies only to university administrators and staff.’

How can student unions be regulated?

As the minister’s statement acknowledges, if a student union is a separate legal entity to the university it is not automatically covered by the academic freedom and freedom of speech definitions added to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 earlier this year. The government may try to extend freedom of speech provisions to student unions.

The current freedom of speech law is based on applying conditions to grants rather than direct regulation. As student unions don’t receive grants this mechanism cannot be used for them.

While the government does not directly fund student associations, this year the Commonwealth has lent students about $130 million through the SA-HELP scheme to pay their amenities fees.

There is no current power to attach additional conditions to SA-HELP loans, but this could be considered.

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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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Can performance penalties reduce university maximum basic grant amounts?

The current university funding agreements change the nature of performance funding. Previously performance funding was configured as a reward scheme, providing additional funds in exchange for meeting performance-related criteria. Now it is a penalty scheme, deducting money from teaching grants if universities don’t meet performance criteria. The performance benchmarks are assumed to align with the pre-Job-ready Graduates performance funding policy, but this has not been publicly confirmed.

This post explores whether a performance deduction from teaching grants is legally permissible under the Higher Education Support Act 2003. It is clearly not the kind of performance incentive envisaged by HESA 2003, and there are grounds for thinking that a court might find that it is partially or entirely invalid.

The maximum basic grant amount and the performance penalty

The most important grant provision in HESA 2003 is the maximum basic grant amount (MBGA) for higher education courses. This establishes the maximum amount the government will pay from the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) for Commonwealth supported student places in coursework courses, other than demand driven enrolments for regional and remote bachelor-degree Indigenous students and medical courses. The total value of this grant for 2021 is about $6.8 billion.

Under HESA 2003 each university is to be paid the lesser of the higher education courses MBGA, as set out in their funding agreement, or the total Commonwealth contribution value (relevant discipline funding rates * full-time equivalent students) of student places delivered. Any enrolments above the cap are funded at the student contribution rate only.

The funding agreements include total MBGA amounts for the next three years. The example below is from Macquarie University’s funding agreement, but all agreements have the same or similar formats.

Another clause in the funding agreements, however, purports to take away an element of the MBGA in the event of poor performance. The example below is again Macquarie but all other other agreements have the same format.
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