Predicting student numbers during the COVID-19 recession: 2021 could be an unexpected peak year

In two recent posts, I argued that although higher education demand increased during the early 1990s recession, this may not happen on the same scale during the COVID-19 recession. We start this time from a much higher base of educational participation and attainment. The pool of people interested in higher education, but who have not yet enrolled or acquired a degree, is smaller than it was 30 years ago.

However, to predict that total applications may not increase very much is not the same as saying that total short-term demand will not increase substantially. Applications will be a weaker proxy than usual for how many people will want to be enrolled.Read More »

Will the COVID-19 recession increase mature-age applications for higher education?

In an earlier post, I looked at how the COVID-19 recession might affect school-leaver applications for undergraduate education. I concluded that although the lack of job opportunities would favour continued education over unemployment, the scope for applications growth was lower now than during the early 1990s recession.

School retention is much higher now than 30 years ago, and a much larger proportion of the cohort with a potential interest in university already attends. With the age cohort’s size not changing much in the short term there is less room to move.

Interpreting historical application numbers from older university applicants is complicated. It includes relatively young people, did not until the last decade count direct applications to universities (which are mostly from older applicants), and does not distinguish between applicants who are already students but hoping to change courses and those seeking to enter higher education.

With these caveats, the chart below shows a large increase in applications from non-school leavers in the early 1990s. In percentage terms it is larger than the school leaver increase. It is consistent with the recessions drive up higher education demand hypothesis. The scope for growth is high because it is not constrained by the size of recent Year 12 classes.Read More »

Will the COVID-19 recession increase school-leaver applications for higher education?

Due to COVID-19 Australia faces the worst recession in living memory. This post is the first of a series looking at how this might influence demand for higher education. But to pre-empt future posts, applications are just one of several factors affecting how many students end up enrolled. Acceptance rates, deferrals, and attrition rates could all change, affecting student numbers.

I will start with the school leaver market. As I have noted previously, in recent years higher education applicant numbers have softened. For school leavers, demography will continue to cap numbers. But within the constraints of age cohort size, could the recession affect applicant numbers?

Recessions change the economics of choosing between higher education and work. If there are no jobs a university student does not forgo pay and work experience. Higher education’s opportunity cost falls. Further study might be the second-best option, but it is better than unemployment.Read More »

Is declining higher education demand a concern?

In the last couple of years demand for higher education has trended down, with enrolments falling slightly in 2018 compared to 2017. This post explores some reasons why this might be happening.

Demographic trends are always important to enrolments and participation rates.  Unfortunately no data source tells us in total or by age how many people meet the eligibility criteria for a Commonwealth-supported place.

The size of the birth cohort has a significant influence, but under-counts eligible persons due to migration. With 22 per cent of domestic students born overseas migration is important to demand. ABS demographic data includes migrants, but because of long-term temporary residents over-states how many people are eligible for a CSP.

As universities generally require students to have completed Year 12, final year of school enrolments are also a guide to potential demand. However, this is also an imperfect indicator, due to temporary migrants and not all Year 12 students taking subjects that qualify them for university entry.

With all these caveats, the chart below shows that none of the potential population indicators suggest that, holding participation rates constant, that demand for higher education should be up in aggregate terms. The (temporarily) falling size of the birth cohort and the slight dip in Year 12 students would suggest that demand might trend down.

potential uni students

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Has the university funding freeze caused commencing enrolments to fall?

The 2018 higher education enrolment data, published yesterday (yes, it should be released much earlier than late October), showed a rare fall in public university domestic commencing bachelor degree students. Both a headcount and full-time equivalent count show a decline of about 0.8 per cent compared to 2017.

2018 was also the first year post the demand driven system, the practical implication of which was that universities would not be paid Commonwealth contributions for enrolling additional students. Indeed, there is a financial incentive to let the number of student places fall.

So is this cause and effect, with changed funding rules causing enrolments to decline? I have no special insight into the strategic decisions of universities, but overall this trend looks to be driven by weak demand more than an unwillingness to supply student places.

As the chart below shows, applications trended down in 2018 and 2019 and offers (willingness to supply) followed this trend. Offer rates were stable: 83.2 per cent in 2017, 83.8 per cent in 2018, and 83.6 per cent in 2019. If universities were actively trying to reduce numbers we might expect offer rates to go down, but this isn’t happening.

applications down 2019

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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

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Why is mature-age university demand trending down?

In 2018, applications from school leavers for university entry were much the same as in 2017. But from non-Year 12 applicants, demand dropped by more than 5 per cent. Full 2018 enrolment data is not yet available, but first-semester domestic commencing undergraduate enrolments fell by 1.8 per cent. Various media reports suggest that demand in 2019 will be lower than in 2018.

As the chart below shows, the largest absolute drop in applications is for people aged 20 to 24, but in percentage terms the older groups dropped at around the same rate. decline by age

Looking at the data on prior education for the non-Year 12 group, application numbers are holding for people with sub-bachelor and vocational qualifications. But the no prior tertiary education and repeat-customer higher education groups are both in decline.

People changing courses or taking another course have long been a significant component of each year’s commencing students, but during the demand driven era they increased from 23.5 per cent in 2008 to 29 per cent in 2016.

Because repeat customers are such a large part of each year’s commencing students, this hid the fact that the number of new-to-higher education students started decreasing in 2015, three years before the total number of commencing students went down.  As with the more recent data, the decline was concentrated in the older age groups, as the chart below shows.Read More »