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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In a previous post on Gwil Croucher and James Waghorne’s Australian Universities: A History of Common Cause, I noted a range of significant changes in Australian higher education over the last century. This post looks at recurrent themes.
Debate about the purpose(s) of the university
From the start Australia’s universities served multiple purposes, with on-going tensions between knowledge for its own sake, typically most strongly supported by academics, and meeting practical needs, typically most strongly supported by governments.
At the 1920 meeting that Croucher and Waghorne mark as the start of a national organisation of universities, University of Sydney Chancellor Sir William Cullen warned against ‘adopting too enthusiastically the current preoccupation with ideas of “national efficiency”‘.
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Post updated 1/01/22: Clarifying that the rules apply to non-completion of subjects as well as academic fails, updating to take account of amendments, and removing now irrelevant 2020 content.
On 1 January 2022 a further element of the Job-ready Graduates package commenced, which restricts Commonwealth support for students who fail to complete at least half the subjects they have taken.
General rule – failing to successfully complete more than half of subjects leads to loss of funding entitlements for that course
The general rule is that students who fail to successfully complete more than half their subjects in a course will lose their entitlement to Commonwealth support: section 36-13 of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 (HESA 2003) for Commonwealth supported students, for FEE-HELP students section 104-1A . At public universities, FEE-HELP borrowers are mainly postgraduates, as they cannot offer undergraduate full-fee places except in narrow circumstances.
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My previous post argued that some university students needlessly incur HELP debts and fails on their academic record. This post looks in more detail at several measures proposed in new legislation to alleviate this problem.
Although these measures arrived without warning they have a history. With some amendment and addition, they extend to public universities rules applying to non-university higher education institutions since the 2017 provider integrity legislation. In turn the 2017 non-university provider legislation imported vocational sector rules intended to avoid a repeat of the VET-FEE HELP debacle.
Provider marketing and student motivations
The issues in VET FEE-HELP and higher education are, however, quite different. The offering of inducements, misleading statements about HELP, and cold calling that would be restricted or banned for public universities by the new legislation never or rarely happen in higher education.*
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The draft legislation for the Tehan higher education package, released on Tuesday, includes several previously unannounced measures. These include new – or least new for public universities – rules for managing under-performing students.
Among the measures are greater monitoring of student progress, restrictions on study load, and as the media has been reporting today students losing Commonwealth funding if they fail more than half the subjects they have taken. The minister’s media release is here.
I will get to the sometimes arcane detail in a subsequent post (or posts, there is a lot). I am not convinced that the government is going about this in the best way. But I don’t want complaints about the details to obscure the point that this is an area worth policy attention.
In the Grattan Institute Dropping Out report we argued that disengaged students are needlessly incurring HELP debt and blemished academic records. With demand likely to exceed supply for higher education next year, disengaged students are also using Commonwealth supported places that would benefit other people more.
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A wide variety of universities have early offer programs for 2021. These have been the subject several recent newspaper articles, especially on early offers to Year 12 students.
Letting students apply for university courses and receive offers prior to the main selection process after Year 12 results isn’t new. Andrew Harvey documented many examples in 2014.
But the anxiety many Year 12 students feel about a disrupted final year of school, and their very uncertain prospects, might fuel greater interest than usual in locking in at least one part of their future.
While Year 12 students seeking an early offer is very understandable, as a university practice early offers now raise issues they did not previously.
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The government now has a first support plan for higher education. Its key elements are letting universities keep student-related grants and loans for 2020 even if they enrol too few students, funding short courses, and regulatory fee relief.
An earlier post was my inference and guesswork from fragmentary Easter Sunday announcements. This post uses material from FAQs issued by the Department of Education on Tuesday. For readers who do not need to be across the technical detail of higher education funding I recommend my article for The Conversation rather than this post.
Commonwealth Grant Scheme
The government’s biggest higher education funding program is the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, which pays tuition subsidies of over $7 billion a year. Under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 total payments for the year cannot exceed equivalent full-time student numbers multiplied by the relevant Commonwealth contribution.
Universities are paid fortnightly based on estimates of their CGS entitlement for the year. A few days ago the University of Sydney announced that it was down 5 per cent on its domestic student target. Whether this is due to COVID-19 or tough NSW market conditions is not clear. A number of other universities were struggling before COVID-19 due to demographic factors.
Whatever the reason, universities will now be paid their original estimated funding rather than their legal entitlement. This also suspends the need to meet performance funding criteria, which is sensible. Read More »
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 »
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 »
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 »