How can the government cap funding for Commonwealth-supported student places?

As reported recently, higher education is expected to face cuts in Monday’s MYEFO. My guess – but certainly not my preference – is that the government will use new university funding agreements to freeze the demand driven system, and to reduce postgraduate Commonwealth-supported places.

Under demand driven funding, most public universities are paid a Commonwealth contribution for each domestic bachelor degree student they enrol (section 33-5(5) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003), except in medicine which is ‘designated’ (section 30-12(b)).

However, section 33-5(5) includes a provision for setting a ‘maximum basic grant amount’ for ‘non-designated’ places (ie, all fields except medicine). This power has been used for the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia, which traded in undergraduate places for Commonwealth supported postgraduate places. What we now expect is that the maximum basic grant amount will be used for other universities to reduce future spending on student places.

This can be a freeze but not a cut in nominal terms due to section 30-27(3) which says that, where a maximum basic grant amount has not previously been set, it cannot be less than the amount calculated under section 33-5(5) for the previous year, ie 2017 for the 2018 funding agreements. For the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia, it cannot be less than the maximum amount set for 2017. The freeze could be maintained by determining that the 2019 maximum basic grant amount was the same as for 2018, which is turn was the same as 2017, and so on.

It is also possible that the maximum basic grant amount will be higher than 2017, but lower than a university would have received after indexation of the Commonwealth contribution rates under division 198 of HESA and payment for any increase in student numbers under section 33-5(5).

In practice, it is likely that most universities would lose the value of Commonwealth contribution indexation and not be paid Commonwealth contributions for any additional students they enrol. Sustained over a number of years, this could do universities significant financial damage, especially if they are already locked into growth (for example, a university that increased its commencing student numbers in 2017 will have to accommodate them while they finish their degrees).

There is no equivalent of section 33-5(5) for student contributions or HECS-HELP. Therefore universities can still receive indexed student contributions for every Commonwealth supported student they enrol.

All postgraduate, associate degree and diploma courses are designated and distributed to universities through funding agreements (section 30-10 of HESA in conjunction with 30-25(3)). These places have to be allocated to funding clusters (section 30-10(2)).

The government was already planning to cut 3,000 postgraduate Commonwealth supported places, so that is likely to go ahead. They will also have to choose which discipline clusters to cut. As with bachelor-degree places, universities could still receive student contributions directly or via HECS-HELP.

Existing postgraduate students who are enrolled on in a Commonwealth supported place are entitled to keep it (section 36-25 of HESA). Effectively, that is an entitlement to a place with a price-controlled student contribution but not necessarily a Commonwealth contribution. Universities would still be allowed to ‘over-enrol’ (ie take more students than their funding agreement states) but would only get the student contributions. For new postgraduate students, universities can offer full-fee places to replace lost Commonwealth supported places.

The government may also cut Commonwealth supported places in associate degree and diploma courses. Universities could still receive student contributions if they ‘over-enrol’ in these courses. However, they are prohibited from offering full-fee places in all undergraduate courses (section 36-30 of HESA).

The funding agreements are not legislative instruments, and therefore are not sent to Parliament and not subject to disallowance by the House of Representatives or the Senate. It is that, rather than any higher education policy rationale, which makes capping likely. It is one of the few options left for a government determined to make Budget savings without a Senate majority.

The VETification of higher education is a precedent that should not be set

In The Australian this morning an article points out that publicly-funded language diplomas may be not be available to new students from next year. In my view, that is a correct implication of both general policy statements on funding diplomas and associate degrees made by the government, and the specific consultation paper on sub-bachelor courses.

Unfortunately, this is a case in which the government, in attempting to fix one problem, would create several new problems.

The original problem here is that diplomas and associate degrees were, at the last minute in 2011, excluded from the demand driven system. That means that the total number of government-funded sub-bachelor places remains set by the government, the allocation of places between universities reflects largely historical decisions, and new places (when available) are distributed according to regularly changing criteria. The distribution of places does not strongly align with the preferences of students, the strategies of universities, or the needs of employers. In the review of the demand driven system I did with David Kemp, we recommended putting sub-bachelor places into the demand driven system.

On the surface, the government’s proposal looks like it is responding positively to this recommendation. Constraints on the number of funded sub-bachelor places will be lifted in two ways. First, sub-bachelor courses approved by the minister will enter the demand driven system. Second, sub-bachelor courses not approved by the minister will be given an exception on the general ban on undergraduate full-fee places at public universities.

Language courses are in trouble because they typically fail to meet both the announced criteria for sub-bachelor demand driven funding – that they articulate into a related bachelor degree program, and that they have been developed with a focus on industry needs. Read More »

Should permanent residents lose their higher education tuition subsidies?

Under current law, access to the HELP loan scheme is a rare government financial benefit linked to citizenship rather than permanent residence. It may be the only benefit in this category.

Under the government’s proposed higher education reforms, permanent residents would become entitled to HELP.* But access to tuition subsidies under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme would instead be restricted to citizens, and permanent residents put in full-fee places. For undergraduates especially, this could cost them tens of thousands of dollars.

No universally applied rules govern who is entitled to what in Australia. But there are patterns of eligibility that suggest some broad principles. Generally speaking, longer and stronger connections to Australia lead to wider eligibility for government-financed benefits. Underlying this is the idea of a reciprocal welfare state; paying tax and receiving benefits are linked over a lifetime. People who aren’t committed to Australia, and who probably won’t finance as well as receive government benefits, have restricted entitlements.

The clearest example of this idea in practice is the distinction between temporary and permanent migrants. Temporaries are eligible for few benefits, while permanents get almost all. It would be unreasonable to require people to make long-term taxation contributions to Australia without making them eligible for the benefits those taxes finance. But people present in Australia for only short periods should not receive benefits they haven’t financed. The temporary/permanent distinction is not as robust as it once was because of the rise of long-term but legally temporary migrants. But that is a problem with the visa categories more than the underlying principle.

The Australian welfare state also makes sharp distinctions between residents and non-residents. Regardless of citizenship status, Australians living overseas generally aren’t entitled to social security benefits (or any higher education benefits; Australian citizens studying at the overseas campuses of Australian universities generally don’t get subsidies or loans). The main exception is the aged pension, but that is linked to past residence. Again, full legal membership of the Australian community through citizenship isn’t counting for much; being within reach of the Australian taxation system matters more.

Why are citizenship and higher education benefits linked in an unusual way?Read More »

Is a public-private ‘balance’ a useful higher education funding idea?

For several decades, Australian higher education policymakers have been interested in the idea that there is a desirable ‘balance’ between public and private contributions to the cost of higher education, and that a distribution of public and private benefits should inform this.

In an earlier post, I argued that a Deloitte Access Economics report released this week had come closer than any previous work to calculating a distribution of public and private benefits of higher education. What I am not convinced of is that such a calculation is useful for policymakers.

Sometimes an analysis of personal benefits and public benefits, as distinct from some ‘balance’ between them, will be helpful. In the Deloitte report (p.10) they argue that:

The economic policy rationale for governments to support higher education is the existence of a ‘market failure’ – specifically, the existence of the public benefits described above and the fact that, in the absence of government funding, the decisions by providers and students will not drive the system toward its socially optimal operation.

Economic theory suggests that students will choose to acquire knowledge where their expected private benefit is at least equal to their cost of education. If at least some public benefit exists, then this decision-making process will result in a suboptimal level of knowledge transfer activities.

In order to increase levels of knowledge and maximise the total net social benefit of higher education, governments need to be able to identify the public benefits being created, such that appropriate subsidies can be derived and applied. Identifying the relative split between public and private benefits may then inform the relative subsidy payments based on these dimensions.

Apart from the sentences in bold, I agree. I have made similar arguments myself.

The problem with the first bolded sentence is that the presence of public benefits does not of itself lead to sub-optimal levels of education. This will only happen if the total net private benefits are too low to justify enrolment. In those cases, tuition subsidies reduce costs and make it easier to get to positive net private benefits. This may encourage prospective students to enrol when otherwise they would not.

The main argument of my 2012 Graduate Winners report is that even though market failures are possible, with income contingent loans there are only limited empirical circumstances in which they actually exist.

In most cases the private benefits of higher education are already so large – Deloitte, like previous research, identifies hundreds of thousands of dollars or more extra in lifetime income (p.34) – that the tuition subsidies are unlikely to sway the decisions of someone acting in their rational economic self-interest. Subsidies at the levels historically seen in Australia usually add relatively small amounts to net private financial benefits that are already large enough to attract students to higher education. And this is before we take into account other factors influencing people to attend higher education, such as interest in their field of study, access to particular careers, the lifestyle experience of campus, status, and keeping parents happy. Read More »

The quest for a public-private higher education funding ‘balance’

Despite some contrary-sounding quotes from me in yesterday’s Australian, I think a new Deloitte Access Economics report on the public and private benefits of higher education is both a valuable overview of the literature and a significant contribution in its own right to the Australian analysis of this topic.

My criticisms relate primarily to the conceptual framework given in the original brief from the Department of Education, which I will turn to in another post. This brief in turn was based on an idea with a long history in Australian higher education politics, that there should be a ‘balance’ between public and private contributions to higher education costs, which should be related to public and private benefits.

The 1988 Wran report, which led to the introduction of HECS, argued that students should contribute to the cost of their education because they typically derived a private financial benefit from a degree. It noted that there were public as well as private benefits from higher education, but it was hard to apportion them (p. 53). This was a reason for not using analysis of either to set student contribution rates – instead, they went for a percentage of costs rather than benefits. In the version of HECS announced by the government there was a flat student contribution rate equivalent to about 20 per cent of average per student costs.

Empirically, the Wran committee could not find a way to make a distribution of public and private benefits work as a pricing mechanism. Conceptually, however, there was a certain logic to it. If students should pay for the private benefits they receive, shouldn’t the public also pay for the benefits it receives?

In 1996, announcing big cuts to per student public spending on higher education, the government echoed the Wran report, saying that although the ideal balance between public and private contributions could not be precisely established, the private benefits were substantially greater than those implied by the current HECS rates. Private benefits ended up doing almost all the policy work – the new ‘differential HECS’ rates were mainly linked to assumed future income. The higher the potential income, the higher the HECS rate. Read More »

England and Australia: two higher education income contingent loan systems with very different consequences

The recent debate about student debt in England was triggered by this very interesting paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. I have used some of their analysis to think about how their situation differs from Australia’s, despite both having income contingent loans.

1) Total tuition costs. As I noted in my post last week, tuition charges are higher in England than in Australia, with most courses a flat £9,000 per year, or about $15,000 on current exchange rates. Australian annual student contributions this year range from $6,349 (arts, education, nursing) to $10,596 (law, medicine, commerce). The British pound has a low exchange rate at the moment; if we use $US purchasing power parity English courses are between 1.7 and 2.9 times more expensive than in Australia.

The high English tuition fees are partly because there are no tuition subsidies offsetting them in many courses, while all undergraduates at public universities in Australia receive tuition subsidies. But it is also because of their flat fee system, which means that students in low-cost fields are charged more than the total cost of their course.

While undergraduate courses are cheaper in Australia than England whichever way we compare them, in Australia we don’t have a good understanding of how HECS-HELP debt for undergraduate courses is interacting with FEE-HELP debt for postgraduate courses. But further study in full-fee courses is likely to be one reason why we are seeing strong growth in total HELP debts above $50,000. Read More »

Are English university students right to be upset about high fees?

Since the British Labour Party did unexpectedly well in last month’s UK elections, on the back of strong support from young people in particular, university fees have turned into a big issue there. The Australian‘s High Wired column hints that this ‘international narrative’ might arrive on our shores.

Both free and high-fee higher education systems can perform reasonably well on measures such as levels of educational attainment. The chart below has lagged fee data to capture the time 25-34 year olds went to university, but the broad patterns are evident. People living in high fee countries tend to have relatively high rates of holding university qualifications. Low attainment countries have low or zero fees, but there is also a cluster of low or zero fee countries with high attainment.

There are many country-level complexities in this analysis (for example, German low attainment may not be a problem given the structure of their economy and strong vocational system). But generally the cost of high attainment has to be met with high taxes or high fees. Read More »