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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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

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1996 Cabinet papers: HECS ideas pursued and rejected

This year’s National Archives Cabinet papers release includes material related to the 1996 Budget changes to HECS.

The most important of these were replacing flat HECS rates with ‘differential HECS’, so that rates were based on subject disciplines, and lowering the HECS repayment thresholds, so that debtors began repaying earlier and repaid more at each income level (historical thresholds are at page 47 of this document).

The main submission released today does not have these final decisions, but outlines different views within the government and bureaucracy about how to proceed.

In public statements, differential HECS was justified by reference to both course costs and the expected future income of graduates. Neither Treasury nor Finance were keen on using future income. Finance noted, as others have since, that it varies a lot between graduates. Treasury thought that it was unfair that students in some disciplines would end up paying a much larger share of costs than others.

The idea that students should pay a share of course costs has regularly resurfaced since, most notably in the 2011 base funding review. But in the Cabinet submission we see an early version of why this idea has been consistently rejected. In the draft differential HECS rates based on cost recovery, law ends up in the cheapest band 1 (of 5; there were 3 in the end), while nursing is priced in the middle. Nurses paying more than lawyers is not an easy political sell. In the final announced decision, law was in the highest-priced band and nursing in the lowest-priced band.

The Cabinet submission also has a pricing rationale of expected demand that was not, so far as I know, used in public statements.  If demand already greatly exceeds supply, prospective students are less likely to be price sensitive. But politically that raises the possibility that other students would be price sensitive, which the government wanted to downplay.

Capping access to subsidised higher education to one degree or to a time period was considered; the Fraser government had tried something similar. In the final policy this was sort-of implemented by concentrating funding cuts on postgraduate coursework places. A fuller version of the idea arrived with the 7-year learning entitlement under Brendan Nelson, which started in 2005.  It was later abolished by Labor.

While mainly about course charges, the submission also mentions means-testing access to income-contingent loans by linking it income support thresholds. That would have been the most radical conceptual departure from current policy in the submission if it had been approved. There is also the Department of Finance’s usual attempt to get real interest on student debt, which wins the prize for the most-suggested change to student loans that has never been legislated.

One omission is interesting in light of subsequent policy concerns. Although there is mention of the fact that (by design) not all HECS debt will be repaid, there are no estimates of how significant this is. Perhaps some numbers were in other submissions we have not seen yet, and could explain the big reduction in repayment thresholds.

In 1996 government accounting conventions struggled with income contingent loans, as they still do. The submission mentions which changes will and won’t count towards the politically-salient Budget deficit. Because expected losses from student doubtful debt are not counted in the deficit/fiscal balance, this biases policy towards cutting direct grants to universities, which do count.

Fortunately, however, accounting conventions did let 1996 policymakers see that selling the HECS debt was a bad deal for taxpayers. Another Cabinet submission makes this clear. This possibility was raised again in 2013, with the same eventual conclusion.

As these submissions show, many ideas around HECS/HELP recur repeatedly over time.

 

When can domestic undergraduates be charged full fees?

This post is not related to any current policy issue. It is a summary created for another reason but might be useful for higher education administrators or policy people.

‘Full fees’ is a term used in Australia as an implied contrast with students who pay a student contribution, which is usually combined with a Commonwealth contribution to provide an overall funding rate for a Commonwealth supported student. ‘Full’ means that there is no government subsidy and the student pays all the provider charges. Tuition fees for non-Commonwealth supported students are not regulated. There is more detail on this in chapter 7 of Mapping Australian higher education 2018.

About 7 per cent of domestic undergraduates in Australia are full-fee paying. The simple explanation for this is that domestic undergraduate students in public universities pay student contributions rather than full fees, while undergraduates in private universities and non-university higher education providers pay full fees. However, there are exceptions in both cases, sometimes at the unit of study (subject) level rather than the course.

In what follows, all statutory references are to the Higher Education Support Act 2003.

Generally, domestic undergraduates enrolled in a Table A university (more commonly known as a public university) must be enrolled as a Commonwealth supported student: section 36-30 (1). This creates an on-going entitlement for that course, unless one of the exceptions below becomes relevant: section 36-25(1).

Once a student is a Commonwealth supported student, he or she can be charged a student contribution but cannot be charged another tuition fee: section 169-15(1).

A domestic student is an Australian citizen, a New Zealand citizen, a permanent visa holder or a permanent humanitarian visa holder: Schedule 1, Dictionary.

But there are exceptions to the general entitlement of public university students to Commonwealth support:Read More »