The Commonwealth Budget has triggered confusion about higher education funding. How much does the government spend? Has there been a cut or not?
The Budget documents understate government higher education expenditure
The only summary statement of higher education expenditure in the Budget documents is in Budget Paper No. 1, which reports spending on the higher education ‘sub-function’ (sub- of education generally).
But what is in the higher education sub-function? I’ve collated as much information as I can from the Budget papers and I think it means grants administered under the Higher Education Support Act 2003. I can’t exactly replicate it but my numbers are very close – slightly less in every year. I lack expenditure on the Indigenous Student Success Program, which HESA 2003 funds but PM&C rather than DESE administers.
The ‘higher education sub-function’ significantly understates Commonwealth assistance for higher education. As the top line in grey in the chart below shows, using numbers from Budget Statement No. 4 on agency resourcing, it doesn’t even cover money flowing under HESA 2003 itself. The difference is money lent through the HELP loan scheme. Although the Budget papers don’t specifically quantify HELP lending this is likely to become the single largest source of funding for higher education, as international student revenues collapse and the Commonwealth Grant Scheme stagnates.
In the first post in this series on the conceptual and philosophical thinking behind student contributions, I argued that successive governments have primarily used them to limit system-level public expenditure.
Once the public spending constraint is achieved, this approach leaves room for other methods of setting student contributions. This post looks at giving universities a role in deciding what level of student contribution to charge.
For fiscally-constrained governments, part of fee deregulation’s attraction is its scope to further reduce public expenditure. Universities can compensate for public spending cuts with increased student charges. But fee deregulation also has a more positive agenda.
This first post looks at the student contribution’s relationship to overall public funding, and whether it is intended to offset total government expenditure on higher education, or the cost of the student’s own course.
Course cost student contributions have been considered, but not implemented
The Whitlam experiment with free higher education ended in the late 1980s because the Hawke government wasn’t willing to pay the full cost of expanding enrolments. But then and since people have disagreed about whether students should contribute to their own costs or more broadly to the system’s costs.
But I should caveat that, because not all Commonwealth supported students are entitled to a HELP loan. HELP is a rare social support scheme that is linked to citizenship; it could be the only one (happy to hear of others, if anyone knows of them). The only general exception is permanent humanitarian visa holders.
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 Conversationrather than this post.
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 »
Update 15/4/20: This post contains material that has been revised and republished to take into account later information.
The government now has a support plan for higher education. The key elements are letting universities keep student-related grants and loans in 2020 even if they enrol too few students, funding short courses, and regulatory fee relief.
In this era of government by tweet, mediareport, media release and media conference the details of how this might work are lacking as of today. I will revise this post as more detail comes to hand. For now, I will focus on the broad outline and pursue my pedantic interest in the legal basis of government policy.
Whatever the reason, the minister now says that universities will 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 »
If things look bad for public universities in the COVID-19 era, they look much worse for many providers in the private higher education sector.* Not all are likely to survive a significant downturn in the international student market.
In previousposts, I looked at whether demand for undergraduate education would increase during the COVID-19 recession. In this post, I examine potential demand for postgraduate education.
As with initial undergraduate qualifications, theory suggests that a recession is a good time for postgraduate study. The opportunity cost of time spent out of the workforce is lower or non-existent. Studying is a relatively productive and interesting way of sitting out a recession.
In examining what happened in previous recessions I have been helped by a project that has put all the old graduate destination surveys online (scroll down to the bottom of the page here). Recessions aside, the trends are interesting.Read More »
Last week I published a blog post on the financial dangers posed by the COVID-19 crisis starting prior to the census date for each subject. It is a critical date for universities. They get no Commonwealth or student contributions for subjects dropped prior to the census date.
As Stephen Matchett reported in Campus Morning Mail yesterday, social media talk about dropping subjects is still at high levels. One of the reasons, that unemployment income support benefits would be more generous than student benefits, seems to have been fixed in Parliament yesterday. Although I think students are better off finishing their course on schedule if they can, we should expect higher drop-outs than usual prior to the census date.
If these drop-outs are happening at any scale then, except for the universities on trimesters that are already past their first census date, then serious higher education financial problems are very close, as universities will have to scale back their expected Commonwealth-supported student revenue and international student fee income for the year.Read More »
In February last year, when introducing legislation to change HELP repayment thresholds and rates, along with other HELP reforms, the government said that:
The fiscal challenge for the government is that HELP repayments have not kept pace with HELP lending growth. From 2010-11 to 2016-17, the level of new debt not expected to be repaid increased from 16 per cent to 25 per cent.
But unfortunately there is a disconnect between the stated purpose of the legislation and its likely effects. The thresholds and rate changes are unlikely to reduce doubtful debt , and indeed may increase it. Using ATO tax data, at the Grattan blog Will Mackey estimates that the new HELP repayment thresholds will produce slightly lower total annual student debt repayment than the previous thresholds.
The reason is that although some low and high income earners will repay more each year, most of the more numerous middle-income earners will repay less, producing a total repayment estimate of about $50 million a year less than if the previous thresholds and rates had been retained.