On 1 June 2022 outstanding HELP debts were indexed, using a CPI-based formula, at 3.9 per cent. Someone whose HELP balance was $50,000 on 31 May owed $51,950 the next day.
There had been no change to indexation policy; CPI indexation has been in place since HECS was introduced more than 30 years ago. But the politics did change. A topic on which I previously received few media inquiries, and then only during the periodic doomed government attempts to impose a ‘real’ interest rate, suddenly became the subject journalists asked me about most often.
In a low inflation environment – indexation was 0.6 per cent in 2021 – public reaction to this annual increase in HELP debt was minimal. But higher indexation in 2022 revealed latent issues. With increasing average debt the same percentage indexation leads to larger absolute dollar increases. Huge growth in debtor numbers means that indexation affects more people than previously.
Calls to talkback radio programs suggest that the lower initial payment thresholds introduced since 2018-19 create a particular annoyance. At the current lowest threshold 1 per cent of income repayment rate debtors repay $500 or so, but high CPI indexation means that their total HELP debt still increases.
The Greens have a bill in the Parliament to remove indexation entirely. This is unlikely to happen, but even an organisation at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum as the Greens, the Productivity Commission, sees high CPI indexation as a problem. In their big 5-year productivity report last week they suggested that indexation could be a lesser of CPI and real wage growth (this concession made in the context of proposing higher student contributions to fund more student places).
Last week the government introduced legislation to set up another HELP income-contingent loan (ICL) to assist with education-related expenses. If the bill passes, SY-HELP will lend students up to $23,600, which will be paid to their university to support student work on business start-up ideas. SY-HELP would join HECS-HELP, FEE-HELP,OS-HELP and SA-HELP.
Higher education students who have also enrolled in vocational education may have income contingent debt from VET FEE-HELP, its replacement VET Student Loans, or Trade Support Loans. These loans also have the same repayment system as the higher education HELPs.
If the SY-HELP bill passes, a total eight education-related income contingent loan schemes will be in operation, six for higher education and two for vocational education.
Do we need an income contingent loan at all?
Before I get into the differences between loan schemes, the bigger question is whether an ICL is needed at all. I thought not for the recent inclusion of some microcredentials in FEE-HELP.
In the last two years the government – the current and former governments are indistinguishable on this point – has encouraged universities to offer ‘microcredentials’, which certify and sell smaller bodies of knowledge and skills than an AQF qualification.
Government support for microcredentials
Late last month Labor reintroduced a Coalition amendment to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 that would extend FEE-HELP income-contingent loans to microcredentials, although with the potentially limiting caveat of ‘that meet the requirements specified in the FEE‑HELP Guidelines.’
Last week they promulgated a legislative instrument for the Coalition’s ‘microcredential pilot’, which offers subsidies to Table A universities to develop microcredentials. According to the explanatory memorandum ‘the purpose of the program is to examine newer, shorter forms of industry focused learning aimed at supporting people to upskill and reskill in areas of national priority such as health, teaching, IT and engineering.’
The pilot does not seem designed to attract applications – universities would have to give away their IP and accept Job-ready Graduates Commonwealth and student contributions – but the bigger issue is FEE-HELP.
Do microcredentials require government intervention?
Contrary to the impression given by some microcredential discussions, people taking short courses to increase their skills is nothing new. The ABS has asked about structured learning not for a credential many times over decades, and always found it is the most common form of post-school education on a headcount basis. The latest ABS survey is no different. Short courses overtake credentialed education by a person’s late 20s, as the chart below shows.
Microcredentials add certification and perhaps standardisation to short courses, which might increase short course informational value in the labour market. But lack of these things has not stopped this market functioning on a large scale. Proxy indicators of employee suitability such as qualifications are important for young or career shifting job applicants, but for people already established in their careers observation – directly by employers, by reputation or referee report – is usually the main information source.
Some 2021 Census is now available on the ABS TableBuilder site, allowing additional analysis of the social and personal characteristics of higher education students. This posts looks at migration status and language spoken at home, previous strong predictors of higher education participation rates.
Year of arrival
In 2021 migrants who had taken out citizenship were significantly more likely than people born in Australia to be enrolled in university in the post-school 18 to 20 years old age bracket. The participation gap was 19 percentage points for migrants in the decade prior to the 2021 census, 54 per cent participation compared to 35 per cent for young adults who were born in Australia. Migrants who arrived as younger children have a higher participation rate again, at 59 per cent.
The ATO’s annual taxation statistics release shows that in 2019-20 the number of repaying HELP debtors continued its strong growth, up 23 per cent on 2018-19 and exceeding 1 million for the first time. However, compulsory repayments are not growing as strongly, up 8 per cent on 2018-19 to $3.6 billion.
This post offers a few explanations for overall growth and why repayers are increasing more rapidly than repayments.
The return of inflation has led to questions about what this means for students, graduates and higher education institutions. This post lists some of the implications.
Indexation of HELP debt
HELP debt is indexed each 1 June. It is based on a two year period of CPI data ending in the March quarter of 2022 (I am not sure why it is two years). Because inflation March 2020 to March 2021 was lower than inflation March 2021 to March 2022 indexation for 2022 was 3.9 per cent, rather than the 5.1 per cent it would have been on a one year CPI cycle. The downside of this reprieve is that after inflation comes down again indexation will still exceed the recent average.
I said at last week’s Universities Australia conference that increased indexation will affect the politics of HELP debt. The big increase in the number of HELP debtors and total HELP debt over the last 15 years occurred at a time of mostly low inflation. Annual indexation rarely attracted much comment. This year there was much more media and social media coverage.
CPI is well above bank interest rates, giving people who can afford to repay early an incentive to do so. Indeed, low bank interest rates may help explain why voluntary HELP repayments have grown in recent years.
The Australian this morning reports that ‘Education Minister Alan Tudge is considering cutting off funding to student organisations that attempt to stop the airing of views they oppose on campus.’ The trigger is an issue with the ANU student association, and whether an anti-abortion group and the ADF should be able to set up stalls at the association’s market day.
As is usual in these cases, the facts are not entirely clear. The student newspaper Woroni quotes the student association’s social officer as saying the groups were excluded. But the association told The Australian that the groups did not apply and therefore no application from them has been rejected.
Either way, ‘Mr Tudge told The Australian he was considering ways to block student unions that impede free speech from taking compulsory student fees which fund their services on campus, and tying them to a model code of free speech that now applies only to university administrators and staff.’
How can student unions be regulated?
As the minister’s statement acknowledges, if a student union is a separate legal entity to the university it is not automatically covered by the academic freedom and freedom of speech definitions added to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 earlier this year. The government may try to extend freedom of speech provisions to student unions.
The current freedom of speech law is based on applying conditions to grants rather than direct regulation. As student unions don’t receive grants this mechanism cannot be used for them.
While the government does not directly fund student associations, this year the Commonwealth has lent students about $130 million through the SA-HELP scheme to pay their amenities fees.
There is no current power to attach additional conditions to SA-HELP loans, but this could be considered.
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.