Domestic student enrolment increases in the first year of COVID-19

The 2020 higher education student data has finally been released, giving us the first detailed look at potential COVID-19 influences on enrolments. This post is on domestic students. Another post examines international students.

Aggregate trends

Overall domestic student trends were positive for both undergraduates, up 2 per cent after a decline between 2018 and 2019, and postgraduate coursework, up 14 per cent after six years of stagnation or low growth. Postgraduate research was an exception, down by 577 enrolments or 1.3 per cent. Including enabling and non-award students total domestic enrolments were 1,133,519, 4.4 per cent up on 2019.*

Student ‘load’ – full-time equivalent enrolments – was up by less, 2.6 per cent. The headcount share of part-time students, defined as less than 75 per cent of a full-time equivalent study load, is only up by .7 of a percentage point, suggesting more part-time students with light study loads and/or more full-time students not at a 100 per cent study load.

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Did COVID-19 reduce female domestic enrolments?

After the annual release of the ABS Education and Work data last November articles appeared suggesting that female university enrolments might have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

I could think of a couple of plausible mechanisms. With children sent home from school and childcare restricted women might have given up study, at least temporarily, to look after their kids. The difficulty of doing required clinical placements and teaching rounds during COVID-19 workplace disruptions might have triggered deferrals, which would probably affect women more than men due to their their large majorities in health and education courses.

On the other hand, the quoted fall in female enrolments – 86,000 – was struggling to pass my ‘does it look right?’ test. And the source, Education and Work, which is conducted each May, has a history of rogue results. It is a sample survey of Australian residents rather than being derived directly from enrolment data. The further users drill down into Education and Work sub-categories – gender, type of enrolment, age group etc – the less reliable it gets (the ABS is upfront about this, and publishes relative standard errors).

Last November I used the TableBuilder version of Education and Work (expensive paywall; university staff can use it) to exclude international students. That caused the female decline in enrolments to go way and became a small increase, although with a narrowing of the gender gap. In 2019 Education and Work reported 1.5 female students for every 1 male student, which declined to 1.42 to 1 in 2020.

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Do 75 per cent of the fastest growing jobs require STEM skills?

In promoting the government’s international women’s day STEM announcement, science minister Karen Andrews is reported as stressing that ’75 per cent of the jobs in the fastest-growing industries need STEM skills’. This is a variant on a common claim. In the same article, it also appears as 75 per cent of all occupations, as it has here, here, here, here, here and in many other places. The industries version is less common but still a regular claim, for example here, here, and here.

The original source of this 75 per cent claim has always been hard to find. Some government documents cite this 2015 PwC report. But it does not have any data supporting this number, giving this 2011 article in the Journal of STEM Education as its source. Unfortunately the article does not substantiate the claim either, other than by pointing to this 2007 US Department of Education report. But the report does not mention the 75 per cent statistic at all, and so the trail goes cold.*

Even without checking the claim’s provenance it sounds suspect. How do we define fastest? Top 10, top 20, top half? It would be easy to manipulate the list to produce the desired result. And then there is the distinction between fastest growing (as a percentage of previous levels) and greatest growth (absolute numbers of jobs). Occupations can easily have very high percentage growth rates if they start from a low base, while in absolute terms adding many fewer jobs than larger occupations growing by a smaller annual percentage. Read More »

The graduate numbers behind gender equality for government appointments

At the weekend, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews pledged equal male-female representation for state government public board and legal appointments. The Liberal Party similarly announced that it would increase female representation among its MPs.

The task of more equal representation in senior jobs has become easier over time as women’s educational levels first matched and then exceeded men’s. Women have made up a majority of university students since 1987, and in the census it is now only in the 60+ age group that men outnumber women as graduates.

Despite this educational success, full-time labour force participation rates differ significantly between men and women, something we have given a lot of attention due to its implications for HELP debt repayment. The chart below shows how female full-time workforce participation declines as women enter their thirties. It goes up again in their forties, but never to their previous levels or men’s rate of full-time work.

male female FT
Source: Census 2011

People can have successful careers working part-time. But prolonged periods of part-time work inevitably mean significantly less experience. Any many senior jobs just cannot be done on a part-time basis, and indeed cannot be routinely done within ‘normal’ working hours.

This has obvious implications as to how many people with the relevant level of experience are in the pool of potential applicants for senior positions. However, the differences are not quite as dramatic as the slide above might suggest, because more women had the appropriate initial educational qualifications in the first place. The chart below shows absolute numbers of graduates by gender working in full-time managerial or professional positions. Women are around 40% of the pool in the aged 40+ group most likely to get the top jobs.

man prof
Source: Census 2011

For judicial appointments, only about a third of full-time legal professionals in their 40s are women, and the share is less than 30 per cent for people over 50 (chart below). Perhaps the very long hours typical in the law make it harder to maintain a pool of highly experienced female lawyers.

legal prof
Source: Census 2011

In absolute terms, there are enough women to fill the relatively small number of board and judicial appointments. But with an open recruitment approach, there will be many more male than female contenders with the qualifications and experience for senior positions.

Note: The absolute numbers in the census will be too low. It has a problem with people not answering all the questions. Males are less likely than females to respond to other surveys, so there may be an undercount of men.

The university gender gap

My semi-regular piece in the higher education section of The Age was this week on the gender gap at universities, with women making up 58% of domestic enrolments. The figure below shows the post-WW2 trend. Since 1957 there has been only one year in which women did not gain enrolment share, and that was last year – men picked up 0.08 percentage points of total enrolments.

My initial intuition was that this imbalance was a serious problem, but in the end I was a bit equivocal. Higher education’s loss has been vocational education’s gain, and though fewer people with voc ed than higher ed get very high salaries, upper-level vocational qualifications are as good as insurance against unemployment as a degree.

Due to the relative reluctance of female graduates to work full-time, the uni gender balance clearly has major implications for workforce supply. But apart from the health professions the policy of flooding the labour market with graduates has meant that shortages are occasional and cyclical rather than chronic.

Long ago I suggested that the imbalance was contributing to a shortage of suitable male partners for university-educated women. It’s certainly impossible for every female graduate to find a husband who is also a graduate, though at the time of the 2006 census female graduates were only slightly less likely than male graduates to be partnered.

For male uni students and graduates the imbalance is probably a plus, due to less competition in labour and marital markets.

For the guys doing well enough at school to at least get a certificate III or IV the overall situation is not a disaster. It’s the men with no or lower-level qualifications who are in trouble.

The workforce supply of female graduates

I’m writing a piece for The Age on the feminisation of Australia’s universities. In 2009, 59% of domestic commencing students were women. Overall the proportion of students who are female is a little lower, as there are strong male biases in education in some source countries for overseas students.

The gender shift in enrolments has big implications for the future labour supply of graduates. Though the 2006 census is getting a bit out of date, the figure below is striking. After their 20s, only a minority of female graduates work full-time except for age 50-54, when 51% are full-time workers. Obviously parenting responsibilities are a major factor in this, but even childless women are much less willing to work full-time than men.

I thought these numbers might offer some insight into the finances of the HELP loan scheme, but the ATO tax statistics don’t support this hypothesis.

Women owe 56.6% ofthe outstanding HELP debt, much what we would expect given their share of the student population. The average female balance of $12,361 in 2008-09 is lower than the average male balance of $13,914. I can think of a couple of possible reasons: the strong female majorities in cheap (to the student) courses such as education, nursing and arts; and a larger number of female than male graduates who have old unpaid debts, but at lower totals due to cheap HECS rates in the past.

If the gender age-work patterns persist, it does however raise questions about what happens if student contributions increase. Historically, the average repayment time for HECS/HELP debts is about 8 years. So on lower student contribution amounts, women who graduate in their early 20s could clear all or much of their debt by the time they leave full-time work to raise kids. But if initial debts are larger, that may not be the case.