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.
The annual cohort completions statistics published by the Department of Education show that low SES students complete courses as lower rates than medium or high SES students. On the most recent figures 67 per cent of low SES commencing students had completed a degree by nine years after commencement. The equivalent figures were 72 per cent for medium SES students and 78 per cent for high SES students.
Their analysis suggests, as seen in the chart below, that receipt of Youth Allowance or Austudy is associated with increases in completion at the six-year point for students in all but the most advantaged areas, with the largest effects for students living in areas with the greatest levels of economic disadvantage.*
The analysis of the results is quite brief, making it hard to fully understand the effects of student income support. If I understand them correctly, they have controlled for full- or part-time study status. However, I would see getting students to study full-time as a major benefit of student income support. In the Grattan Institute dropping out analysis, studying part-time is the single biggest completion risk, and this is supported by the Department’s analysis, which includes additional variables Grattan did not have.
A week ago, when I last reported on the saga that is university eligibility for JobKeeper, the government had just announced that its grants would be counted in university revenue, making it harder for universities to get the required 30 or 50 per cent (depending on their size) drop in their income.
Despite this, I thought that some universities might still be eligible. The University of Sydney believed that it was. This was because while no university is likely to be down 30 or 50 per cent on its annual revenue, the timing of when international students pay their fees could mean that, in certain months, the cash flow reductions were that large.
The amended JobKeeper rules dash that hope. While other organisations can calculate their revenue losses over a monthly or quarterly period, for universities the relevant period will be the six months starting 1 January 2020. Over a six-month time period, the fortnightly payments of Commonwealth grants are likely to push university revenue losses back below 30 or 50 per cent. Read More »
At least temporarily, some domestic students are financially better off due to the government’s COVID-19 measures. This is due to increased income support payments and JobKeeper exceeding their likely pay if they had been working.
Eligibility for JobKeeper is a two-stage process. First the employer has to be eligible, with a 30 per cent reduction in revenue for businesses with revenues below $1 billion, and a 50 per cent reduction for business with revenue above $50 billion. Most charities have a lower threshold of a 15 per cent reduction in revenue.
Second, the student has to be an eligible employee. In the ABS Characteristics of Employment Survey for August 2019, about two-thirds of employed students aged 17-30 years who are studying full-time meet the criteria. They have either on-going employment (using the entitlement to paid sick leave proxy) or are casuals who have been with their current employer for 12 months or more. This analysis includes all students, not just higher education students.
[Update 25/4/20: The Treasurer has announced that full-time students aged 16 and 17 years will not be eligible for JobKeeper, adding an age condition that slightly affects my analysis.]
If these tests are satisfied, there is a flat payment from the government, but paid by their employer, of $1,500 a fortnight. This is likely to be much more than full-time students usually earn. According to the Characteristics of Employment Survey, their median earnings are $320 a week, or $640 a fortnight. JobKeeper is likely to more than double earnings for eligible students until it expires on 27 September 2020. Read More »
For Australian higher education the situation of international students in the COVID-19 crisis is especially concerning. They lack the local family and social security back-ups of domestic students. It leaves them particularly vulnerable as large parts of the student labour market collapse.
And if international students have to go home or cannot pay their fees, that is the most likely trigger for a broader higher education sector crisis. At best, thousands of higher education workers will lose their jobs. At worst, many universities will need government intervention to survive.
According to ABS statistics, about 60 per cent of students in full-time tertiary education have jobs (this includes vocational and higher education). Their major occupations put them at elevated risk of catching infectious diseases and of losing hours or jobs due to the COVID-19 recession.
Exposure to disease
Because the census has detailed occupational information I am using it as my data source for jobs, even though it is now nearly four years old. The chart below shows the top 20 jobs for higher education students aged 30 or less who work part-time. The top 20 includes just over two-thirds of all employed students in this group.
As expected, student employment has a strong skew to occupations with large amounts of routine interaction with other people. Sales assistants are by far the largest single group. Waiters, bar attendants and baristas make up the next two largest groups. People in these occupations are all relatively likely to interact with someone with COVID-19, although if self-quarantine works not while that person is showing symptoms.
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 »