The current university funding agreements change the nature of performance funding. Previously performance funding was configured as a reward scheme, providing additional funds in exchange for meeting performance-related criteria. Now it is a penalty scheme, deducting money from teaching grants if universities don’t meet performance criteria. The performance benchmarks are assumed to align with the pre-Job-ready Graduates performance funding policy, but this has not been publicly confirmed.
This post explores whether a performance deduction from teaching grants is legally permissible under the Higher Education Support Act 2003. It is clearly not the kind of performance incentive envisaged by HESA 2003, and there are grounds for thinking that a court might find that it is partially or entirely invalid.
The maximum basic grant amount and the performance penalty
The most important grant provision in HESA 2003 is the maximum basic grant amount (MBGA) for higher education courses. This establishes the maximum amount the government will pay from the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) for Commonwealth supported student places in coursework courses, other than demand driven enrolments for regional and remote bachelor-degree Indigenous students and medical courses. The total value of this grant for 2021 is about $6.8 billion.
Under HESA 2003 each university is to be paid the lesser of the higher education courses MBGA, as set out in their funding agreement, or the total Commonwealth contribution value (relevant discipline funding rates * full-time equivalent students) of student places delivered. Any enrolments above the cap are funded at the student contribution rate only.
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.
Update 7/7/21: Some of the data in this post has been updated here.
Last month I wrote an overview and critique of the new university funding agreements. This post looks at new allocations of funding for student places, while a subsequent post will look at total funding allocations. Not all my numbers match previously announced total funding for the relevant program, so that is a caveat on both posts.
Under Job-ready Graduates universities are free of sub-bachelor and postgraduate student places being allocated by funding cluster, but the funding agreements show that universities have significant additional work to do in applying for and reporting on a range of small programs.
Numbers of universities getting different allocations
Job-ready Graduates introduced several new or substantially revised pots of money. Not all universities receive each of these. As the chart below shows, programs driven by criteria or formulas set out in legislative instruments (NPILF and transition funding) or the legislation itself (demand driven funding for Indigenous students from regional and remote areas) benefit the largest number of universities. Apart from the general grants for higher education courses (sub-bachelor through to masters coursework, except medicine), the ministerial/departmental discretion programs benefit fewer universities.
COVID-19 has been bad for jobs in higher education. Last October, the NTEU estimated that since March 2020 more than 12,000 jobs had been lost. According to Universities Australia in February 2021 at least 17,300 jobs were lost in 2020. But how many jobs were there to begin with?
This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The official DESE staff statistics give us a headcount as at 31 March each year of people employed on an on-going or fixed term contract at public universities and Bond, Notre Dame, University of Divinity and Avondale University College. At the end of March 2020 these institutions had just over 130,000 employees.
But as the chart below shows, the full-time equivalent count is always higher than the on-going or fixed term headcount, because it includes casuals. On a FTE basis, about 18 per cent of all staff are casuals, including nearly a quarter of academic staff. But DESE does not collect headcount data on casuals.
Its authors are two law academics, Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone, with Evans now a vice-chancellor. Jade Roberts, a legal researcher, assisted them.
As a general concept few people are against academic freedom. Nobody is calling for powerful figures – ministers, bureaucrats, or vice-chancellors for example – to direct the detail of what Australian academics research, teach or say. Yet the historical chapters of Open Minds report many cases through the decades raising issues of ‘academic freedom’. People regularly see exceptions to this otherwise widely-supported idea.
In judging disputed situations first principles can help. Yet these are also the subject of disagreement and grey areas. Academic freedom is not a clear and unchanging principle but instead a practice that has evolved over centuries, originally as institutional autonomy from church and state, with the current idea of academics personally having freedom developing from the late 19th century.
Only this year, after Open Minds was published, have the precise words ‘academic freedom’ with a definition been inserted into university funding legislation. Until then, as the Open Minds chapter on law explains, the language was of ‘free intellectual inquiry’, with universities and regulators left to decide what that meant. Even this terminology is recent, dating from 2011 in funding legislation and accreditation regulation, with ‘free inquiry’ used from 2000 in national legal definitions of a university. Australia has had universities since the 1850s.
This morning the government released the first enrolment data of the Job-ready Graduates. The published data covers only 25 of the 40 full universities (including private universities). No information is available on which universities are in the 25, but based on previously published first-half-of-the-year enrolments I estimate that they enrol just over two-thirds of domestic students.
As each source has significant missing data any conclusions must be tentative. The chart below lines the two sources up by field of education. Each of demand and supply is up about 7 per cent, but there are significant differences between the two at the broad field of education level.
Apparent trends to date
Demand for IT, science and engineering is up, but supply is up by much more. It is possible that the idiosyncrasies of what is in each of the demand and supply datasets explains some of this discrepancy, but also that the national priority places and short courses allocations, which have a policy bias to these fields, are driving up supply more quickly than demand.
The 2021-23 funding agreements between universities and the government, the first of the Job-ready Graduates era, were put on the DESE website earlier this year. In this post I compare them to the pre-JRG agreements.
My main concern is that the funding agreements are being used for matters that should be based on clear legal rules, not DESE discretion based on a one-sided ‘agreement’.
My concern reflects both the general political principle that policy decisions should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and the practical problems caused by lack of certainty. Important funding conditions or criteria are not included in any legal document and DESE is given wide scope to interpret vague terms.
A broader scope
The most immediately obvious change is that the new funding agreements include more content than previously. They contain an overall summary of Higher Education Support Act 2003 institutional funding, including the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) funding that is the legal purpose of the funding agreements; rules around course closures, professional training, and the provision of information on costs and admissions; research, engagement and equity funding; and some background information and principles. The research, engagement and equity material is new and derives its legal standing from separate legislativeinstruments.
Putting key information in one place is helpful, and I would encourage the government to collate the summary funding tables combining teaching, research, equity and engagement funding for each university into a publication. But funding agreements with parts of varying legal status are not desirable. A mixed document makes it less clear for universities what they must do according to law and what is just the government/Department taking advantage of the sector’s culture of compliance. With such a large share of their income depending on their funding agreement, universities are reluctant to push back against the government’s demands.
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.
Australian higher education equity policy and analysis tends towards cultural explanations of differences in higher education participation rates. The official definition of low socio-economic status is based on the ABS Index of Education and Occupation, not direct financial factors. Parental education and occupation provides a role model for their children and shapes the expectations parents have for their children. University-educated parents can also more easily help their children navigate the path to university.
The relationship between parental education and child outcomes has occasionally led to suggestions that ‘first in family’ – the children of parents who have not been to university – should be an official equity group. There was another such call in an article in The Conversation last week, based on a recent academic journal article by Sally Patfield, Jenny Gore, and Natasha Weaver.
Is first in family at university unusual?
Although the data is rarely released, parental education has been in the official enrolment data collection since 2010. In some figures I have from 2015, of the students who reported parental education first in family were just in the majority, at 50.1 per cent. But the true number was probably significantly higher, with don’t knows or missing data from about 15 per cent of enrolments. At minimum these students had parents who did not regale them with ‘when I was at uni’ anecdotes, blocking one path of influence on educational choices.
If we think back on the history of higher education first in family could never have been unusual. With each generation experiencing much higher participation rates than the one before it, large numbers of students must have had parents who didn’t go to university. According to figures in Anderson and Vervoon’s Access to Privilege, at Melbourne University in the 1960s and 1970s around a quarter of the fathers and 10 per cent of mothers of students had a university qualification – high for the era, but still leaving a big majority of students as ‘first in family’.
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.