The case for redefining low socioeconomic status in higher education

(This post also appears on the Grattan Institute blog.)

Since the early 1990s, higher education statistics have defined someone as of low socio-economic status if they are from a region classified in the lowest 25 per cent in Australia according to the ABS Index of Education and Occupation.

Universities are rewarded for enrolling students from these areas. A participation fund of about $135 million is distributed between universities according to their share of low SES students. A university’s success in the new performance-funding scheme will depend in part on it enrolling low-SES students.

The low-SES definition has been criticised over the years, usually because it often misclassifies individuals. High-SES people live in low-SES areas, and vice versa. But we need a balance between precision and practicalities. To recruit additional low-SES students, universities need to first identify them. Geographic areas are easier to find than individuals with particular family characteristics.

Although geographic SES measures should be retained, the lowest 25 per cent definition needs reconsidering. As the chart below shows, in 2016 higher education participation rates in the lowest quartile were not clearly distinct from the second quartile. Generally, the weighted average participation/attainment rates at the ABS SA2 geographic level cluster at around 25 per cent for people aged 18-23 across the lowest 50 per cent of areas by the Index of Education and Occupation. An SA2 is roughly the size of a postcode.*

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Little sign in Australia of conservatives losing confidence in universities

In the United States, the general public has an increasingly negative view of universities. In 2019, 38 per cent of respondents to a Pew Research Center survey said that universities had a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, up from 26 per cent in 2012.

In Australia, there is no directly equivalent question but successive questions on confidence in universities find that around three-quarters of respondents have a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in universities. The numbers are down slightly on their peak, but above where they were at the start of the century. With other important institutions scoring poorly on this question, university ratings are high and resilient.

confidence in universities

In the US, the decline is driven by Republican voters. They share with Democrats concerns about tuition costs and employment outcomes, and also believe that students are protected too much from views they might disagree with and that academics bring their political beliefs into the classroom. There are some parallel critiques in Australia, with worries about free speech and  left-wing bias in some courses.

So far, however, these concerns are not significantly influencing how Coalition voters perceive universities. As the chart below shows, about three-quarters of them have confidence in universities, compared to 80 per cent or more for supporters of left-wing parties. It is people who don’t support any party or prefer a minor party who have the lowest confidence in universities.

Partisan confidence in universities

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Is HELP doubtful debt likely to increase?

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.

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Will the number of Commonwealth supported student places fall?

A couple of opinion pieces about university performance funding last week suggested that the government’s policy is aimed at increasing student places with population growth. That may be the impression the government is trying to give, but their policy provides a financial incentive to decrease the number of student places.

The government’s promise is to increase nominal funding for bachelor-degree places in line with increases in the population aged 18-64, for those universities that meet performance targets. But because percentage population increases are likely to be below inflation,  total Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding will decrease in real terms each year, even if universities get 100 per cent of their performance funding.

Although maximum CGS payments will probably increase at less than the rate of inflation the underlying Commonwealth contributions are still being indexed to the CPI. As noted last week, the demand driven funding calculation is still going on as well, so that universities receive the lesser of their demand driven or maximum grant amount. The practical effect of this is that universities can decrease the number of Commonwealth supported places each year and still get their maximum CGS funding amount.

The chart below illustrates the logic, using nursing as an example. Under the Wellings review recommendations, universities are pretty-much guaranteed 60 per cent of their maximum performance funding. So on the left-hand side of the chart below I have indexed the maximum funding amount to that and divided it by the indexed Commonwealth contribution. Next year a university could offer 4 per cent fewer nursing places than in 2017 and still get its maximum funding amount. 100 per cent performance funding does not make much difference. Read More »

The legal basis of performance funding

In December 2017, the Commonwealth froze maximum Commonwealth Grant scheme funding for bachelor-degree places for the next two years. In subsequent years, the maximum payment will increase in line with growth in the 18-64 year old population, conditional on universities meeting performance indicators.

Just before the 2017 announcement, I outlined its legal basis. It used university funding agreements to set the maximum amount, with the method chosen because it did not need parliamentary approval.

At least initially, performance funding will be administered via the funding agreements, which include a standard statement that should the university meet its performance targets it will be advised of a new maximum funding amount.

A drawback of this method of allocating performance funding is that there is no performance fund. The underlying demand driven funding system is still operating, and under section 33-5(5) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 universities receive the lesser of their demand driven funding amount (bachelor-degree full-time equivalent student places times the relevant Commonwealth contribution) and their maximum funding amount.

All the Commonwealth is doing is promising universities it will pay a little more of what they would have been entitled to anyway under demand driven funding. Read More »

Is vocational education of lower status than higher education?

Earlier this month, Scott Morrison said that he wanted to raise the status of TAFE, declaring that “TAFE is as good as uni”.

On common status indicators, TAFE seems to come second to university education. There is status associated with academic ability, and TAFE requires lower school results for admission than university. The chart below shows the ATARs of students admitted to the two systems since the mid-1990s according to LSAY. Although almost all high-ATAR students go to university, the two sectors have long recruited in overlapping ATAR ranges. But the regular media stories about low-ATAR university admissions might have narrowed the historical status gap. ATAR range

Higher education also benefits from being the gateway to high- prestige and highly-paid occupations. But as graduates find it more difficult to find high-prestige or well-paid jobs, and  increasingly fall behind people with some vocational qualifications on employment and earnings, perhaps higher education’s status is slipping.

And there is some survey evidence that the status gap between the systems is not necessarily very large.Read More »

Current higher education policies are the unsatisfactory result of political misjudgements in 2017. There are better ways of balancing the interests of students, universities and taxpayers.

Higher education is one of the sectors most affected by Saturday’s surprise election result. Labor’s biggest promise, restoring demand driven funding from 2020, would have delivered universities funding for all bachelor-degree students, with Commonwealth  contribution rates 5.3% higher than they were were in 2017. This did not require legislation; the current funding freeze was imposed through university funding agreements and could have been ended the same way.

By contrast, if the Coalition’s current policies stay in place there will be no demand driven funding and most universities face limited nominal increases in total Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding for bachelor-degree students (a few unis have special deals that will deliver larger increases). The best-case scenario for most universities is an annual total CGS funding increase linked to growth in the 18-64 year old population, if they meet yet-to-be-announced performance criteria.

The mention of population gives the impression that the policy will respond to demographics, but this is not correct. As the chart below shows, the projected increase in the 18-64 year old population is below even recent low CPI increases. In real terms total funding for bachelor-degree students will continue to decline.

population funding

If universities decide to maintain per student funding they would provide fewer student places each year (the logic is explained in this submission). It’s not clear to what extent this will happen. Commencements were down in 2018, but quite possibly due to weak demand for student places rather than a reluctance to supply them.  Existing enrolment projections, based on numbers universities give to the Department, suggest modest growth to 2022. But whether this would be sustained long-term with annual real funding cuts is unclear.Read More »