Will the COVID-19 recession increase mature-age applications for higher education?

In an earlier post, I looked at how the COVID-19 recession might affect school-leaver applications for undergraduate education. I concluded that although the lack of job opportunities would favour continued education over unemployment, the scope for applications growth was lower now than during the early 1990s recession.

School retention is much higher now than 30 years ago, and a much larger proportion of the cohort with a potential interest in university already attends. With the age cohort’s size not changing much in the short term there is less room to move.

Interpreting historical application numbers from older university applicants is complicated. It includes relatively young people, did not until the last decade count direct applications to universities (which are mostly from older applicants), and does not distinguish between applicants who are already students but hoping to change courses and those seeking to enter higher education.

With these caveats, the chart below shows a large increase in applications from non-school leavers in the early 1990s. In percentage terms it is larger than the school leaver increase. It is consistent with the recessions drive up higher education demand hypothesis. The scope for growth is high because it is not constrained by the size of recent Year 12 classes.Read More »

HELP remissions and COVID-19 university course changes

Last week I published a blog post on the financial dangers posed by the COVID-19 crisis starting prior to the census date for each subject. It is a critical date for universities. They get no Commonwealth or student contributions for subjects dropped prior to the census date.

As Stephen Matchett reported in Campus Morning Mail yesterday, social media talk about dropping subjects is still at high levels. One of the reasons, that unemployment income support benefits would be more generous than student benefits, seems to have been fixed in Parliament yesterday. Although I think students are better off finishing their course on schedule if they can, we should expect higher drop-outs than usual prior to the census date.

I am also hearing reports of international students heading home before the census date because of family pressure. They might also leave because they can no longer support themselves due to the collapse of the student labour market. Due to an extraordinary new power to widen social security eligibility some international students might temporarily receive benefits, but I think entitlements are too unclear to change short-term behaviour.

If these drop-outs are happening at any scale then, except for the universities on trimesters that are already past their first census date, then serious higher education financial problems are very close, as universities will have to scale back their expected Commonwealth-supported student revenue and international student fee income for the year.Read More »

Will the COVID-19 recession increase school-leaver applications for higher education?

Due to COVID-19 Australia faces the worst recession in living memory. This post is the first of a series looking at how this might influence demand for higher education. But to pre-empt future posts, applications are just one of several factors affecting how many students end up enrolled. Acceptance rates, deferrals, and attrition rates could all change, affecting student numbers.

I will start with the school leaver market. As I have noted previously, in recent years higher education applicant numbers have softened. For school leavers, demography will continue to cap numbers. But within the constraints of age cohort size, could the recession affect applicant numbers?

Recessions change the economics of choosing between higher education and work. If there are no jobs a university student does not forgo pay and work experience. Higher education’s opportunity cost falls. Further study might be the second-best option, but it is better than unemployment.Read More »

Denise Bradley, 1942-2020

Denise Bradley, one of the big influences on Australian higher education over the last 40 years, has passed away after a long illness.

She was a university leader, including as vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia from 1997 to 2007. Prior to that she was an important figure in forming the University during the Dawkins era of amalgamations, principally from the previous South Australian Institute of Technology and South Australian College of Advanced Education. For a brief statement of her University of South Australia role see the citation for her honorary doctorate from the University, and in more detail this history of the University in the Dawkins period.

Through this time she was active in broader public policy. She served on the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission in the 1980s, a body which used to advise the government on funding and other things. There was depth and detail in that era that we have lost – CTEC used to regularly produce hundreds of pages of detailed analysis. After CTEC was abolished, she served on other government advisory councils, boards and committees.

Professor Bradley was best known in more recent times for chairing the Julia Gillard-commissioned Review of Australian Higher Education, better known as the Bradley review leading in 2008 to the Bradley report.Read More »

University finances, the census date and COVID-19

On Facebook I have seen undergraduate petitions calling for university classes to be suspended.  One person claimed that their institution was stalling until after the census date. This is the day when students became liable to pay their student contributions and the university becomes entitled to receive Commonwealth contributions, their government tuition subsidy.

In the Grattan report on dropping out I co-wrote a couple of years ago, we argued that the census date is an interesting and unusual feature of Australia’s higher education system. Effectively, it gives students a free try-before-you-buy option for every subject they take.

By law this period is at least 20 per cent of the semester, but on our analysis the median period before the census date was a quarter of the semester. Four weeks is common, with a census date at the end of March for first semester (earlier for universities with trimester systems).

In the other English-speaking countries we looked at students usually only have one to two weeks to change their minds without financial cost.

The late Australian date for dropping subjects or courses without cost transfers some enrolment risk from students to universities, who end up teaching students who never generate any revenue. Overall I think that is a good thing, as it creates pro-student incentives that would otherwise be lacking.Read More »

The student workforce and COVID-19

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. job interaction with public

Read More »

Is grade inflation a problem in Australian universities?

In his multifaceted critique of higher education in The Australian yesterday, Adam Creighton makes one infrequently-made claim: that ‘grade inflation is rife’.

In Australia we often worry about soft marking at the pass-fail point, which Adam also mentions. But grade inflation controversies overseas are about too many students receiving high marks. In England, an increase in the proportion of students receiving first-class degrees from 16% in 2010-11 to 29% by 2017-18 has attracted the regulator’s attention. In the United States, critics complain that ‘A’ is the most popular grade.

Australian universities are not required to report student marks, and so we cannot conclusively confirm or reject the grade inflation hypothesis. But the figures we have do not look overly-skewed to the top.

In a paper looking at the relationship between ATAR and socioeconomic status, the NSW Universities Admission Centre earlier this year reported on first-year university grade point averages (GPA). They used a 7 point scale for their GPA.

The UAC’s main point is that ATAR rather than SES best predicts GPA. But it is striking that even the most able first-year students, coming into universities with ATARs of 90 or above, averaged less than a credit grade.Read More »