Why are universities failing to fill all their places?

On Monday, Jenny Macklin explained the University of Ballarat’s failure to meet its enrolment quota this way:

Opposition education spokeswoman Jenny Macklin said it suggested HECS rates were turning potential students away from study in regional areas. Maximum annual HECS rates this year ranged from $3920 to $8170, depending on the course. “For students in country areas these fees are very high,” Ms Macklin said.

But today comes the news that both universities in affluent Canberra have also failed to meet their targets, the ANU by 175 and the University of Canberra by 300. The ANU is a particularly interesting case, because its experience contradicts most of the ad hoc explanations for what’s happening to university demand – that regional universities are disadvantaged, that there is rush to prestige brands (the ANU is part of the Group of Eight ‘sandstone’ universities, and the highest-ranked Australian university in the global research rankings), and that the 2005 increases in HECS have put students off. The ANU kept its HECS charges at pre-2005 rates.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Chubb is putting it down to ” higher-than-usual deferral and graduation rates”. I can’t see that graduation rates have anything to do with it, since generally these increase student ‘load’ (as it is called) as students stick around to finish rather than dropping out. But deferrals or delayed applications could at least partly explain it. I have noted before that commencing students are getting older, and if the Department would release its 2005 statistics in a timely manner I’d be able to check whether indeed this trend is continuing. My hunch is that with a strong labour market more kids are taking time off after Year 12 to get a break from study, earn some money and create an ‘independent’ Youth Allowance entitlement for themselves, and perhaps do a little travelling. But without more data it is hard to be sure.