What is happening in undergraduate enrolments #2?

More than a month ago, based on university financial statistics, I predicted that:

Commonwealth-supported undergraduate enrolments actually went down for the third year in a row, and all the growth was generated in the full-fee market.

The student statistics have now been released. These were very hard to analyse, because DEST has changed the way the data is presented, and added in the new private providers.

A declining number of Commonwealth-supported students was one reason why revenue growth for them was low, but I wrongly thought undergraduate numbers were to blame. In full-time equivalent numbers (eg two half-time students would be counted as one full-time equivalent) undergraduates increased by 235. But with postgraduate Commonwealth-supported places down by 760, there was a net decline overall of 525 or 0.13%.

I was right however that the stronger growth was in the full-fee domestic undergraduate market, up by 34.1%. However, most of the increase was due to enrolments in the private higher education providers whose students are now entitled to a FEE-HELP loan. Take them out of the calculation and the growth rate drops back to 7.42%. In the fee-paying postgraduate coursework market things were very tight despite the extension of FEE-HELP, only a 1.26% increase in places overall and .22% on a same institution basis.

The overall picture is of stable enrolments, with FEE-HELP providing an additional element of choice outside the quota system for Commonwealth-supported places.

29 thoughts on “What is happening in undergraduate enrolments #2?

  1. In other words, the useless federal government policies have failed to make new places. I hope this isn’t what you advised Dr Nelson to do when you were a policy adviser (unless the outcome was meant to be re-introducing exclusivity into university education). Hang on, that’s exaclty what Nelson wanted! Well done (slow hand clap).


  2. I suppose China giveth (full fee students, including ethnic Chinese throughout Asia) and China taketh away by underwriting economic good times so potential students go for jobs. But its interesting that when there’s an oversupply of subsidised places, more students want to pay full fees – why is that?


  3. David, how many university places do you think the government should support? My hubmle view is that we have far far too many already, but then Andrew tells me, not without reason, that my idea of a university is hopelessly outdated.

    What we have with subsidised education is enormous waste. Millions going through courses such as arts or psychology and then complaining that this was waste of time and money (HECS). Never complaining how much taxpayers money was wasted. And what you suggest is waste still more taxpayers money.

    The only way to esnure that taxpayers money is not wasted is to let students pay for their education. Indeed I find it hard to justify that someone else (who hasn’t been to university) has to pay for those who are. However this does raise hard issues of equity, which loan schemes do not completely resolve, in my view.


  4. Boris — I think one of the reasons that the number of places has been expanded is that the high school system is now so woeful that many 18 year olds can’t do simple things like write a small document (Try and ask your first years to do it and see what they come up with if you don’t believe me). I used to believe that some Arts courses were a waste of time and had far too many people in them, but now I can see that they do have some value. They would be even more value if universities could fail people, as then employers could be guaranteed of getting someone that could read and write if they had a degree in such an area.


  5. Boris,

    Ideally I want a place for everyone who wants a place. The problem is the dogs breakfast we now have which has been driven so hard from the right and left based on ideological dogma. I don’t see why the HECS system can’t be modified based on job prospects (with needed careers attracting lower HECS fees and over supplied areas attracting higher HECS fees). Perhaps if you did that in addition to relaxing the quotas we might have a system that produced the graduates we needed. I suppose it’s open to criticism on the grounds that university should not be so vocational, but there’s little point in going if you don’t do it to get a job.

    First, the comment I kicked this discussion off with was nasty and I apologise. Nelson is a pet hate of mine.

    I don’t know enough about Andrews proposal for removing quotas but it sounds like the system could certainly be relaxed. As for full-fee places introducing flexibility, no doubt it has for a portion of the population. I know life wasn’t meant to be easy, but there is little point in lifting the hurdles of half the competitors and lowering them for others unless your intent is fixing the outcome.

    I certainly don’t see a problem with pouring more money in if we have to. There is an immense amount of misallocation of public money occurring right now at a time when the tax take is at a record high – there is absolutely no reason for universities or high schools to be starved of resources. Voters keep insisting education is their top priority, but politicians seem deaf to the calls to sort it out. I had hopes that Andrew might toss up a bit of grist for the mill given that it’s an area he’s worked in.

    Conrad, Why exactly aren’t you allowed to fail students any more?


  6. David – When people say they want spending on education they don’t mean universities. There was a Newspoll a few years ago which asked for more specifics about education spending, and as I recall it less than 10% of those wanting spending on education nominated universities.


  7. Andrew,

    That’s an interesting poll result (Newspoll again, so big grain of salt required) but how was the question worded? Most parents have much closer contact with primary and high schools and see first hand the issues that come with under funding. Perhaps their divorced from the university level issues as by that stage the students are (more or less) independent?


  8. David: Faculty policy (both explicit and implicit) — even if I did, they would simply be changed in any case, and I would have to waste a few hours sitting a meeting.

    Boris: I think the simplest way would be to go back to having a high first year failure rate — which used to happen eons ago, which means you only waste 1 year of education but people can’t complain about equity. Of course, with the way funding works, that is never going to happen .


  9. What a load of crap. I’m old enough to remember people complaining about the literacy of uni freshmen in the 1960s. And I bet they complained about them in previous decades too. The fact is that reading and writing are highly unnatural skills, and a good slab of the population will never master them to a high standard no matter what you do. An adequate standard is all you can hope for.

    Literacy standards of the population are still rising – as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, functional illiteracy is overwhelmingly a problem of *older* generations.

    And call me old-fashioned, but a liberal education is something to be valued over and above its financial return. Man cannot live by bread alone.

    There’s a lot to be said for a broad-based undergraduate program for your brightest people, with specialisation only at grad school; our mistake is to encourage only our mediocre, rather than our best, minds to pursue Arts degrees.


  10. DD – While today’s school leavers may be more literate than those of decades ago, I’m pretty sure that the medium-term trend is down. I see mistakes now that I rarely saw from the military cadets I taught in the early 1990s – and they were not primarily selected for their academic potential.

    But the preoccupation with the past is misguided – literacy requirements in the workplace are much higher now than then, so even standing still would not be satisfactory, let alone falling behind.

    The social studies taught in school English should be scrapped, and replaced with classes on writing technique.


  11. In the 1960s the overwhelming majority of uni students came from families with no history or tradition of higher education, and in many cases one or both parents would not have completed high school.

    Now their children are at uni, having grown up with well stocked bookshelves and an ambience of informed conversation on a wide range of topics. Add this to other factors like increased investment in money and years spent at school and you would expect standards of literacy to skyrocket.

    They have not.

    Someone has blundered!


  12. Rafe,

    Not so sure of your assumptions – the middle class of previous generations may not have much to do with universities but it doesn’t mean they weren’t highly literate. I suspect it was they who bought the books and magazines, had the pianos etc. Look at letters written by your grandparents generation. What they didn’t have was television. Their children may have “well stocked bookshelves” but do they read?

    Possibly there has been a reaction to the kind of stultifying schooling of my day where most kids were taught to write a reasonable essay, but hated the whole activity, to a situation where too much emphasis is placed on creativity and building confidence.


  13. My friends tell me that they are teaching high school mathematics to large classes of first year university students. In the 80s, Qld universities had high school prerequisites for different degrees (eg the pre-reqs for engineering were maths 1, maths 2, physics, chemistry and english). I don’t know what the pre-reqs are like now, but if you remove them to encourage more flexibility, you end up with heaps of students starting degrees with lower knowledge and skill levels than previously.


  14. Ha ! Just enjoying the news that the NSW education minister doesn’t know what Australia Day commemorates.

    Presumably she was taught it at school – so perhaps the issue isn’t about schools and teaching. It’s about why so many people forget what they’ve been taught. Irrelevance ?

    Do we think ‘children should be taught such and such’ but actually place so little value on it, and fail to show it’s part in a larger, interesting story, that everyone just forgets it a few years out of school?


  15. David – I was never put under any pressure to pass them; if anything my instinct was to protect them from an overly harsh military. For example, I dealt with plagiarism cases by failing them rather than reporting them as I was supposed to, since that could jeopardise their careers.


  16. Although I have been somewhat harsh on AN in recent months when he is basically just trying to the right thing by everybody through the socialist/free market knowledge postion he has established and cannot back down from, I would like to question the literacy of the october post title:

    “What proportion of their education costs to uni students pay?”

    Clearly too much in some cases..

    Why is it “in undergraduate enrolments” rather than “with undergraduate enrolments”? With all the discussion of student prostitution it would stand up as a Freudian slip.


  17. Parkos – Like Jason, I often struggle to work out what if any point you are making. But in this comment there are a couple of lines I both understand and accept:

    “I would like to question the literacy of the october post title:


  18. But Boris you could like so totally teach them grammar, but they’ll be imitating what they want to imitate.

    I was suggesting, like Lindsay Tanner, that it’s because the community doesn’t really value education / knowledge, that whatever is taught just evaporates. People may say they value education, but they probably mean that they value a qualification which leads to a lucrative career.

    (Apolgies to Parkos and that pedant at large Christine, for having typed earlier in the thread “and fail to show it


  19. Russell, I disagree. I know that old style school was always extremely boring if not painful, but it did give people a skill. There is nothing exciting in, say, brushing your teeth, but you do not need a pashion for it to do it. Same with writing. Of course you can still lose your skill but if you are forced to practice it (first at the Uni and then in the workforce), then you will keep it.


  20. Interesting that postgrad education’s numbers have stalled. I wonder whether there is a certain ceiling to further growth, I know my department is struggling to get commencing postgrads and the attendance level at seminars has plummeted to a dangerous level – also completions levels are terrible. I think this all comes down postgrads finding it too difficult to juggle work and study, and there are few sympathetic employers that are willing to compromise much for something that doesn’t provide them with much of a material benefit. I wonder if cost (no Austudy for postgrads and limited scholarships cutting in at mid-to-high firsts) prevents much wider take up. There are only so many masochists who are going to spend 6-8 years doing a PhD part-time.

    Which reminds me of one postgrad in a related department who joked to his supervisor “You want to see my progress, well my thesis is not due till September 2014, unfortunately the only progress is trying to get my boss to allow me to work less than 60 hours.” Personally, I’d be advising the poor fellow to take a “use and abuse” job, this a job with minimal supervision where you can do your thesis-on-the-sly (hey William Faulkner wrote “Sound and the Fury” while pretending to do his job – if you’ve got previous references it matters little if you burn your current employer, its not as though you’ll include them in your resume.)


  21. Argh! Apostrophe misplacement alert!!!! Seriously, didn’t notice it, and anyway I find complaints about typos in blog irritating, since if you spent a proper amount of time proofreading blog posts, you’d get many fewer and likely less interesting posts.

    Still, wish you hadn’t drawn my attention to the apostrophe; now I’m not going to get any work done today. And as for your use of ‘pashion’ in your last post, well, ’nuff said.


  22. “Russell, I disagree. I know that old style school was always extremely boring if not painful, but it did give people a skill.”

    This could be said about many areas of education. While doing umpteen exercises in high school or undergraduate mathematics can well be painful, especially when it isn’t clear what’s happening at all, the end result was often that people gained knowledge and skills, which was a large point of doing the work.

    3-4 years ago I tutored top first year maths students at Sydney uni, which was a joy, and was astonished when they all pulled out calculators to do very basic calculations. I said that they didn’t need calculators in that tute, and probably not that subject. The calculations were just ones that reasonable high school maths students should be able to do in their head – it’s not very good to rely on technology to replace basic skills.


  23. “I think this all comes down postgrads finding it too difficult to juggle work and study”

    No. The reason is the booming economy and unlimited job opportunities that drive away potential postgrad entrants. At least here in the West.

    Not that it is necessarily a bad thing:-)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s