Fees and the poor, again

And a further update: Theory saved! If I take out the private providers that have been added to the statistics, low SES commencing students go up from 15.16% in 2004 to 15.20% in 2005. Of the total student population, they increase from 14.62% to 14.67%. These are extremely small differences, but in the direction I predicted.


The trouble with using evidence is that sometimes you have to admit that you could be wrong. In making the argument below, I compared the 2005 Higher Education Report with the 2004 version (pdf). The 2005 report said that low SES students were 14.5% of the total in 2005 and the 2004 version said 14.1% in 2004, so I concluded that the proportion of low SES students had increased between the two years.

But now the equity group spreadsheets are available. It says that the 2004 figure is 14.62%, not 14.1%. The fine print of the 2004 report says the numbers are not affected by changes of scope to enrolments – which they don’t explain, but which I think is a reference to a change in the way students are counted that was implemented a few years ago. Essentially, the earlier system was a snapshot in time at 31 March each year. But as more students enrolled mid-year, concern increased that this was inaccurate and the system was changed. The spreadsheet data, which I presume uses the now standard method of counting students, records 2,000 more low SES students than what I presume is a 31 March snapshot in the 2004 report. So I was not comparing like with like – though I will have to think about why you would get a higher percentage later in the year than earlier.

The next issue is commencing students. In absolute numbers, commencing low SES students are up by 2%. But in percentage terms, they are down 15.16% to 15.12%, contrary to my theory. However, the 2005 data includes private higher education providers that were not in the 2004 count. As they mostly charge full fees, perhaps they are less attractive to low SES students. It will take me a while to do a same institution 2004-2005 comparison, but I was almost certainly over-confident in my analysis yesterday.

Yesterday’s post:

I know evidence is but a flea on the elephant of intuition and ideology. But one aspect of the DEST Higher Education Report 2005, quietly put on the web late yesterday, is worth noting. This is the annual calculation of the proportion of domestic university students from a low socioeconomic background. The measure is, it should be pointed out, only a proxy. It is a postcode analysis, with anyone whose permanent home address is in a postcode in the lowest 25% as determined by the ABS Index of Education and Occupationdefined as ‘low SES’. Obviously, there are poor people in well-off areas and well-off people in poor areas. This limits it as an absolute measure of SES background of university students, but it is probably a reasonable trend measure, especially over the short term.

Back in October 2005, The Age ran prominent stories lamenting a decline in low SES enrolments between 2003 and 2004. But as I blogged at the time there were competing explanations as to why. With the prospect of higher fees widely publicised as part of the Nelson reforms, Associate Professor Richard James of Melbourne University and Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Liz Harman argued that these were to blame:

Dr James said part of the explanation was the perception of the cost, and the actual cost, of higher education.

4 thoughts on “Fees and the poor, again

  1. I think I’ve seen it suggested (maybe by you Mr Norton, on here?) that high fees may actually discourage high SES students more, as they are more likely to take a ‘gap’ year and head off on a world trip or something.

    Whereas low SES students have to choose between working at Maccas (or some similar place) and no Uni or working at Maccas and going to Uni.

    Also, fewer high SES people taking up HECS places (both because of ‘gaps’ and some of them, from 2005, paying full fees) automatically creates more room for people with lower high school results (eg, low SES background).

    PS – Do you feel like Don Quixote on this issue? 😉


  2. Andrew, can you do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to work out what’s going on in the commencement year? Eg. if the average low-SES share went up by 0.4, and years 2-3 stayed the same, then the commencement year low SES share must have gone up by 1.2? Or maybe things are more complicated than this.


  3. Geez, Andrew, you’re a tough man if you judge a theory by +/-0.04% !!

    I would have thought that your prediction was confirmed regardless of the private providers adjustment. After all, your point was:

    “…there was no evidence in the enrolments data suggesting students were being deterred by the cost of study.”


  4. Rajat – I had two theories, one that prices would not have an impact, which I think is confirmed, and another that the expansion of places would have a positive impact, which is not – though the data is consistent with that, the margin is so small it could just be some random factor, especially when we consider the fairly low quality of the data source.


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