The problems low ‘unmet demand’ conceal

The latest report on unmet demand for university places shows that the number of ‘unsuccessful eligible applicants after discounting’ is down for the third year running, to 13,200. Among school leavers who did OK in their exams unmet demand is very low. Of the 68,916 home state school leaver applicants with an ENTER of 70 or above, just 964, or 1.4%, did not get an offer.

It’s fair to say that at the aggregate level unmet demand isn’t now much of a problem – especially when we consider that some of those considered academically ‘eligible’ in the discounting process, those with an ENTER of 53 or above and all those applying on another basis, probably would not be offered a place even if there were no quotas holding down the number of places universities could offer (a point I expand on in my recent CIS paper).

It’s when the applications, offers and acceptances data is examined in more detail that we begin to see problems. As I argued in my CIS paper, and which the 2007 statistics show again, there are persistent patterns of over-supply relative to first-preference applications in some fields (agriculture and science) and under-supply in others (eg in medicine, dentistry and veterinary science 50-60% of applicants with ENTERs of 90+ do not get offers).

The mismatch problems are most severe in Victoria. Not only does it have more unmet demand than NSW, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania put together, but of those students who do get an offer they are significantly less likely to get an offer based on their first preference: 54% compared to 73% for the rest of Australia. This suggests that what Victorian universities offer is relatively poorly aligned with student demand.

Unfortunately the Minister, Julie Bishop, seems to be taking the view that the problem here is not her Department’s misguided central controls over the allocation of places, but the unwillingness of applicants to move. As she told The Australian

“The level of unmet demand could be even lower if students looked further afield, with universities in some states and some regional universities not able to fill all current places,” she said.

This, unfortunately, is the higher ed policy mindset: students exist to meet the needs of universities, and not the other way around. Rather than offering students the courses they want where they want them, students should take the courses DEST wants to fund where DEST wants to fund them.

As making-the-best-of-a-bad situation advice, Bishop’s comment makes sense. But as Minister, she should have relaxed the controls that create the problem in the first place.

7 thoughts on “The problems low ‘unmet demand’ conceal

  1. “Rather than offering students the courses they want where they want them”

    Lots of people see this the other way around, for (presumably) a reason different to the government — this is already done far too much. Universities bend over backwards to offer students degrees that take almost no effort or thought to complete, because students want them, and bend over backwards with their marketing departments to tell them how much their degrees will be worth. Its a triumph of marketing over education.
    The second is done far too much also (mainly for political reasons) — thats why there are loss making university campuses in ridiculous places that can’t be closed down.

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  2. The central problem is that the system doesn’t transmit the right information to students for them to make the trade-offs between moving away for a better course / doing a course near home; doing a more expensive course you like / doing a less expensive course you don’t like so much; etc. etc.

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  3. OT: I hope you’re working on a post saying the Higher Education Endowmwnt Fund is a bad idea that will crowd out private endowments. Good politics, bad economics.

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  4. I wonder about the interpretation of such figures. The 1.4% is really farcical as a measure of “unmet demand”.

    Are there not tens of thousands who would like to do medicine (for example) but cannot because the places are so limited? The unmet demand for these places drives the ridiculous enter score of 99.4. You have identified part of this unmet demand as measured by those who had medicine as first preference but were accepted in another course. But this under-estimates the unmet demand drastically. Many more students are not silly enough to put medicine down as a first preference, because they know their enter score will not be good enough.

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  5. Chris – A point I made in the longer paper. But I can make my case without resorting to speculative numbers, so I may as well do so.

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