Does the federal government spend more on private schools than universities?

Lesson of the day: don’t say things to journalists relying on memory alone. Yesterday I spoke to a reporter from The Australian, and during the conversation agreed with a claim from University of Melbourne higher education expert Simon Marginson that the federal government spends more on private schools than on universities. That was printed in this morning’s paper.

I had some time ago looked into this oft-repeated claim by the public education lobby and decided that it was defensible but a factoid (meaning 2). It was defensible because if you count only direct subsidies related to tuition then more is spent on private schools than on universities (approximately $5 billion compared to approximately $3.5 billion in 2005). But I deemed it a factoid because private school funding supports more than twice as many students. It is less than surprising that about 1.1 million school students cost more than about 450,000 university students (full-time equivalent).

But I’d forgotten that the university income number did not include research and other grants to universities, which take the spend up closer to $6 billion, or the significant contribution to university cash flow made by student loans, which add in another $2 billion.

So if we looked at total support for universities it is significantly higher than total support for private schools.

In my defence I did dismiss the value of the comparison (which wasn’t reported), and note that there had been a significant recent increase in university funding (which was reported), and the original purpose of the conversation had been to discuss something else entirely, for which I had the relevant spreadsheets open when I returned the call. But I should have said nothing or at least fact-checked myself afterwards. Someone did question my evidence today, and they were right to do so.