Testing the waters on uni fees

Basic economics tells us that students won’t just pay any price for a university degree. If market prices become too high, a case can be made, in theory at least, for public policy action to lower the cost to students, to ensure that the labour market has sufficient graduates or to target particular groups of people.

But how do we tell when we have reached such a point? Professor Simon Marginson seems to think that the theory above is sufficient for us to know. An article in this morning’s Age reports that the proportion of university students from a low socioeconomic background hasn’t changed in 15 years, despite two significant price hikes, but Marginson says:

there is a problem with extrapolating the results — if you keep lifting costs, there is likely to be a lag factor before you see evidence that parts of the community are being excluded. “It’s a pretty clumsy way to test the waters.”

In my view, theory can only take us so far in answering what is essentially an empirical question: at what prices will student (or prospective student) behaviour start changing in ways that are, from a public policy perspective, undesirable? We can be confident that we are not there yet. Total applications have dropped since their most recent peak in 2003, but demand still exceeds supply, and by very large margins in some courses at some universities. Demand would not exceed supply if prices were too high.
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