HECS deters theory wrong again

The Education Department has quietly put on its website (in the file marked ‘Appendices’) the ‘equity’ student enrolment data. It’s more bad news for the ‘HECS deters’ theory, though good news for social mobility. The 2005 25% increase in student contribution amounts has had no negative effect on the proportion of students classified as being of low socio-economic status (using the proxy of postcode). In fact, they slightly increased their share of commencing students in both 2005 and 2006, and of all students in 2006 (there was a lagged effect in 2005 of a lower-than-usual intake in the previous year).

Low SES enrolments in the private sector are also up in asbolute and percentage terms, though there have been so many new institutions added to the list between 2005 and 2006 that the two figures are not directly comparable.

However, I would not read very much into these figures. This is a very flat indicator. If you round the numbers, every year since data collection begain in 1991 the overall share of low SES students of total enrolment has been 15%. In the two years for which there is data for private sector, it has been 13% after rounding.

The small movements up and down are unlikely to represent any significant lasting change. The increases in student charges in 1997 and 2005 haven’t deterred low SES students, and the targeted Commonwealth scholarships since 2004 and increased rates of Youth Allowance receipt since the 1990s haven’t had any obvious low SES attendance impact. This area seems immune to public policy interventions, because it is fundamentally driven by school results and labour market considerations, and not short-term financial incentives or disincentives.

I will make a prediction now: the 2007 higher education statistics will again show that 15% of students come from low SES areas, and that any cuts to student contribution amounts introduced by the Rudd government will also result in 15% of students coming from low SES areas.

7 thoughts on “HECS deters theory wrong again

  1. Johno – No! I was looking for a NUS comment at the time of the 2005 increase, but could not find one. I must have accidentally cut and pasted from a more recent comment when I intended to put the DEEWR page in. Corrected now.

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  2. Bruce Chapman once mentioned to me a conference he attended (in Portugal, I think), in which presenters from a whole bunch of different countries talked about the SES gradient in university attendance. He said what struck him was the extraordinary similarity in the pattern across systems with high public and high private components. Given this, it probably isn’t all that surprising that our tweaks haven’t changed the Australian family income/education gradient.

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  3. AL – Inconsistent definitions around the world make precise comparisons hard to do, but there are very common patterns internationally.

    The main conclusion I draw is that ‘accessibility’ and ‘affordability’ have a very weak relationship. Countries with high tuition costs often also have high proportions of their population with university qualifications. This is possibly because the higher prices trigger greater supply, whereas putting all the financial burden on fiscally-constrained states causes them to ration supply.

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  4. Not worth a hell of a lot, I know, but my own anecdotal experience of teaching at UTas over the past seven years tends to support these figures, if anything it seems like students of more diverse backgrounds are being represented through the School of Government than was the case in my undergrad days (1996-99).

    Obviously there are bound to be complex reasons for this, but it always comes up whenever I read another attack on HECS/HELP as an idea/policy.

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