Insights Blog

Resourcing Australia’s tertiary education sector

Resourcing Australia’s tertiary education sector

2 November 2016, by Mark Warburton


Australian Government expenditure on tertiary education has been consistently at 0.8 per cent of GDP since 2000. There has not been a ‘blowout’ in tertiary education spending. If there is a problem, it is simply that the Government needs to bring the Budget back into balance. The contribution that can be made to that objective from the tertiary education sector is at best modest.

While direct expenditure on higher education student places under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) has increased considerably since 2008, this has been substantially offset since 2011 by 13 major savings measures which have reduced spending in other programs of support for higher education teaching. Overall expenditure on higher education teaching has risen broadly in line with GDP. Since 2000, student contributions have increased by 187 per cent, CGS subsidies by 158 per cent and GDP by 144 per cent.

This contrasts markedly with what has been happening in the vocational education and training (VET) sector. Since 2009-10, the Australian Government’s nominal expenditure on VET has declined by $0.6 billion or 16 per cent and this decline will have reached $1.2 billion or 30 per cent by 2017-18.

There is currently a lack of coherent strategy aimed at ensuring that VET resourcing is being used efficiently. The expansion in VET FEE HELP that has occurred could potentially ensure that VET resourcing is maintained despite expenditure reductions. Currently, there appears to be substantial disparity in the level of resourcing of the VET sector in comparison to that in the higher education sector and it is not clear that this relates to a substantial difference in their need for resources. The distribution of VET resources is changing rapidly and is not fully understood. Some areas of VET activity are declining in ways that may have adverse impacts on the availability of skills in the Australian labour market.

The Government’s student loan programs are proliferating. There are now seven separate schemes and people are borrowing under multiple schemes. Changes in patterns of educational activity, such as the increasing requirement for postgraduate education as a prerequisite for professional entry, are increasing the total amount students need to borrow to pursue their chosen career. Many undertake a full fee paying course after completing a subsidised course and borrow under different schemes to pay fees and contributions. They may also now borrow to assist with living and other expenses during their period of study.

There is currently inadequate strategic oversight of the suite of student loan programs. There needs to be much greater oversight of the total amounts that may be borrowed and of the quality of the resulting debts. Too little is known about the likely repayment of much of the lending that is now occurring. There are no total borrowing limits across the full suite of loan schemes and yet all of these programs are directed to a single purpose - supporting Australians, primarily young adults, to obtain the education and skills they need for economic participation. The level of the education that young Australians undertake has a substantial impact on their likely future earnings and hence on the likelihood that student debts will be repaid.

Income contingent loans are not an appropriate financing instrument to use if the government is seeking to create a fully deregulated tertiary education market in which there is price competition. Nor are they appropriate to use if fees are to be fully deregulated. They are an extremely valuable financing instrument and an appropriate and fair way of facilitating student contributions to the cost of their education. They are not a method by which the Government can eliminate its responsibility for ensuring that the education services supported by its grants and loans are provided at a reasonable cost.

Both public and private institutions may have incentives to charge prices above both the ‘efficient’ price and the actual cost of delivery. A private institution may do this to maximise revenue and possibly profit. A public institution may have an equally strong imperative to do so to generate revenues for legislated purposes other than the provision of education services. An obvious example is a university seeking to lift its research activity and its prestige through higher international rankings.

The Government should give equal consideration to the resourcing of higher education and VET and it should seek to maximise the efficiency of delivery of the tertiary sector as a whole. It should recognise that there are limits on the extent to which income contingent loans can be used while remaining an effective financing instrument. It should recognise that they may play a more limited role in resourcing of the VET sector than of higher education. It should ensure that their availability maximises the contribution they make to the overall financing of tertiary education.

None of this is incompatible with students continuing to have a choice of education provider or a provider being able to compete in attracting students, including by charging less than a prescribed maximum student contribution or fee.

Major recommendations:

The Australian Government’s programs of support for tertiary education should ensure that tertiary sector resourcing is sustainable into the medium term and accommodates population growth. Modest and highly targeted amounts of capital support should be available for small public institutions in areas of rapidly growing population with under-developed educational infrastructure.

A more coherent system of support for resourcing student places across the tertiary sector should be developed. It should consist of:

  • direct government subsidies for the delivery of education and training services (which would generally be paid by the Australian Government in the higher education sector and State and Territory governments in the vocational education and training sector); and
  • financial support for students through entitlements to income contingent loans and income support.

There should be a resource package for the education/training of domestic students seeking to attain an Australian tertiary qualification. This resource package would potentially vary according to discipline, and qualification level. It would not be desirable for it to differ according to the sector in which it is delivered.

The total amount of this resource package should be equivalent to the best available estimate of the reasonable cost of tuition for the delivery of that education service. Providers generally should be prevented from using the resources for these services on other purposes. In particular, there should not be a significant transfer of resources from the teaching of domestic students to research within universities.

The resource package should be comprised of two elements - a direct Government subsidy and a student contribution / tuition fee. The amount of the direct government subsidy should equal the balance of the resource package after determination of an appropriate maximum student contribution amount.

  • The determination of maximum student contribution amounts should take into account that students may be utilising income contingent loans for both tuition fees and other related expenses (including living expenses), and may be required to undertake multiple courses (at different levels in the education system) as they progress to their chosen career (trade or profession).

A considerable amount of detailed costing and research would be required to provide an appropriate evidence base on which to make recommendations to Government on the value of each of the resource packages and the maximum student contribution amount for it. This work should be undertaken by an independent authority making public recommendations on the reasonable cost of tuition and the appropriate level of student contributions. It should have tightly structured terms of reference for the scope of its work, but an unfettered power to publish its findings and recommendations. It should have modest resourcing, a long term work program reviewing and updating the various resource packages and government should set priorities for the review of those packages. The Government should retain final responsibility for decisions on resourcing and student contributions.

  • The Government’s highest priority should be ensuring that resourcing in the VET sector is stable and that the VET sector is able to continue to meet the labour market’s skills needs into the medium term.
  • The Government should not further consider extending the demand driven system in higher education to diplomas and advanced diplomas until this has occurred.

The currently fragmented system of loans should be unified into a coherent single program of income contingent loans supporting the tertiary education of domestic students and enabling better monitoring and management of the associated costs to Government. The Government should ensure that there is a publicly available research data set to facilitate greater understanding of:

  • the total level of debt which students are incurring, particularly on the path to their initial career; and
  • the subsequent patterns of loan repayment, particularly of the amounts not expected to be repaid and of the times taken for the total loan to be repaid.

The loan program should be entitlement based, but subject to a tiered system of lifetime borrowing amounts and a system of maximum annual borrowing amounts. An example of what is intended by this proposal is provided on the following page.

The lifetime borrowing amount of a student should be a function of their past level of educational attainment and of the course to which they have been admitted. The general principle is that a student seeking a higher level of educational attainment would usually be able to borrow more and should also have the capacity to repay the higher loan amount. For example, a person whose highest educational attainment is a ‘Certificate IV’ would generally have a lower lifetime borrowing amount than a university student and so would need less income to successfully repay their loan.

The lifetime borrowing amounts would be a critical program parameter. They should be subject to close monitoring, particularly in respect of their implications for the repayment of loans and the cost of the loan scheme.

The maximum annual borrowing amounts would be a less critical program parameter than the lifetime borrowing amounts. However, they would need to be set to ensure that students continue to have access to loans and are able to complete the path to their chosen career without upfront fees. These amounts would effectively set a ceiling on the amount of funds lent to a student in each calendar year and serve to help manage risks to program integrity.

Student loans should be made available to all Australians under the same conditions, in particular all borrowings should be subject to the same loan fee, indexation and repayment arrangements. In considering the cost of student loans schemes the Government should, in order of priority:

  • ensure that repayment arrangements remain equitable. This social objective is an essential feature of income contingent loan schemes and underlies the widespread public support for the fairness of Australian arrangements for students to contribute to the cost of their tertiary education;
  • ensure that loans principally are made to individuals with a high likelihood of repaying them;
  • focus primarily on overall efficiency in the public resourcing of tertiary education, noting that government costs can be reduced either by replacing grants with loans, increasing the rate of debt indexation or imposing loan fees. From an overall policy perspective, an increased rate of indexation should be preferred over a loan fee.

The Government should clarify which agencies are fundamentally responsible for the regulatory activity required to ensure that the problems which occurred with VET FEE-HELP do not arise again. It should ensure that the responsible agencies are adequately resourced and have the experience, expertise and capability to adequately perform those regulatory activities.

Example of a single income contingent loan program with tiered lifetime borrowing limits

Tier 1: Lifetime borrowing limit of $25,000
A student undertaking vocational education and training or a qualification below the bachelor degree level might have a Tier 1 lifetime borrowing limit of $25,000. Their maximum annual borrowing limit might be set at $12,500, enabling them to study at this level for two years and use the maximum annual borrowing amount. It might not be possible for a student to use their full maximum annual borrowing amount. They might be enrolled in a course with a maximum tuition fee of $6,000 and otherwise only have access to additional loan amounts of $2,500 each year for living costs and tools of trade.

Tier 2: Lifetime borrowing limit of $75,000
A student undertaking a low cost bachelor degree program might have a lifetime borrowing limit of $75,000 and an annual borrowing limit of $12,500. A student who had undertaken a Tier 1 program and had already borrowed $25,000 would still be able to borrow $50,000. Such a student would have four years in which to complete their Bachelor degree program and be receiving the maximum annual borrowing amount of $12,500.

Tier 3: Lifetime borrowing limit of $90,000
A student undertaking a high cost bachelor degree program of five years duration might have a lifetime borrowing limit of $90,000 and an annual borrowing limit of $15,000.

Tier 4: Lifetime borrowing limit of $120,000
A student undertaking a professional entry master level qualification might have a lifetime borrowing limit of $120,000. Their maximum annual borrowing limit might be set at $35,000. A student doing this level of qualification may already have borrowed $50,000 to complete a bachelor degree level qualification (i.e. 4 years of study using the Tier 2 maximum borrowing limit of $12,500). Such a student would have two years in which to complete their Master level qualification and be receiving the maximum annual borrowing amount of $35,000. 

Read full analysis (PDF)

Mark Warburton is an Honorary Senior Fellow of the LH Martin Institute. He was Principal Analyst for Universities Australia during 2015 and was in the Australian Public Service prior to that.

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