There is a recent trend for policymakers and politicians to look at Australia to find solutions to the policy problems facing UK HE. The most recent example are the reports published yesterday by HEPI that compares the Australian and UK HE systems. There are some interesting comparisons to be made between Australia and England, however seriously comparing the two systems is a difficult task. This post focusses on the longer detailed analysis and although interesting, does not tell the whole story of Australian higher education; elements of which may not be wholly desirable to bring back home.
One of the report’s main arguments is that, despite much higher tuition fees in England, the levels of student funding on a course are similar to the Australian system. However, what is not accounted for is that the Australian government’s “base” funding for courses plus student fees cross-subsidise academic research to a much greater extent than in England. Up to 40% (AUS$2.7bn in 2008) of funding for research is syphoned away mainly from fees and grants for teaching.
HEPI does not enter in to the equation the fact that English HEIs spend fair portions of tuition fee revenue on services and amenities not directly related to their course, whereas Australian HEIs are permitted to charge a separate levy to pay for these, known as the “Student Services and Amenities Fee”. Important welfare and advice services, clubs and societies, and financial support and bursaries for students could not be funded in Australia without this extra income from individual students.
The report concentrates on fees and the lower subsidy and on the loans that cover them in Australia. In England, students can take out maintenance loans, which account for about a fifth of the overall write-off on student loans. But the Australian system is designed differently. In Australia, students are given direct financial support through the Youth Allowance, if you are 16-24, or through AUSTUDY, if you are over 25.
This difference is not factored in when comparing the overall cost to government. In the context of the UK government’s recent decision to abolish the Education and Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and potentially looking at a system without grant-style maintenance, expanding an EMA-like system to HE seems one of the more sensible ideas to import back to the UK.
Looking at the HECS-HELP loan scheme in Australia in more detail, there are further observations to bring out that have so far not had much attention.
The HEPI report assumes that graduates earning £30k could pay effectively double what they do now in order to help government cut the RAB charge, by mimicking some aspects of the repayment system in Australia. But there might be far more palatable ways to lower the RAB charge that do not exacerbate some of the macroeconomic problems currently facing the UK. With a ‘cost-of-living crisis’, doubling the monthly repayment on those likely to be struggling to save up for a mortgage or to pay for the rise in their rail season ticket, this is unlikely to be a popular policy.
As a country, our savings rate is far lower than it should be and so a raid on the dwindling bank balances of middle earners (as it would certainly be billed) would go down very badly both with politicians wary of new middle-class taxes, and a public that is feeling the squeeze.
Although we could ask those just above the repayment threshold to pay back more as the report suggests, there is also a risk that such a move would create serious labour market distortions in the UK economy.
Rather than taking repayments on income above the threshold, as in England, the HECS-HELP repayment system in Australia comes out of total taxable income once the graduate crosses the threshold. There are very likely to be distortionary effects caused by the fact that a tiny increase in personal income can lead to a $2000 annual liability for HELP repayments. Put simply, there is the possibility of a pact between employees and their employer to keep salaries below the repayment threshold, as there is a mutual disincentive to pay a salary marginally above the threshold if it leads to a loss in net income.
Perhaps the most obvious point of comparison between the Australian and English economic models is that they are both significantly increasing their respective national debts. Any attempt to compare the two HE systems ought to account for the fact that as both countries have made a political decision to expand higher education, public borrowing has had to increase.
HELP loan debt in Australia has increased from AUS$10bn in 2002 and AUS$26bn in 2012, with around AUS$6bn that will never be recovered. It is hardly the sign of a healthy system that the government seriously considered privatising the HECS-HELP loan book at an additional estimated loss of AUS$6-7bn to curb mounting debt. Sound familiar?
Comparisons with other countries HE systems can be helpful for policymakers in search of solutions. But they need to be based on ‘warts and all’ analysis to avoid the mistakes of others being repeated here.