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FactCheck: has growth in new university enrolments flat-lined?

How have student enrolment patterns changed since the government introduced the “demand-driven” system in 2012? AAP Image/Paul Miller

FactCheck: has growth in new university enrolments flat-lined?

How have student enrolment patterns changed since the government introduced the “demand-driven” system in 2012? AAP Image/Paul Miller

As anticipated, the new data also shows that the growth in new [university] enrolments has flat-lined.
“This suggests that the initial surge of ‘unmet demand’ for a university education has been steadily absorbed in the first few years of the shift to a demand-driven system,” said Ms Robinson. – Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson, quoted in a media release issued on January 27, 2016.

University enrolment numbers are one way to test the impact that higher education policies are having on demand for university places.

The latest figures give us a sense of how enrolments have tracked since the introduction of the “demand-driven” system in 2012, when the federal government removed a limit on the number of government funded students undertaking a bachelor degree.

At first blush, you might think the quote from Universities Australia contradicts what education minister Simon Birmingham said in a media release issued the same day.

The minister’s release quoted him saying:

This data shows Australians are continuing to enrol in record numbers in higher education institutions, despite the Labor Party’s best efforts to scare students about the costs of higher education… Instead we’re seeing more students enrol than ever before.

In fact, both statements are correct, although they give different spins on the same set of statistics.

Checking the data

The statistics are from the Australian Department of Education and Training’s Selected higher education statistics – 2015 student data for the first half of 2015.

The minister’s statement is based on an increase in total enrolments from 1,176,801 students in the first half of 2014 to 1,213,403 in the first half of 2015, an increase of 3.1%.

Universities Australia’s statement is based on an increase not of all enrolments, but just of enrolments of students commencing higher education, which increased from 405,462 to 405,697 students, an increase of 0.1%.

So almost all of the increase mentioned by the minister was of more existing students re-enrolling to study longer. This might be because more students are studying longer degrees such as engineering and law, because more students are studying joint or double degrees such as arts-law or science-business, or some of the increase may be due to students re-enrolling to pick up subjects that they had dropped or failed.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson told The Conversation that both statements were correct.

One is an observation about growth rates for commencing Commonwealth-supported students and the other is an observation about the total number of domestic enrolments… The total number of students in higher education is indeed at an historic high after several years of expansion following the introduction and retention of a demand-driven system.

She said the plateauing in the growth rate in new Commonwealth-supported students starting a degree

should take pressure off future funding arrangements because the growth in higher education expenditure is linked to enrolment numbers for Commonwealth-supported students.

You can read Belinda Robinson’s full statement here.

Which is the more noteworthy figure?

Universities Australia is right to draw attention to the apparent flat-lining of increases in new students since the government removed caps on enrolments of domestic students in public universities. This is indeed important for the bipartisan adoption of the demand-driven system and its budget implications. Funding has not recently increased as fast and by as much as it did in the first few years after the policy was introduced, when new student enrolments increased rapidly.

But the increase in students’ length of study, which is presumably behind the increase observed by the minister, is also noteworthy – especially if it is more than a short-term trend. Longer average study times can increase costs just as much as increasing numbers of students studying shorter programs, and students studying for longer doesn’t necessarily benefit students, employers or the community.

Verdict

Both statements are correct and both trends are noteworthy. – Gavin Moodie


Review

Both the FactCheck and the original statements are right that growth in first semester commencing students almost stalled in 2015 compared to 2014, but that total enrolments continued to increase.

The author could be right that more students are taking long degrees. There are many combined degrees on offer, and some universities have moved professional entry courses to the postgraduate level. Given that these options are expensive for taxpayers as well as students, we should know more about their impact on total enrolments.

But the main reason for 2015’s apparent discrepancy between commencing and total enrolments is likely to be the simple maths of previous growth in commencing students. The number of commencing students has been growing for many years, including about 4% growth in each of 2014 and 2013.

Especially for undergraduate courses, which are usually three to four years in length, a bigger commencing class virtually locks in future increases in total enrolments. That is because a big first year class turns into a second year class that is bigger than the one it replaces, then a third year class that is bigger than the one it replaces, and so on. The same process works in reverse when we have a smaller than usual commencing student intake.

While the 2015 commencing student numbers could signal a medium-term moderation of demand, there is one important point to note. They are affected by a change in the Western Australian school starting age in 2002, which means that the 2014 Year 12 class was much less than its usual size.

Western Australian full-time equivalent commencing enrolments fell by more than 5%, compared to a 1% increase in other states. This decline in Western Australian commencing student numbers has nothing to do with underlying demand, and we should see a compensating increase in 2016. – Andrew Norton


Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.