Showing posts with label contingent loans. Show all posts
Showing posts with label contingent loans. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Why I don't feel sorry for fee-paying students

I have my heroes among leading American economists and psychologists, some of whom I know. One I don't is Alan Blinder. But when he wrote a book called Hard Heads, Soft Hearts, I knew I'd found my guiding star as an economics writer.

There are plenty of lovely souls whose heart bleeds freely for all manner of people who want us to believe they're being treated badly.

But hanging around with economists has left me imbued with the harsh reality of opportunity cost, my version of which says you can have anything you want, but you can't have everything you want. So be careful deciding.

The hard-headed truth is, feeling sorry for almost everyone is little different from feeling sorry for no one. I have only so much compassion to go around.

So, sorry, but among all the people claiming to have been hard done by in this month's budget, I don't have much sympathy to spare for the university students complaining about the increase in their debts.

By contrast, I have much sympathy for all those unemployed people hoping and searching for jobs that don't exist – unless, of course, the government's own figures for job vacancies are grossly understated.

Had industrial fate not intervened to prevent me attending my 43rd successive budget lock-up, I planned to wear my jumbo size JOB HUNTER NOT DOLE BLUDGER T-shirt, put up to it by friends at the admirable Brotherhood of St Laurence.

How prescient that would have been. The budget turned out to include an attempt to traduce the reputation of all job hunters by launching the government's umpteenth Crackdown on the Crackdown on all those "leaners" who lounge about taking drugs when they should be out pounding the pavement.

Did you know that some people are being given the dole before any savings they have are completely exhausted? It's an outrage on us upright citizens, groaning under the weight of massive taxation.

Isn't Centrelink bright enough to understand that forcing the jobless to go cap in hand to the Salvos whenever some large and unexpected expense occurs is part of their punishment?

Not content with cracking down on the unemployed, this budget cracks down on those lazy loafers at Centrelink. Do you realise there are days that pass without people on benefits being harassed in some way?

Do you realise that older people, some just a few years from pension age, aren't hassled nearly as much as young people are? It's wrong, it's discriminatory, and the ironically named Christian Porter and his hardworking sidekick Alan Tudge are just the punishers and straighteners we can trust to stamp it out.

I don't understand those two. Do they enjoy beating up the poor, or is it a hateful job they must do to keep their jobs in the ministry, to gratify all those pathetic voters desperate to feel morally superior to someone?

Nor do I get Malcolm Turnbull. He produces a surprisingly good budget intended to convince us he's not the pale imitation of Tony Abbott we thought he'd become, that the Coalition is committed to fairness after all, but can't resist adding the most lurid attempt to stigmatise anyone of workforce age who can't find a job.

Is Turnbull that much in fear of losing votes to the Redheaded One? Malcolm, you're a rich man, you don't have to sink so low.

(But let's not have too much righteous indignation from the Laborites. They're the crowd who went for six years without affording a significant discretionary increase in our pathetically low unemployment benefits. Perhaps they had to spend too much trying to prove they could punish asylum seekers with just as much relish as the Liberals.)

Back to the revolting uni students. You'd never know it from their cries of woe, but Education Minister Simon Birmingham has thrashed them with a pillow.

Their tuition fees – and hence their debts to the government - are being increased by just 7.5 per cent on top of indexation to consumer prices, spread over three years. When fully implemented, this will increase total fees for a four-year degree by between $2000 and $3600 – with that range roughly aligned with the likely earning-power of the particular degree.

We keep being told that the level of income at which people with debts begin having to start repaying them has been lowered from $52,000 a year to $42,000. What we're rarely told is that the bottom rate of repayment has been lowered from 4 per cent of their income to 1 per cent.

Combining the two changes, the time it takes to repay loans will increase by less than a year.

Uni students come mainly from the comfortable middle class and go to uni to get a certificate that pretty much guarantees them a well-paying job, including a much lower risk of becoming unemployed or staying jobless for long.

It's true the wider public benefits from the money governments spend educating people to graduate level, but equally true that the personal benefits to the particular graduate are about as great.

On average, Birmingham's changes will increase the graduate's share of the cost of their degree from 42 per cent to 46 per cent – and, thanks to the unchanged design of the loan scheme, do so without discouraging students from poor families from bettering themselves.

Sounds fair enough to me.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Uni 'deregulation' not what it's claimed to be

The greatest economic puzzle in the budget is Tony Abbott's intention to "deregulate" university fees in 2016. There's a lot more to it than many people imagine.

Punters who make no profession of understanding economics think fees will skyrocket. Advocates of the change, who think they know more than the punters, say increases will be constrained by competitive pressure.

The more economics you know, the less certain you can be about how things will turn out. But you can make a pretty persuasive case that, for once, the punters may be closer to the truth than the advocates.

Abbott and his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, plan two main changes: the deregulation of fees and changes to the HECS loan scheme. I'll leave the loan changes for another day and focus on the fee changes.

At the same time as it permits unis to set their own fees for undergraduate courses, the government will cut its contribution towards the cost of courses by an amount that averages 20 per cent. It will then reduce the annual indexation of its contribution, switching to the consumer price index, which doesn't rise as fast as the unis' wages and other costs.

So the government's primary motivation is clearly to shift more of the cost of universities from itself and onto students. The 20 per cent cut will give the unis an immediate and pressing reason to use their new freedom to increase the fees they charge, and the less-generous indexation will maintain the pressure for further increases.

Even so, the man who recommended that unis be allowed to set their own fees, Andrew Norton, is confident the initial increase will be no more than $6000 a year, taking annual fees to between $12,000 and $16,000, depending on the course.

The government is confident its changes will increase competition between the unis, leading to greater diversity, innovation and quality, and giving us "a world-leading higher education and resource system".

The simple model of how markets work taught in introductory economics courses leaves may people with excessive faith in the ability of market competition to foster increased efficiency, constrain price increases and ensure customers get high quality.

Its promises are based on a host of limiting assumptions, which usually don't apply. It assumes a very large number of small firms selling a homogeneous product to buyers with "perfect knowledge" of the quality and other characteristics of what they're buying.

In the tertiary education "market", however, we have a relatively small number of large and larger organisations, selling differentiated products of uncertain quality. We have oligopoly rather than "perfect competition".

We know oligopolists compete, but usually try to avoid competing on price rather than marketing. They have a degree of pricing power and their competition takes the form of "rivalry" - focusing on the behaviour of competitors rather than the needs of customers.

It's misleading to describe giving unis freedom to set their own fees as "deregulation". Indeed, it's silly to imagine higher education is anything like a market. It's "firms" are owned by the state governments and highly regulated by the federal government. All its courses still have to be accredited by the feds which, they claim, guarantees that quality standards won't fall.

Even the unis' freedom to raise their fees - which the next government could reverse - comes with a string attached: fees charged to local students may not exceed those charged to overseas students.

There's no profit motive. And, as any academic will tell you, unis are highly inefficient, bureaucratic organisations dominated by administrators.

The safest prediction is that giving unis greater revenue-raising ability will lead to them employing more administrators.

How can uni fees be regarded as a "price" in the textbook sense when people are lent the money to pay the price under a concessional loan they won't have to repay for years?

In effect, universities have a government-regulated monopoly over a product that gives young people access to the country's highly paid jobs. What will they do when the price jumps - abandon all ambition? Demand seems highly "price inelastic" - unresponsive to price changes.

Our unis are protected from import competition by the high fees other countries charge foreign students. Within Australia, unis enjoy a degree of geographic monopoly. Sydney and Melbourne unis don't really compete for students. Living costs can be high if you move to a regional uni.

The sandstone unis will be able to charge a premium that reflects their higher status, more central locations and lovely campuses. In a normal market, other unis would charge less than the big boys.

The simple model assumes consumers ensure prices reflect differences in quality. But where it's hard to judge the quality of a product before you try it, many people reverse the causation and assume the higher the price, the higher the quality. This gives lower-quality producers an incentive to charge high prices.

In the early noughties, the Howard government allowed unis to raise their fees by 25 per cent. One small uni decided not to do so. It found its applications from new students actually fell. So the following year it put its fees up like all the others and its applications recovered.

In Britain, the Cameron government allowed unis to raise the 3000 pound annual fee they charged local students up to a limit represented by the 9000 pound fee charged to foreign students. Almost all of them took the opportunity to raise their fees to the maximum allowed. Applications dropped by 9 per cent in the first year, but rose in subsequent years.

On the basis of all this, my guess is the sandstone unis will raise their fees a long way and the less reputed unis won't be far behind them. Their notion of competition will be to make sure no one imagines a lesser fee than the big boys is a sign of their lesser quality.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Let's mine bright ideas and stop being shrinking violets

When it comes to matters economic, the cultural cringe is alive and well. Australians lack confidence in ourselves and our own inventiveness. We see our country's rightful place as a follower of international trends, never a leader of them. We seek the approval of foreigners and fear their disapprobation.

One of the favourite Australian laments is the story about some wonderful new invention that local bankers or businessmen lacked the either the wit or the courage to take up, thus forcing the inventor to take his idea abroad for development and losing for Australia all the profits that could have flowed.

We've heard such stories so many times most of us hold this view of Australia as an article of faith. A related belief - so deeply held it's impervious to contrary evidence - is that we suffer a terrible Brain Drain as our brightest young scientists and professionals move abroad in search of the opportunities we deny them.

These narratives may seem to contradict my case: we know full well how valuable our inventions and young people are, how happy the rest of the world is to take them off our hands. At another level, however, they reveal our cringe: trust us Aussies to keep stuffing up.

They also reveal our protectionist predilections: good things should be kept at home, which is the only way they can benefit us. To let them leave is to lose.

There was a time when Australia was happy to do things its own way for its own reasons. What the rest of the world thought we neither knew nor cared. But some of the things we pioneered were copied by others and when we learnt of it we were proud.

Australia (and our Tasman cousins) led the world in electoral reform. In 1856 we began introducing the secret ballot. When the rest of the world began copying us, it became known as the "Australian ballot".

The Kiwis pioneered votes for women in 1893, South Australia followed in 1894. Again, the rest of the world followed.

Our use of compulsory voting hasn't caught on elsewhere, but why should we care? We don't. But as the Brits consider abandoning their first-past-the-post voting system, some are saying they should switch to "the Australian system" of preferential voting.

But all those intellectual inventions were a long time ago. It's more recently that we seem to have acquired our self-doubt, our suspicion that if we're leading the world on something we're sticking our neck out and have probably got it wrong. Our desire to be a trend follower, never a trend setter.

You see that in a common attitude to the plan for an emissions trading scheme. Why should we be the first? (We wouldn't have been, but let it pass.) What about the big boys? What are they doing? Wouldn't it be safer to wait until everyone else has moved?

Admittedly, this is not a case where what the rest of the world does doesn't matter. Only concerted international action will succeed in lowering global emissions. Even so, a self-confident nation would have seen the advantages of being among the first to take the plunge. The sooner we make a start, the lower the ultimate cost of making the transition to a low-carbon world.

And since Australia has a lot to lose from climate change, why don't we try to break the stand-off, set the others a good example and press them to join us? Aren't the stakes high enough to justify taking a bit of a risk?

All these were Kevin Rudd's arguments until his failure of leadership. Now he has succumbed to the national timidity and joined the Poor Little Australia party, waiting for the world to determine our fate.

In their fight to avoid paying more tax, the big mining companies are seeking to play on our self-doubts. No other country has such a resource tax, they claim, and nowhere else are they required to pay so much. If Australia persists with this weird tax they'll cancel their projects and take their money elsewhere.

Oh dear, don't desert us. Please!

Know what their problem is? Australia, being one of the world's leading mining nations, is a world leader in designing taxes that increase the public's take without discouraging mining activity or otherwise damaging the economy.

The resource super-profits tax is a state-of-the-art tax, designed by our leading economists not to do all the bad things it's being accused of. It's a close relative of an earlier Australian invention, the resource rent tax, developed by Professor Ross Garnaut and others at the Australian National University.

The big international mining companies are fighting it partly because they fear that, once its success has been demonstrated, it will be copied by other countries. And they're fighting it by trying to press our cringe button: if no one else is doing it, it must be a dumb thing to do.

The miners are right to fear the tax will be adopted by other countries because that's just what's happened to that other great invention of Australian economists, the "income-contingent loan" (known to you as HECS, the higher education contribution scheme). This one was invented by Professor Bruce Chapman, also of the ANU.

We cringers think of Australia as a small country that carries no weight in the world. But the world's big companies see us as a potential setter of dangerous precedents. Whenever we decide to do something novel that could impinge on their profits, they quietly assist their local colleagues in trying to dissuade us.

The world's tobacco companies are still trying to prevent us preceding with our path-breaking move to plain cigarette packaging. When the Reserve Bank moved to end the banks' ban on shopkeepers charging a fee to people paying by credit card, the two international card companies were most agitated.

Turns out the world has more faith in Australian innovations than we do.