Student enrolment boom seen in Australian census ‘already gone’

While Covid may have ushered record numbers of Australians to university, a chipper labour market is luring them away again

June 29, 2022
Hand bursting a balloon
Source: iStock/BrianAJackson

Domestic higher education enrolments in Australia reached an all-time high last year, the country’s 18th national census has revealed – but enrolments have tumbled since as a buoyant labour market offers an irresistible alternative to study.

More than 1.185 million Australians were attending universities and other higher education institutions when the census was taken on 10 August last year, according to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) on 28 June.

Student numbers had swelled by more than 50,000 since 2020 and by almost 100,000 over the two years of the pandemic, comparisons with Education Department figures show.

However, ABS labour force figures released last week suggest that these gains have already been erased, with the number of adults undertaking full-time tertiary education plummeting by more than 180,000 since last August – including 100,000 between February and May this year – to the lowest level since early 2017.

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton cautioned that the labour force data, which are based on a rolling survey of some 50,000 Australians, were “subject to sampling issues”. But the figures accord with signs early this year that domestic university enrolments were crashing as job opportunities soared.

Professor Norton told the Australian Financial Review that multiple data sources were now painting a picture of school-leavers eschewing further study. Education Department figures showed that money outlaid on student loans had declined by 4 per cent this year, while the number of people receiving Youth Allowance income support had dropped by 19 per cent over the 12 months to May.

Online research trends revealed a similar story, with search volumes for terms such as “university entry” now at their lowest levels in about a decade after having spiked in the early months of the pandemic.

Professor Norton said there were numerous possible explanations for the declining interest in tertiary study, but an increase of almost 120,000 in the ranks of Australians with full-time jobs “must be part of the story”.

The figures add weight to university administrators’ claims that they still face considerable financial challenges, even though many institutions posted extraordinarily large surpluses last year. Of the 30 publicly funded universities that have released their institutional accounts so far, all but one attracted extra federal government funding that in some cases boosted their coffers by more than A$100 million (£57 million).

The latest institution to publish its accounts, the University of New England (UNE), managed to convert a A$16 million deficit in 2020 to a A$103 million surplus in 2021. While this was largely due to an investment windfall, UNE also attracted an extra A$16 million in teaching grants that could be at risk if student numbers decline.

The census figures also show that a creeping feminisation of higher education enrolments was checked during the pandemic, at least temporarily, with men representing about 42 per cent of enrolments on census night – up from about 40 per cent the previous year. More than 44 per cent of higher education students were aged over 24.

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