Taking the Pulse of the Nation

Informing Australian economic & social policy. A Melbourne Institute & Roy Morgan partnership

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Taking the Pulse of the Nation (TTPN) surveys the Australian population to capture their sentiments and behaviours related to current economic and social issues

Since 2020, the Taking the Pulse of the Nation (TTPN) survey has collected compelling information on the changing behaviours and attitudes of Australians. Together, Melbourne Institute and Roy Morgan understand the value in capturing the voices of Australians on the issues that matter right now. We use this information to create expert analyses to directly inform social and economic policies for our Nation.

This survey data is available subject to relevant fees and conditions. Please contact us for more information and access.

Higher education in Australia—a desired but costly investment

Getting a higher education degree brings many benefits. In Australia, personal benefits can include higher income, wealth, and a healthier lifestyle, alongside societal benefits such as an increased advocacy for environmental issues, and greater civic and voluntary engagement.

The May 2023 Taking the Pulse of the Nation (TTPN) survey reveals that most Australians aspire to attain higher education degrees, and those who get them almost never regret it. However, the significant costs involved lead people to seek various resources to finance their education, and paying off their student debt has a substantial impact on their lives.

Education is a lifelong learning goal for some

Current enrolment in further education is highest among 18 to 24-year-olds and declines as respondents get older (Figure 1). In contrast, plans for future enrolment in education are high even in the age groups 25-34 (41%) and 35-44 (39%). Interestingly, those with existing undergraduate and postgraduate degrees have the highest proportion of current or planned enrolment in further education.

Educational regret is lower for those with higher educational achievements

Among those who completed their formal education, more than two thirds (69%) indicate a university degree as their preferred level of education in retrospect (Figure 2a). Importantly, almost no one (5%) regrets having achieved at least the level they did (Figure 2b). However, many wish they would have studied further. 70% of those without a university degree would have preferred to have obtained a higher level of education than they did. Similarly, 42% of people with an undergraduate degree would have preferred to study further and obtain a postgraduate degree. In contrast, almost everybody (95%) with a postgraduate degree affirms their study choice in retrospect.

People finance their studies using a multitude of resources, especially younger cohorts

The most common way to finance education and training beyond Year 12 is borrowing from the government through programs like HELP (Higher Education Loan Program) or HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme) (37%), followed by own savings and financial resources (35%), earnings from working (28%), and financial assistance from parents or other family members (22%) (Figure 3). University graduates relied even more on these financial resources. Respondents aged 18 to 24—and thus those more likely to be still enrolled or have just finished a degree—are much more likely to fund their education by relying on their parents, their own earnings, scholarships, or borrowing, with 68% making use of the HELP or HECS programs.

Student-loan debt affects several major life decisions

Half of the respondents (50%) who borrowed to finance their education—mostly from the government through the HECS-HELP programs—indicate that borrowing affected important life decisions (Figure 4). Most impacted is the choice of living arrangements (32%), resulting in compromises like living with family or in shared housing despite a preference for living alone. Other decisions affected include the type of work undertaken (21%), family decisions (20%), and the choice of romantic partner (11%). For those with a postgraduate degree, the impact on these life decisions is amplified.

The vast majority of Australians aspire to obtain a higher education degree—and for good reason, given the benefits of higher education. Those who obtained a university degree do not regret it. However, it is a costly investment. Financial support from various sources is necessary for financing tertiary education and training, and educational loan programs that allow borrowing against future earnings still have downsides. For most borrowers, their student debt has affected major life decisions such as housing choices, career paths, and family planning. In addition, those still paying off their debt will surely see their options further restricted by the indexation of HECS-HELP debt to a 7.1% interest rate—the highest in decades—earlier this month.

This Taking the Pulse of the Nation insight was authored by Dr Sarah C. Dahmann, Research Fellow at the Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research, 30 June 2023.

*This report is based on data collected in May 2023 from adult respondents. Sample sizes vary depending on subpopulation and have been included under each figure.

**Undergraduate degree is defined as respondents indicating that the highest level of education they have reached is a "Degree from University or College of Advanced Education";  Postgraduate degree as the level being "Higher Degree or Higher Diploma (e.g., PhD, Masters)"; and No university degree as all other levels (which includes those currently enrolled in university).

***Beginning in April 2020, the Taking the Pulse of the Nation (TTPN) was conceptualised and implemented by a group of researchers at the Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research. Each wave includes a set of core questions, as well as additional questions that address current and emerging issues facing Australians. The TTPN sample is stratified to reflect the Australian adult population in terms of age, gender, and location. In 2022, the Melbourne Institute and Roy Morgan formed a partnership to extend the running of the TTPN. The TTPN Survey uses a repeated cross-sectional design. If you are interested in adding questions to the survey or accessing the data, please contact us at: melb-inst@unimelb.edu.au.

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