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Australia, Canada, Mexico, And U.K. Universities Medians Report: Credit Metrics Remain Largely Stable Through Persistent Headwinds

S&P Global Ratings maintains ratings on 19 public universities in Australia, Canada, Mexico, and the U.K. under the scope of our "Methodology: Not-For-Profit Public And Private Colleges And Universities," published Jan. 6, 2016. The comparability of rating categories globally is enhanced through monitoring means and medians.

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Reasons For Optimism Emerge Although Pandemic Effects Could Be Felt For Years

Overall, enterprise and financial metrics remained fairly solid in 2020, as reflected in the stable ratings. Because fiscal year-ends differ among the countries in which we rate universities (Canada, April 30; the U.K., July 31; and Australia and Mexico, Dec. 31), the effects of the pandemic were not equally reflected in the fiscal 2020 results. Australia was the most significantly affected, given its stringent border closures, higher reliance on international students, and an academic year that began near the start of the pandemic. On the other hand, these factors had only a modest impact on Canadian universities in fiscal 2020 because most students were near the end of their academic year when the pandemic was declared in March 2020, and tuition revenue had already been collected. To date, international student enrollment has not declined as much as feared and, in many cases, has been partially offset by robust domestic demand leading to overall enrollment growth. The majority of non-U.S. universities that we rate continue to generate positive operating margins, as student-generated revenues, largely spurred by international student growth in recent years, have helped compensate for stagnant government transfers.

Continuing immunization efforts will help pave the way for a return to more normal social and economic activity levels, including in-person campus activities and student mobility. However, international student enrollment remains a key risk for many universities. For the most part, S&P Global Ratings expects the direct impacts of the pandemic will be concentrated in 2020 and 2021, but future performance will remain affected by shifting student demand trends. Management teams, which have generally demonstrated effective spending restraint and maintained balance-sheet resiliency, have helped universities weather the pandemic so far and mitigate the impact on operating margins and available resources.

We believe that all of the universities we rate outside of the U.S. will continue to experience some degree of pressure due to tightening government finances, elevated spending for health and safety and online course technology, still-recovering auxiliary revenue-generating activities, and a shifting student mix. While we expect that revenues will stabilize as, globally, campuses return to more normal operations in the next year, the continuing emergence of coronavirus variants and ongoing travel restrictions contribute to an uncertain recovery trajectory.

Rating Actions Reflect Regional Pressures

In June and July 2020, we revised the outlooks on two Australian universities--the University of Wollongong and the University of New South Wales--as well as the outlook on Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, in Mexico, to negative from stable, reflecting pandemic-related issues. In June 2021, we revised the outlook on Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla and on the University of Sheffield in the U.K. to stable from negative reflecting strong enrollment and able handling of pandemic-related spending pressures (the outlook on the University of Sheffield had been revised to negative in June 2018 due to weak financial performance). Our ratings and stable outlooks on all eight rated Canadian universities are unchanged in the past 12 months.

Chart 1

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Chart 2

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Table 1

Rating Transition Of Non-U.S. Not-For-Profit Public Universities (As Of June 18, 2021)
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 (YTD)
Australia

Australian National University

AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+

The University of Melbourne

AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+

The University of New South Wales

NR NR NR AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+

University of Wollongong

AA AA AA AA AA AA AA AA AA
Canada

University of British Columbia

AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+

University of Toronto

AA AA AA AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+

Queen's University

AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+ AA+

McMaster University

AA- AA- AA- AA AA AA AA AA AA

University of Western Ontario

AA AA AA AA AA AA AA AA AA

University of Guelph

A+ A+ A+ AA- AA- AA- AA AA AA

McGill University

AA- AA- AA- AA- AA- AA- AA- AA- AA-

York University

AA- AA- AA- A A+ A+ A+ A+ A+
U.K.

King's College London

AA AA AA AA- AA- AA- AA- AA- AA-

Lancaster University

AA AA AA AA- AA- AA- AA- A+ A+

University of Nottingham

AA- AA- AA- A+ A+ A+ A+ A+ A+

University of Sheffield

AA- AA- AA- A+ A+ A+ A+ A+ A+
Mexico

Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla

mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+

Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon

mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxAA- mxAA- mxAA-

Universidad Autonoma de Tamaulipas

NR mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+ mxA+
YTD--Year to date. NR--Not rated. Note: Mexican universities only make public their national scale ratings.

Enrollment And Key Demand Factors

Overall enrollment increased in 2020, with undergraduate students continuing to account for a high, albeit slowly declining, proportion of total enrollment, particularly at Mexican universities where they typically make up about 95% of the student body (see table 2). Rated Mexican universities experienced a very large increase in first-year applications, whereas growth was more moderate in other regions. (In Australia, applicants submit university and course preferences to a centralized admissions center and rarely apply directly to universities, so selectivity is not measured for these institutions.)

The median selectivity rate in 2020 was largely unchanged on the whole but was noticeably stronger among 'A' rated institutions and weaker among speculative-grade institutions, reflecting the large uptick in enrollment at rated Mexican universities. In 2020, the median first-year retention rate among public universities outside of the U.S. was stable at about 92%, which remains higher than that of U.S. peers.

Table 2

Selected Enrollment And Demand Ratios For Non-U.S. Not-For-Profit Public Universities, Fiscal 2020
AA* A Speculative-grade Sectorwide
Sample size 8 4 3 15
Total full-time equivalent enrollment
Median 32,685 30,568 81,771 33,221
Mean 40,085 31,436 84,204 46,602
First year application annual change (%)
Median 4.3 1.2 57.1 4.1
Mean 4.3 0.1 41.2 10.5
Selectivity rate (%)
Median 52.7 64.5 66.0 56.6
Mean 47.0 63.7 58.8 53.8
First year retention (%)
Median 92.5 93.4 83.7 92.5
Mean 92.7 93.5 83.6 90.8
Six-year graduation rate (%)
Median 81.8 87.0 20.0 81.8
Mean 82.6 88.5 28.4 71.5
Undergraduates as a % of total enrollment (%)
Median 77.4 69.1 95.2 78.2
Mean 76.7 70.7 95.2 78.8
*At the time of publication, ratings for Australian universities have not been updated to include fiscal 2020 data and they are therefore excluded from this dataset. ^Footnote explaining AUS universities not included.

S&P Global Ratings reviews demand dynamics when assessing a university's enterprise profile. A key concern during the pandemic has been the effect that travel restrictions might have on student demand and enrollment, particularly among international students, which have fueled operating margin growth in the past several years. While almost all our rated universities outside of the U.S. have seen robust domestic demand, Australian universities have experienced a notable drop in international students that could affect university revenues for several years to come.

Median enrollment has been fairly stable over the past several years (see chart 3) while the mix of undergraduate enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment varies across countries. It is highest at Mexican universities, typically about 95% of total enrollment, which see very high domestic demand, and lowest at rated Australian universities, partially reflecting the research intensity of these institutions

Chart 3

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Student retention and graduation rates at investment-grade-rated universities outside of the U.S. are typically quite high and compare positively with U.S. peers. At Mexican institutions, retention is quite strong although the median graduation rate was 20% in 2020, lower than that for speculative-grade-rated U.S. universities.

Financial Medians Point To Stable Performance In 2020, Although 2021 Should See Some Weakening

Financial performance was fairly stable overall in 2020, as operating margins were positive for the majority of non-U.S. rated institutions (see table 3). In recent years, the operating surpluses at Australian, Canadian, and U.K. universities have been spurred largely by growth in student-derived revenue, especially from international students, and despite plateauing government transfers. However, we expect some retraction in the next year or so because international student enrollment is depressed, revenue from auxiliary operations is recovering, and spending on enhanced health and safety measures remains elevated. Management teams have been tested during the pandemic and will continue to seek cost savings where possible, including the deferral of non-essential capital expenditures to preserve liquidity cushions.

Table 3

Selected Ratios For Non-U.S. Not-For-Profit Public Universities, Fiscal 2020
AA* A Speculative-grade** Sectorwide
Sample size 8 4 3 15
Financial Performance
Net adjusted operating margin (%)
Median 3.3 4.6 3.6 4.1
Mean 3.7 5.4 3.6 4.2
Revenue Diversity
Student-generated revenue (%)
Median 34.5 54.1 11.2 35.1
Mean 22.1 13.3 82.9 23.5
Government transfers to revenue (%)
Median 22.1 13.3 82.9 20.6
Mean 23.4 15.6 84.0 33.4
Available Resources Ratios
Cash and investments to operations (%)
Median 132.0 35.6 16.9 92.1
Mean 131.3 56.0 32.2 91.4
Cash and investments to debt (%)
Median 540.2 54.5 114.4 138.9
Mean 475.5 98.8 114.4 287.6
Available resources to operations (%)
Median 51.7 35.0 19.7 38.7
Mean 53.4 33.7 33.1 46.1
Available resources to debt (%)
Median 211.3 107.1 114.4 129.7
Mean 178.4 95.3 114.4 147.9
Debt
Total debt (mil. US$)
Sum 3,908 1,236 69 5,214
Median 288.6 328.2 69.1 268.7
Mean 488.6 309.0 69.1 347.6
Current maximum annual debt service burden (%)
Median 3.3 3.1 2.3 3.3
Mean 3.8 3.6 2.3 3.5
Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) Ratios
Total debt per FTE (US$)
Median 7,495.8 8,467.6 520.1 6,862.5
Mean 14,183.3 12,422.1 520.1 10,911.7
Government transfers per FTE (US$)
Median 6,833.9 4,182.2 2,708.7 6,106.9
Mean 7,633.8 4,088.2 2,708.7 5,896.5
*At the time of publication, ratings for Australian universities have not been updated to include fiscal 2020 data and they are therefore excluded from this dataset. ** Only the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon has long-term debt outstanding in this category; therefore, debt metrics reflect this entity only.

The proportion of total revenue from government transfers in 2020 was flat for institutions in the 'AA' and 'A' rating categories, while speculative-grade-rated universities increased their dependence on federal transfers, reflecting the Mexican government's support to increase domestic student enrollment (see chart 4).

Chart 4

image

Tuition from higher fee-paying international students has boosted student-generated revenues and largely made up for the overall trend of declining government support. Conversely to government transfers, the proportion of revenue from student fees is lowest for rated universities in Mexico.

Chart 5

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Financial Resources

The level of available financial resources was influenced by several factors in 2020 (see chart 6). For universities that issued debt or drew from their credit facilities, most of the proceeds have been held in cash and investments, either ahead of planned capital outflows or as a liquidity buffer against operating deficits. For rated Canadian universities, which tend to hold relatively large levels of available resources, investment losses that occurred near the beginning of the pandemic resulted in weak investment income and lower portfolio values at the end of the fiscal year. Given the market gains since then, we do not expect a material weakening in available resources in 2021.

Chart 6

image

We expect that universities will continue to limit expenditures and conserve cash in 2021 to counter heightened uncertainties, especially those in Australia, and to a lesser degree in Canada and the U.K., which in general depend more on international students and tuition revenue. Universities have already severely curtailed discretionary spending, both operating and capital, and pared back on-campus services. As campuses reopen, universities will need to bring these services back while maintaining spending discipline. We expect that universities will continue to invest in online technology, both to ensure seamless course delivery if restrictions remain in place and to leverage potential new revenue sources. Capital programs will eventually recommence to accommodate planned enrollment growth, address critical deferred maintenance, and ensure that campuses and facilities remain attractive to prospective students and faculty. These pressures will make effective liquidity management a key credit concern in the next several years.

Several Universities Issued Debt In 2020

Debt has remained considerably lower sectorwide than for U.S. peers and issuance among the rated universities outside of the U.S. has remained fairly modest in the past several years. There was a modest pickup in debt issuance in 2020, with the University of Wollongong in Australia issuing A$350 million of debt and two Canadian universities issuing C$225 million of debt in total. In the U.K., total debt outstanding at fiscal year-end 2020 was moderately higher for three of the four universities we rate as these institutions sought to strengthen their cash positions as a liquidity buffer against the lumpy nature of university cash flows. In Mexico, only the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon has long-term debt outstanding, which we assess as a moderate debt burden, and it has been decreasing since 2016.

We believe that continuing budget pressures and uncertainty over the recovery of some revenue sources could lead to additional borrowing in the next several years, especially absent material operating or capital support from governments.

Country Updates

Australia

In its May 2021 federal budget, the Australian government announced that its international borders will likely remain shut until mid-2022, more than two years since they were first closed in March 2020. Fortunately, the 5.1% drop in sectorwide international enrollments by year-end 2020 was not as severe as initially feared, in part because many foreign students proved willing to study remotely from their home countries (and continue paying tuition fees). Whether these trends continue in 2021 and 2022 is yet to be determined. Some students (particularly new starters, as opposed to those partway through a degree) may switch their preferences to competitor countries, such as the U.K. and Canada, if prospects for studying face-to-face in Australia continue to appear remote. Australia's vaccination rollout has been slower than that of northern hemisphere peers, though the country has been very successful in containing the domestic spread of the coronavirus.

Universities Australia, the industry's main representative body, estimates that sectorwide operating revenue fell A$1.8 billion (4.9%) year over year in 2020. It predicts the sector will lose a further A$2 billion (5.5%) in 2021. We think the forceful response by university managers to the pandemic has helped to protect their balance sheets, for now. Universities have been slashing headcount, renegotiating employment contracts, freezing new capital investment, closing unviable campuses or courses, tapping reserves or contingency funds, selling assets, and, in some cases, raising new debt. A majority of institutions (rated and not rated) managed to post operating surpluses in 2020, based on annual reports published so far.

Several institutions raised new debt, which we believe will erode rating headroom. University of Wollongong issued A$350 million in December 2020, the funds of which are needed in relation to a public-private partnership for a student residence that has become uneconomical because of the pandemic. Earlier in 2020, the University of New South Wales drew down A$250 million from bank facilities to shore up liquidity, although it later repaid A$200 million before the end of the year as enrollments turned out better than anticipated.

The Australian government has announced only minor direct financial relief, such as regulatory fee waivers, since the start of the pandemic. The most important announcement occurred in October 2020, when the Australian government offered a one-off A$1 billion in new research funding for the sector (research expenditure in Australia is implicitly cross-subsidized by surpluses from international student tuition fees, so the new A$1 billion only partially offsets the revenue loss). Public universities were also notably excluded from the federal government's JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme. Therefore, we might reassess the likelihood of extraordinary support that we assign to some Australian universities.

For domestic students, the Job-ready Graduates Package, which became law in late 2020, will raise the federal government's sectorwide funding to A$20 billion in 2024 from A$18 billion in 2020, creating up to 30,000 new places. But it also fine tunes the mix of tuition subsidies paid by the government and contributions paid by domestic students for certain courses, to make degrees less expensive in fields with purportedly better employment prospects. As a result, universities will earn less revenue on a per-student basis for domestic new starters from 2021 onward. A government transition fund will help offset the losses.

Some Australian states have provided direct or indirect financial support. Since the start of the pandemic, the governments of New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia have announced concessional loans or loan guarantee schemes for their universities. Several states have offered payroll tax deferrals and hardship grants for onshore foreign students. Victoria created a A$350 million fund for capital works and research. New South Wales is also actively working on a pilot program that could allow up to 250 international students to fly into Sydney every two weeks under special quarantine arrangements. The program could kick off in the second half of 2021. Its impact on individual universities will be marginal, but the program could help set the stage for increased international student enrollment 2022.

Canada

The 2020-2021 academic year in Canada was conducted almost entirely online with on-campus activities limited by lockdowns, physical distancing guidelines, and other public health measures put in place to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Institutions took a cautious approach in their budgets and enrollment targets, with many planning for a material hit to higher fee-paying international student numbers and consequently increasing their domestic offers. In fact, data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada showed that, as of Dec. 31, 2020, the number of international students holding Canadian study permits declined almost 17% from the previous year, with most of the decline concentrated among students from China and India, which represent the two largest markets for international students to Canada. Despite this decline, international student enrollment has more than tripled in the past decade.

However, the enrollment picture was varied across the country, with most of the rated Canadian universities, which represent well-regarded medium-to-large institutions, showing in some cases only modest declines in international enrollment and robust domestic undergraduate demand, helping to offset the revenue impact. On the other hand, a full year of higher health and safety expenditures, coupled with severely restricted activity in auxiliary revenue-generating activities (such as food and accommodation, parking, conferencing,), squeezed operating margins. Despite these pressures, generally strong balance sheets and healthy liquidity cushions have helped sustain ratings. In 2020, York University issued C$100 million and Queen's University issued C$125 million of debt; and in June 2021, McMaster University issued C$150 million; but in all cases the proceeds were to help finance planned capital expenditures rather than to shore up funds for operations.

After lagging many countries, Canada has recently ramped up its vaccination program: 75% of the eligible population over 12 years old has received at least one dose and more than 20% are fully vaccinated. This bodes well for the universities across the country, which are cautiously preparing for a return to normal campus activities in fall 2021, although risks related to the course of the pandemic remain. Preliminary domestic application data for Ontario, the most populous province in Canada and the location of six of the Canadian universities we rate, indicate some emerging trends that could be neutral-to-positive for rated institutions. Namely, larger institutions, especially those with strong health sciences programs, have seen their applications increase at the expense of smaller, more rural ones, and those with a higher focus on liberal arts programs. As well, many institutions have reported steady international applications, although confirmations have lagged somewhat, possibly reflecting some hesitancy to commit to what could be another disrupted year.

Provincial and federal government support throughout the pandemic has been largely focused on supporting businesses and individuals, including students, with only limited direct support for universities and colleges. Although some additional capital and research funding is expected in the next several years, these institutions have primarily had to rely on internal resources, discretionary expenditure constraint, and nimble management to oversee their operating and budgetary pressures. The universities that we rate in Canada tend to have relatively large pools of available resources, which leads us to believe they are well positioned to meet the financial challenges they face, at least in the medium term. If budget pressures remain elevated in the next year or so, because of protracted campus restrictions or shifts in demand trends resulting in materially lower international enrollment, the financial performance and liquidity of rated universities could weaken, putting universities at increasing risk of downgrades.

U.K.

The effects of the pandemic have been less severe than anticipated on our rated U.K. universities. Domestic and international student enrollment has outperformed forecasts as many students elected to attend university, albeit predominantly on a virtual basis, in spite of the pandemic. The cancellation of A-level examinations that are used to assess students' abilities against entry requirements led to an increased number of eligible domestic students and in turn further supported higher levels of enrollment for the year. The worst affected areas of operation for U.K. universities have been commercial and residential activities because lockdowns and travel restrictions have severely affected the number of students and staff on campus. Some institutions provided rebates to students for accommodation that was unoccupied due to lockdown restrictions, and other commercial activities, such as conferencing facilities, have remained dormant for more than 14 months. However, due to strong tuition fee revenues, government-support initiatives such as emergency loans and furlough schemes, and proactive cost control, we have not seen margins deteriorate to the extent expected when we published our median report in 2020.

Looking ahead to the 2021-2022 academic year, many universities are hopeful for a full return to campus for domestic students and significantly increased levels of international students travelling into the U.K. We anticipate that some travel restrictions could remain in place during the year and most universities will continue to embed digital technologies and practices alongside traditional methods of teaching to cater to as broad a pool of students as possible. U.K. universities are likely to maintain a competitive advantage for international students while Australia and the U.S. continue to observe stricter border controls. However, as the pandemic subsides and the vaccination roll-out reaches a critical mass, we see this temporary advantage normalizing in the medium term. For 2021, the U.K.'s formal exit from the European Union (EU) will result in increased enrollment because new EU students will be treated as international students, incurring significantly higher fees. EU students represent a relatively small proportion of the student base and, while we expect the higher fees will deter some students, there will likely be a partially compensatory effect on revenues from the smaller, more profitable cohort that does enroll.

The pre-emptive work to identify cost efficiencies carried out by many universities at the start of the pandemic should now provide improved cost flexibility should income pressures be greater than expected in 2021. The sector is also anticipating an increase in pension contributions to fund the recently revalued deficit from the multi-employer Universities Superannuation Scheme. We expect these increased costs will add pressure to universities' operating margins and have the potential to create some managerial and industrial relations challenges for the sector over the next 12 months. We believe that many universities will continue to exercise restraint over capital expenditure in the short term until the pandemic's influence on operating models is better known, and this will limit the need for significant debt raising. However, we expect more universities will choose sustainable financing as the primary approach for raising debt in the medium term as environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices continue to become commonplace.

We expect the U.K. government will publish its new policy on the future of higher education funding in fourth-quarter 2021, which could have a material impact on tuition fees and grant income in the sector.

Mexico

Despite a 9.5% contraction in the Mexican economy in 2020, regular government transfers to rated universities were not reduced compared with the expected funding at the beginning of the year, although they were essentially flat in real terms. Stagnated government funding, coupled with a marginal hit to universities' student-derived revenue, due to the transition of classes to online delivery and the shutdown of non-critical campus services during the pandemic, was partially offset by universities' efforts to rein in operating expenditures and reallocate resources. As a result, already weak operating margins did not deteriorate further. The revenues for the three Mexican universities we rate are highly reliant on federal and state transfers, which account for 80% of their total income on average, while student-derived revenue hovers at about 11%. This relatively low dependence on student revenue, and the lack of significant international student enrollment, mitigated the short-term impact of the pandemic on the universities' operating margins.

Enrollment levels did not fall in 2020 because Mexican public universities have become an affordable option for students that were in private universities before the pandemic. We expect that the lack of meaningful growth in government funding, coupled with pressure to meet the rising demand for a high-quality education, will remain a major challenge for Mexican public universities, as no additional grants are expected to offset increasing domestic demand for public university spaces, nor to provide financial relief. We expect government funding to remain flat in real terms over 2021-2022, while extraordinary transfers, mostly devoted to capital, will remain subdued, increasing medium-term pressure on infrastructure maintenance. In our view, the ability of rated universities to enhance their financial management policies and medium-term planning capacity remains critical if they are to avoid further slippages in financial performance. A federal initiative to remove tuition fees on Mexican states' public universities is still evolving and has not yet set a time frame nor the mechanisms that will be used to compensate the universities for the lost revenue. We will continue tracking how this initiative evolves and assess its impact on universities' creditworthiness.

Related Research

This report does not constitute a rating action.

Primary Credit Analyst:Adam J Gillespie, Toronto + 1 (416) 507 2565;
adam.gillespie@spglobal.com
Secondary Contacts:Martin J Foo, Melbourne + 61 3 9631 2016;
martin.foo@spglobal.com
Luke Linnell, London;
luke.linnell@spglobal.com
Omar A De la Torre Ponce De Leon, Mexico City + 52 55 5081 2870;
omar.delatorre@spglobal.com
Fernanda Nieto, Mexico City;
fernanda.nieto@spglobal.com
Research Assistant:Oliver Parker, Toronto
Additional Contacts:Noa Fux, London + 44 2071 760730;
noa.fux@spglobal.com
Rebecca Hrvatin, Melbourne + 61 3 9631 2123;
rebecca.hrvatin@spglobal.com
Nineta Zetea, Toronto + 1 (416) 507 2508;
nineta.zetea@spglobal.com

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