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A low target: enrolling poor uni students remains a challenge

According to the Federal Government, Australian public universities need to be more inclusive, particularly when it comes to enrolling poorer students. They’ve set a target to have 20% of undergraduate…

Despite a government target, students from poor backgrounds risk being left out of higher education. University student image from www.shutterstock.com

According to the Federal Government, Australian public universities need to be more inclusive, particularly when it comes to enrolling poorer students.

They’ve set a target to have 20% of undergraduate students enrolled in our universities from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds by the year 2020. There’s much to be said about the goal and its effects for universities and students. But first, let’s look at how our institutions are doing.

Moral and practical

The government’s target contains both moral and pragmatic elements. Morally, any public education system that benefits wealthier students more than others is, arguably, unfair. But pragmatically, there is a positive link between education and improved health and economic outcomes. There is also evidence a good education reduces negative outcomes such as crime.

In other words, the benefit of a university education goes not only to the individual, but society at large.

Since the higher education expansion under the Dawkins revolution, low-SES enrolments in Australian public universities have averaged around 15%.

In a perfect world (at least, mathematically), it would be 25%, in order to match the percentage of low-SES students in the general population.

A numbers game

The most recent figures show that in 2011, 15.7% of students in our public universities were low-SES. This is up from 15.0% in 2008, when the policy pressure started.

On the one hand, it’s a very small increase. On the other hand, it’s the highest it has ever been.

Currently, only 13 out of 37 public universities are above the 20% target (Batchelor Institute has been excluded from this analysis, because its small size skews the data). Central Queensland University tops the list at 45.4% and the Australian National University is at the other end with only 4.0%.

Over the last four years, the most significant improvement has come from Charles Darwin University, which has increased its percentage of low-SES enrolments from 12.6% to 17.8%. The University of Sydney has done the worst, going backwards by 0.3%.

However, most of the heavy lifting of low-SES enrolments continues to be done by regional universities. The more elite universities remain as inaccessible as they have always been. Low-SES enrolments in the Group of Eight (Go8) universities averaged 8.7% in 2011. This was actually worse than in 2007, when Julia Gillard (then the Minister for Education) started talking about a review.

Increasing low-SES enrolments

Admission into undergraduate courses is highly competitive, so universities need to have specific strategies to increase low-SES student enrolments. Broadly speaking, there are three approaches. The first, and most effective, would be to provide a quota for disadvantaged students but universities could see this as compromising entry standards.

A second option is to use use compensatory scaling. For example, the University of Sydney has its Broadway Scheme, which allows applicants to compete for admission with an ATAR of up to five rank points below the course cut-off or equivalent if applicants can demonstrate “long-term educational disadvantage”. But the performance of universities using this method suggests that either poor students do not qualify for the schemes, or if they do, then the compensation provided is still insufficient.

Finally, universities could consider each claim on a case-by-case basis. In fact many universities already do this but the process is naturally highly subjective and, based on the current data, does not appear to be working.

Is there a better way?

Education expert, Gavin Moodie has observed that universities are quick to point out that educational inequality happens well before they get involved, but are less quick to be part of the solution.

One way for universities - particularly the elite ones - to make a difference is to start working with disadvantaged students and their parents at a much younger age. Above all, this will help nurture their aspirations to go to university.

In the meantime, universities will continue to be driven by more direct measures, most notably money. Since 2010, low-SES student enrolments have attracted a loading the government pays the university to support students.

However, the evidence to date suggests that the extra money is not encouraging significant change. And in the current economic climate, the government will find it harder to continue to provide (let alone increase) the financial incentive.

A market mechanism

Instead of providing additional money, the government could redirect the current funding via a market mechanism, much like its fixed-price carbon trading scheme. This would allow the government to set a more realistic (i.e. higher) price to support each low-SES student enrolled without necessarily having to increase funding.

Essentially, those universities under the 20% target would have to “buy” students (virtually speaking) from those above it.

In the short term, this would mean those universities doing the right thing will be significantly rewarded, at the expense of those who are not. And in the longer term - if the cost of trading students is sufficiently high - universities might just find it cheaper to nurture disadvantaged students themselves.

This could help us avoid an Orwellian future in which all Australian universities were inclusive… just some more inclusive than others.

Join the conversation

19 Comments sorted by

  1. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Despite obvious bias - I currently work at the ANU - I would like to point out that there are two sides to the Low-SES performance of universities. There is the rate of admission of low-SES students which is, at least in part, an artefact of university admission policies, including ATARs, scholarships etc. Then there is student preference: e.g. many Go8 universities are in high cost centres and at a significant distance form low-SES domiciles. On the first point, there is also a cost to accepting…

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    1. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      Sorry Tim, I forgot to say that it was a good article (thought provoking) on an important topic.

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    2. Tim Pitman
      Tim Pitman is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      Thanks Dennis and if I could re-write the article again, I'd add "...is part of the answer". Working as I do at another underperforming university (in this respect) it is clear that the fear of losing reputation by enrolling 'lower quality' students greatly outweighs the money on offer. Of course they're not lower quality, but our systems of selection and assessment bias too many of us to think that way. If universities don't want to change the way in which they assess the quality of applicants, then they need to do more to academically and aspirationally support disadvantaged students. An economic trigger might just be part of solution.

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  2. Judith Olney

    Ms

    I suspect that for students from a low SES background, it is not the cost of university study, (with HELP and HECS this is greatly helped), but the cost of actually being able to live while studying, that is a big barrier.

    With Austudy being much lower than the Newstart payment there is little incentive to study for a better future employment outcome for many. For many low SES students, without parents to support them financially, they need to have work as well as full time study, in order to…

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    1. Tim Pitman
      Tim Pitman is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University

      In reply to Judith Olney

      I agree Judith, location and mode of learning have got to be crucial factors. But I believe (too) many disadvantaged students discard university at too early an age, for a variety of reasons. This is why I would like to see unis doing more to encourage them from a much earlier age. This is an interesting article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20330187 and I think reinfroces how aspiration, confidence can be supported better by universities.

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    2. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Judith Olney

      Thank you for your reply Tim, and the article. I think that encouraging students at a young age to aspire to a university education is great, but if the practical needs of disadvantaged students are not addressed, it will not make an appreciable difference.

      As an example, my friends son, an exceptional student throughout primary and high school, wanted to attend a university in the city, (we are 800kms from the city), to do a science degree that was only available on campus because of the nature…

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  3. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    “Low-SES enrolments in the Group of Eight (Go8) universities averaged 8.7% in 2011. This was actually worse than in 2007, when Julia Gillard (then the Minister for Education) started talking about a review.”

    One can only feel for the Group of Eight. They definitely need more taxpayer funding to help lift low-SES people out of poverty.

    But they are not going to get more money.

    What will they do?

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  4. Craig Minns

    Self-employed

    I applaud the idea of providing some form of support for low-SES students, but I have a couple of caveats. Firstly, not all education is created equal. I can't see a lot of point in inducing poorer students to do courses that are unlikely to yield useful employability as a direct outcome of having the qualification. We already have a glut of some degrees and training a whole new crop of people in those courses at public expense seems wasteful of time, money and the potential of the trainees.

    Secondly…

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    1. Tim Pitman
      Tim Pitman is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University

      In reply to Craig Minns

      I'd like to challenge what I believe are two mis-assumptions here, Craig. One is that rich students all choose courses that lead to worthwhile employability when clearly they don't. Or are you arguing that rich students have the right to choose personal over professional development and poor students do not? The second is that 'single mothers in their 30s and 40s' are primarily motivated to do 'vanity courses... to increase their entitlement' when they are not. Employability aside, people choose to re-engage with lifelong learning for a variety of positive and beneficial reasons including personal development, confidence and social integration to name a few. As I pointed out in the article, all of these lead to improved heath and social outcomes for society as a whole, which, inter alia, reduces socio-economic cost to the state, addressing your utilitarian concerns.

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    2. Craig Minns

      Self-employed

      In reply to Craig Minns

      Hi Tim,
      Yes, I think those who can afford to pay their own way do have some right to choose courses as they wish. It's their money to waste, after all and if they don't want to do courses that will make them employable it's their right, surely?

      On the other hand, the main objective of encouraging low SES students is to give them skills that will enable them to lift their standard of living, wouldn't you agree?

      I'm sure that all of the reasons you give for single mothers returning to study…

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    3. Tim Pitman
      Tim Pitman is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University

      In reply to Craig Minns

      Hi Craig

      Thanks for your reply, you raise some interesting points. A clarification on my earlier response: the low-SES target set by the Government relates to domestic (e.g. Australian) undergraduate places. These are all subsidised by the Government i.e. everyone gets a discount regardless of socio-economic status, hence my observation that any restriction placed on poor students as to what type of course they enrolled in would be demonstrably unequal.

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  5. janet kossy

    logged in via email @optusnet.com.au

    There is no mention here of the role TAFE plays as an entry point to higher education for low SES students. I believe this pathway is significant, especially for mature age students. What will be the impact of the dismantling of the TAFE system which is underway across the country?

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    1. Tim Pitman
      Tim Pitman is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University

      In reply to janet kossy

      Agreed Janet, unfortunately there is only so much that can be covered in one article. If NSW follows Victoria in dismantling the TAFE sector, standards may well be compromised. Furthermore, providers might preference popular training courses over those where there is a skill shortage or indeed where one is projected in a few years. A state-run TAFE can afford to be more long term in its strategic thinking.

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  6. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    Universities' performance in enrolling students from a low socio economic status background is related partly to their location. Most rural areas have a low socio economic status so universities which recruit mostly rural students tend to have a higher proportion of students from a low socio economic status background. The ANU is in Canberra which has mostly high and medium socio economic status. On the other hand, the ANU is meant to recruit nationally.

    The number of domestic undergraduate…

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    1. Tim Pitman
      Tim Pitman is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Thanks Gavin. One of the elephants in the room is the current focus on quality.Rightly or wrongly, the majority of key people in the majority of universities see equity-quality as zero-sum i.e. as one increases the other decreases. Until this perception is empirically challenged or refuted, universities will continue to struggle to juggle the two policy issues.

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  7. Joanna Mendelssohn

    Program Director, Art Administration, School of Art History and Art Education. Editor in Chief, Design and Art of Australia Online at UNSW Australia

    It's not just the lack of financial support, it is also that students from low SES backgrounds don't know 'the rules of the game', the unspoken conventions that help (or hinder) academic careers. But there's also a bit of pride involved for people in late adolescence in admitting to needing extra help. What is needed is a combination of appropriate financial support, so that poor students aren't trying to do full time study while working full time as waiters and bar tenders, and also an active mentoring program for undergraduates that doesn't single out the disadvantaged. Double the current student allowance would be about right.

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    1. Tim Pitman
      Tim Pitman is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University

      In reply to Joanna Mendelssohn

      I think we need to do more to learn from those 'miarculous exceptions' (apologies to Bourdieu) who beat the odds and succeed brilliantly in HE, despite their disadvanatged background. At one end of the ideolgical continuum we have people saying this proves that merit is blind to class. At the other, we have those who prove that they are just proof that the exception proves the rule. I think it's more complicated than that and we could do worse than go to the source to find some answers. Lew Zipin, Marie Brennan, Trevor Gale and Sam Sellar are doimg some really interesting work studying the aspirations of students in a disadvantaged area and I'm looking forward to their findings.

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  8. Neil James

    Executive Director, Australia Defence Association

    Its worth noting that last year's HREOC report (led by Elizabeth Broderick) into the operation of the Australian Defence Force Academy (a college of UNSW academically) noted that ADFA had by far the highest percentage of students from families where the student was the first member to ever go to university.

    There are obviously several reasons for this.

    First, ADFA offers a career, not just qualifications or an education.

    Second, our defence force overall is more of meritocracy than most…

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    1. Tim Pitman
      Tim Pitman is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University

      In reply to Neil James

      Thanks Neil, very interesting perspective. I wonder though if public universities might struggle to re-create the culture of the ADFA, given its specific mission and screening (sorry if that is not the right word) of applicants. Above all, your organisation's approach demonstrates that the notion of 'merit' is a fluid term and can and is interpreted according to organisational need.

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