Does equality come at the cost of quality in universities? Let’s look at the evidence

Australia has had a grand experiment in providing greater university access to disadvantaged students. University graduates from

With a new leader at the helm, a new higher education minister and an election not too far away, university policy seems to be up in the air.

Since starting his new portfolio, minister Kim Carr has floated some serious changes to higher education. This has sparked a debate about whether we have to chose between equality and maintaining the quality of Australian universities. Many in university circles are arguing that you can’t have extra disadvantaged students, who tend to have lesser academic abilities, without affecting the quality of what universities teach.

It’s a debate that looks set to continue on into the tenure of a new government, as politicians look to steer a course between shifting economic pressures and the sector’s diverging opinions.

But does this argument hold up? Before changing the current policy direction, we should examine just how it is travelling.

Let the data tell the story

Take diversification of the student body, for starters. Data released recently by Senator Carr’s department revealed that in 2012 commencing students from low SES backgrounds made up a higher proportion of the total number of commencements than ever before – 16.9%, with an increase in numbers of 9.1% on 2011, and of 13.3% since universities were allowed to increase their student numbers in 2010.

Importantly, this upward trend makes the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education target of 20% of students from low SES backgrounds by 2020 achievable.

The proportion of commencing Indigenous students and students with disabilities also increased. Total numbers rose by 8.2% for Indigenous students, and for those with disabilities by 15.5%.

This data tells a story of a nation making good on its commitment of a fair go for all. Rather than allowing talent to remain locked out because of structural disadvantage, it shows our determination to build a national economy that mobilises the natural talent of its entire population.

There is, of course, much more work to be done. But such evidence is cause for celebration. Especially when you consider the direct impact on the lives of those students, their families and communities who would otherwise not have been participants in higher education.

Quality measures

But does this gain in greater equality come at the expense of quality?

Evidence from all three of the major international ranking schemes suggests that the Australian higher education sector in 2013 is more globally competitive than it has ever been. In the latest Times Higher Education (THE) rankings, for instance, Australia moved ahead of Germany and Japan. With six universities in the top 100 Australia now sits third behind the US and the UK.

Those concerned with declining standards might also note that of the 19 Australian universities in the top 400, all have recorded higher scores for teaching in the last two years (which includes an indicator of student success). The QS World University rankings top 500 now includes 26 Australian universities, up from 23 in 2008. In the 2008 Shanghai rankings, Australia had 3 institutions in the top 100 and 15 institutions in the top 500 universities. In 2012, this had risen to 6 in the top 100, and 19 in the top 500.

A closer examination of the new entries on these rankings further challenges the claim that equity comes at the cost of quality. According to government data, in 2012 total enrolments of students from low SES backgrounds at two new entrants on the rankings - Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Canberra - was up 141% on 2008 figures. Even accounting for expansion of overall numbers, the proportion of the commencing students from low SES backgrounds in the same period at both institutions rose considerably (25% for Canberra and 17% more for Swinburne)

Australia is also doing exceptionally well in the new rankings systems of universities under fifty years old. With 13 institutions in the top 100 under fifty, Australia comes second only to the UK in the THE rankings. THE editor Phil Baty suggested this proved that Australia is meeting “exacting international standards” and evidences “the quality in the system”.

Of course, rankings can be somewhat of a blunt instrument. But other evidence, like graduate surveys, also suggest Australian graduates are increasingly satisfied with the quality of their studies. Between 2009 and 2012, for instance, respondents to the national Graduate Course Experience survey registered an increase in agreement against all 49 questions measuring satisfaction or perceived course quality. This is solid evidence of student perceptions. In 2012 the response rate of 53.9% (129,545 students) was the highest in more than a decade.

And there is other evidence which shows Australian universities, in their broader role in society, are also doing well.

In 2008 the Lisbon Council placed Australia at the top of a league assessing the quality of national higher education systems against a range of criteria that included inclusiveness, effectiveness and suitability of the system for the national labour market.

Evidence base

Such evidence should guide us when we look at the higher education system and its institutions. That the global competitiveness of Australian universities has risen suggests that we’re on the right track.

It also suggests that we should be careful about claims that quality and standards are lower because entry scores (and thus standards) have slipped.

After all, universities are the engines of transformation in our society, realising and directing the potential of students. So shouldn’t it be what students can do after they finish university that counts, not what they can do when they start? Shouldn’t we be careful about over-relying on crude indicators of past academic performance, like students’ entrance scores for example, particularly when these have been affected by disadvantage?

Before we rush to solve problems that may not actually exist, we need to use evidence to reflect on the merits and successes of current policy commitments – and the positive impacts it has made in the everyday lives of Australians.