How universities can redress inequality

Universities need to take major steps to redress inequality through access to education and work. AAP/Julian Smith

In this second article of a two-part series on inequality and university education in Australia, University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor Stephen Parker argues that rather than redress inequality, universities actually exacerbate it. You can read part one here. Part two proposes 10 ways universities can fix the problem.

  • Can the ATAR

To expect a single index to capture a person’s achievement to date and their potential for a particular course of study is simplistic and reductionist.

The ATAR is a gift to the media, enabling it to portray nuanced admission methods as hypocritical discounting, and persistently confusing a rank with a mark.

The ATAR could also become a real barrier to social mobility. If school attainment improves because the school system does, we would still have rank ordering and the pernicious optics of ATAR will make it hard for a university to admit a student with, say, an ATAR of 50 even though that student is much better educated than one with an ATAR of 50 a decade earlier.

Universities should simply advertise the minimum (moderated) subject marks they require for entry to a particular course.

  • Re-cap the undergraduate domestic system and divert the savings to effective access measures

We need to re-cap undergraduate HECS places, claw back some real money and divert funds into redressing disadvantage and raising aspirations and confidence.

We should use some of the funds diverted for a new system of maintenance grants, so that students from poor backgrounds do not need to engage in paid work during their studies and are not forgoing crucial immediate income by enrolling in a degree.

In addition, the diverted funds, combined with existing funds for enabling places, should be used for colleges run by universities that offer foundation or year 13 courses. At the end of those courses, a completer’s GPA can be compared fairly with the Year 12 results of those applying for entry direct from school. We have to help level a playing field that the school system on its own is not doing.

  • Experiment with alternative routes to material success

We need to loosen the tight grip that a bachelor degree has as the route to success and instead encourage alternative kinds of institutions and a fresh focus on new pathways such as higher apprenticeships.

We should experiment again with new institutions that devote themselves to practical learning at the highest level, making graduates truly work-ready, and which eschew the siren calls that are so alluring to universities, such as global rankings and research evaluations.

We should also come back to work-based learning. In Germany, for example, Siemens trains apprentices through to professional qualification as mechanical engineers.

  • Reward “learning gain” or “distance travelled”

At present we fund universities only on inputs: crudely put, “bums on seats”. There is no attempt to reward the value added to the student; no exit assessment that allows comparison with entrance assessment. So to offer universities an incentive to do so, funding should be partly based on “learning gain”.

The idea should be to provide the greatest benefit to the student. This would give universities a reason to seek out those who are academically ready (safe to admit) but for whom they can do the most good, rather than those who need the least work put into them.

  • *Have a massive program to encourage mature age (25+) students to go to university *

There is plenty of evidence that it works and changes lives, giving people a second chance at overcoming disadvantage.

  • Take a holistic approach to the education system

We need to develop a more integrated sense of the education system, from kindergarten to doctorate – K-20 not K-12 – rather than horizontally segment the stages as we do now. Universities need to take more interest in schools. If that isn’t welcomed, then there needs to be a conversation about why.

  • Urge employers to change their recruiting practices

We need a mature conversation with employers to encourage them to screen off an applicant’s university of graduation and in some instances the fact of a degree.

If employers choose their recruits well, provide in-house apprenticeships and release for study in approved, but not necessarily degree, programs, this will provide another route to the top for those who, for one reason or another, have not entered a university after school.

  • Require particular professional degrees to be graduate entry only

It may be harder now for a low-SES young person to become a doctor or a judge than a generation ago.

We need to consider requiring all elite, high-demand professional degrees to become postgraduate.

Aside from any other educational and social arguments, this allows time for the undergraduate degree to overcome less supportive schooling, and should promote diversity in the kinds of people in the profession.

  • Urge professional bodies to justify current educational requirements

We need a similar conversation with professional bodies about the validity of degree requirements in the context of a profession’s actual needs.

  • Have a serious chat with philanthropists

I detect a trend towards scholarships for the very “brightest” or for the causes that are at risk of being squeezed out of the system through falling student demand. A conversation about the transformative effect of helping low-SES students go through university without having to do paid work is needed. There is no point in the super rich going off to Davos, bemoaning inequality, and then coming back to support elites.

If what goes around comes around, then aiding and abetting an increase in inequality will rebound on us. We will get the society we deserve: permanently divided. In an age of extremist ideologies, no one knows where things end up.

Nor is there a moment to lose. With automation and more digital disruption heading our way, there will be some winners and many losers. If the members of each group are determined by their social origins rather than talent and effort, then the good work of 50 years will be undone.

Stephen will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 10:30 and 11:30am AEDT on Friday, February 26, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.