Who do universities serve? Everyone, or just the elite few?

Universities are public in nature but don’t represent a cross-section of the public. SUARTS/Flickr, CC BY-SA

There are now 40 universities in Australia, three of which are private. They all receive Commonwealth government grants and an increasing range of private funds. As the debate continues around whether or not to deregulate universities further, we might also ask who universities serve. Public universities in particular, are obliged to serve the public and give access to all who are capable, not only the advantaged.

Public universities’ obligation to the public

From their foundation in the mid-19th century, Australia’s public universities pioneered a social contract between the people and the state. Initially, universities served the public by being secular and by providing access for a small number of able students on the basis of merit alone.

They received state endowments (colonial then state government funding), and encouraged private endowments for scholarships as a symbol of public support. Over the decades universities and the social contract evolved to meet the social, economic and knowledge needs of an ever-changing Australia.

As the Bradley Review of Higher Education reported in 2008, a public university system has a crucial role in a modern democracy like Australia to inform citizens and expand their sense of social responsibility at both national and international levels:

By deepening understanding of health and social issues, and by providing access to higher levels of learning to people from all backgrounds, it can enhance social inclusion and reduce social and economic disadvantage. By engaging with scholars from other countries and educating people from other countries, it helps create a nation confident and engaged both with its geographic region and the wider community of nations. By helping sustain and renew other institutions through its capacity to develop knowledge and skills, higher education acts as a cornerstone of the institutional framework of society.

As Geoffrey Sherington and I have explained, from the beginning there was an undertaking to admit students on the basis of merit rather than religious affiliation or factors of birth. The intention was – and still is – to reach across socio-economic and cultural barriers to those who would not otherwise consider a university education.

This system, based on merit, largely continues today. Over the decades this has had both positive effects, as in the case of the early admission of women to Australian universities, and negative effects, as in the case of Indigenous access.

Universities failing in their expanded responsibilities

In modern democracies like Australia, public universities now have expanded responsibilities to provide education not just to a small number of able students but to a significant proportion of school leavers, as well as many additional mature age and international students. The report card on how our universities have fared in this area is not great.

The Bradley Review’s findings were sobering. The urban middle and upper classes generally prospered at universities and gained admission at a higher rate than their representation in the broader community. Yet this was not so for other social groups. “Merit” favoured certain groups and effectively excluded others.

As a public university, are the hallowed halls of the University of Melbourne’s Old Quad for all-comers, or just an elite few? Chris Samuel, CC BY

The review found that students from remote areas, closely followed by Indigenous students (with some cross-over), were substantially under-represented at universities. Students from low socio-economic backgrounds attended universities at a rate of 15% whereas they comprised 25% of the comparable general population. The percentage of those from regional backgrounds was not much better. Current figures show rates of participation for these groups have barely changed.

The review argued that to remain competitive in a global economy and retain social well-being, Australia should lift the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with degrees to at least 40% by 2020. Comparable countries had higher rates (Finland was nearing 50%) but the authors doubted these were achievable in Australia within the current political context.

Statistics showed that post-1958 universities had much higher rates of disadvantaged students than the older, city-based universities. These rates either matched or exceeded comparable proportions in the general population. Ever more students were now the first of their extended families to go to university.

These new universities were a consequence of initiatives undertaken by both Labor and Liberal governments from the 1960s to 1990s. Many were established on the outskirts of capital cities such as the University of Western Sydney, or in rural regions such as Central Queensland University, with campuses at Rockhampton and elsewhere. Without them, low socio-economic rates for the university sector would be substantially lower.

Government needs to play a role

The lesson is that governments have a crucial role in the creation of new higher education infrastructure to address social inequity.

The Bradley Review called for political leadership on social equity reforms along with increased funding. There should be a national and strategic approach to provide infrastructure in remote and regional areas where it is needed, rather than leaving development to the haphazard consequence of historical circumstance. Low socio-economic students had to be encouraged to aspire to a university degree. Indigenous students the same, along with programs to increase retention rates.

It’s not only up to universities. free range jace/Flickr, CC BY

But we still await political leadership on these matters. The responsibility currently rests with universities themselves. Older city-based universities with gravitas and resources should lead this change. They not only need to raise the proportion of 25-34-year-olds with degrees to 40% by 2020, but also support social equity programs.

Since the Bradley Review, many have worked to increase diversity within the student population. Some have appointed Indigenous leaders at the highest levels to ensure institutional support for current and future Indigenous students. Others have introduced policy initiatives to help break down barriers caused by social disadvantage and create pathways for students with genuine potential, not only for those who have a high tertiary entrance rank. Yet funding for universities falls well short of need.

There is still a way to go. Historically, both Australian universities and its political leaders led the way in extending educational equity by providing opportunities on merit. Now, the responsibility has shifted to provide mass education. Universities are falling behind on social equity issues, which raises questions about their ability to serve the public.

Is it a failure of universities, who must provide more for less? Or is it a failure of our political leaders, who continue to reduce funding for our universities?


The Conversation is running a series on “What are universities for?” looking at the place of universities in Australia, why they exist, who they serve, and how this is changing over time. Read other articles in the series here.