Utopian university entrance plans fail poorer students

Tuesday, 01 March 2016

Illustration by Eric Lobbecke in The Australian

Nick Cater's weekly column in The Australian:

The long march to overturn the bourgeois domination of higher education has proved interminable.

Julia Gillard’s “equity-driven education revolution” was motivated by the ambition to turn our universities into the engine rooms of social mobility. Her initiatives as Kevin Rudd’s education and social inclusion minister aspired to abolish the lottery of birth that gives a child raised in Mosman three times the chance of attending university than a kid from Mount Druitt.

Gillard imagined that the gap could be closed by increasing funding and hiring social engineers, or, as she preferred to put it, “the marrying together of increased investment with the ­essential elements of good social inclusion policy”.

It was pure bureaucratic socialism, however described; the allocation of billions of dollars for untested solutions to unsolvable problems. “We need big, system-wide improvements,” said Gillard portentously. “Piecemeal change won’t be enough.”

In the dispiriting, instrumentalist language of the times, Gillard’s reforms were less about expanding young minds than increasing “human capital”. The focus was not on the quality of learning but on enriching the “learning experience”.

In 2008, Gillard commissioned former vice-chancellor Denise Bradley to provide a blueprint for an inclusive tertiary education system. Bradley recommended a target of 20 per cent for the proportion of low SES students by 2020.

It was an ambitious goal; the percentage has been hovering around the mid-teens since Robert Menzies launched commonwealth scholarships in 1951. Menzies had argued strongly for equality of opportunity, reflecting that “at least as much genius is to be found and nurtured in Collingwood and Bankstown as in Toorak or Bellevue Hill.”

Yet reform after reform has failed to break the link between socio-economic background and educational achievement. The challenge defied Menzies, despite the expansion of higher education from 1957. It defied Gough Whitlam and the abolition of fees in 1974. Higher Education Contribution Scheme loans introduced by the Hawke government in 1989 made little difference; nor any of the equity and inclusion programs that have grown like topsy.

Gillard, however, armed with the Bradley review, had the answer. Universities would be given billions of extra dollars and would be rewarded for enrolling low-SES students. Places would increase to meet demand. By 2025, declared Gillard, 40 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds would have a bachelor degree.

Gillard’s investment in equity-driven education was to social engineering what the mining investment was to civil engineering. A new Social Inclusion Board would be tasked with investigating what more could be done. The ­National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education was established at Curtin Business School. Lesser universities began offering “bonus ATAR points” to disadvantaged students. The University of South Australia, for example, offers bonus ATAR points for the children of Centrelink claimants.

Eight years later it is time to take stock of what the equity-driven education revolution has achieved. Natasha Bita in Saturday’s The Weekend Australiandelivered the joyless news.

“The proportion of new university students from low-income backgrounds had fallen from 17.4 per cent in 2007 to 16.7 per cent in 2014,” wrote Bita, citing University of Canberra vice-chancellor Stephen Parker. The figures vary depending on the measure of socio-economic status, but the conclusion is the same. Your chances of getting to university remain worse, much worse, if you come from the wrong side of the tracks.

In an ideal world, we might see some soul-searching, sheepishness and eating of humble pie. But we won’t. Instead, the torchbearers for educational justice will call for a redoubling of efforts and, most likely, cash. The problem, we will be told, was it wasn’t grand enough.

It is clear that Gillard’s utopian schemes have damaged the university system more, and helped aspiring graduates less, than any previous experiment. The rapid expansion of student numbers is a recipe for mediocrity. As Whitlam learned, there are only so many good teachers and smart students to go around.

As the Whitlam experiment also proved, it is one thing to get a place at university but quite another to graduate. Bradley claimed low-SES students were as likely as other students to succeed. Recent figures from the Department of Education suggest otherwise.

A study of 2006 university entrants found that after nine years, only 66.5 per cent of low SES students had completed the course compared to 76.5 per cent of well-off students.

The results get worse further down the higher education food chain. At Group of Eight universities, four out of five low SES students graduate within nine years: in regional universities, fewer than three out of five do so.

The two things that really matter — brutally put — are the calibre of teachers and the cleverness of their students. Students with an ATAR of 90 or more have a 90 per cent chance of emerging with a degree. For those with an ATAR rate less than 60, the chances of qualifying are less than 55 per cent.

The implications of the failure of Gillard’s higher education experiment for that other Labor shibboleth — the Gonski school funding plan — is a topic for ­another day. For now, the evidence invites us to turn the equity argument on its head.

Is it fair to encourage less-capable students to sign up for HECS loans for courses at lower-ranked universities when their chances of qualifying are little more than 50-50? Should the government be subsidising third-rate courses in third-rate universities from which four out of 10 students are likely to drop out? Are bonus ATAR points for socially disadvantaged applicants just part of a cruel hoax?

If universities could enrich the lives of 40 per cent of Australians it would be a wonderful thing. The fruits of expanding admissions, however, are a growth in government spending, personal debt, net frustration, private disappointment and an abiding sense of failure.






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