Monday, November 19, 2012

A Low Target: Enrolling Poor Uni Students Remains a Challenge

English: Gymnasium, Bathurst campus, Charles S...
Charles Sturt University (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Dr Tim Pitman, Researcher in higher education policy at University of Western Australia, The Conversation:

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.

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