The decision to open university undergraduate education to all interested and capable students is intended to ensure that all Australian have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills in the fields that drive them, as the basis for productive contribution to Australia’s future. The decision intentionally expanded the number of higher education graduates.
It was also intended to reduce the imbalance of students according to their socio economic background, since the high previous level of High SES access meant the scope for expansion was modest.
If access by any capable person were even students from low Socio Economic regions would be 25% of students. Instead they have been well short of this. By contrast, students from high socio economic regions have been almost twice as likely to attend. The difference is hard to ascribe to differences in interest, let alone to differences in capability.
Some have reversed the intent to argue that if demand driven funding was all about redressing lower access by people from low SES backgrounds it was an expensive way to do so. This argument handily ignores the real growth in the number and proportion of such students while attempting to undermine demand driven access through forgetting its prime intent to increase higher education skills across all groups.
The national data is clear (Figure One). Following the rapid expansion of university places across the 1990s the slow growth in places across the 2000s saw universities become harder to access and with that a decline in the proportion of students from low SES backgrounds from 16.8% to 16.0%.
Better funding and extra places saw the low SES proportion stabilise in the mid 2000s. From 2009 it grew consistently, such that since 2012 it has been higher than any point earlier in the century, reaching 17.7% in 2015. Of the extra 149,024 undergraduate students between 2010 and 2015, 33,832 (23%) are low SES, almost at the point the parity.
Demand driven access combined with a large, if over regulated, Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) works. If current growth continues low SES enrolment could reach 20% by 2020 – still short of the benchmark of 25% but a notable change.
Where have low SES students enrolled?
IRU members have been crucial to the growth in low SES student numbers. Consistent with our commitment to inclusive education, IRU members focus on encouraging students from all backgrounds with well-designed programs to attract and support them.
Between 2010 and 2015 IRU members enrolled an additional 15,412 Australian undergraduate students 5,759 (37%) of whom are low SES. This has raised the proportion of low SES students in IRU members from 18% to 21%. Members of the Regional University Network and other universities located outside the inner cities have also had strong growth in the number and proportion of low SES students.
In converse, a focus on highly selective entry notionally targeting the best and brightest, even with financial supports for living costs, has made little difference.
Enabling greater access to higher education is in the national interest. As IRU showed in The impact of more students at University – Part 1 the expansion in students since 2010 has targeted science, health and technology courses, with this data suggesting some correlation with growth in the number of low SES students. It facilitates inclusion and participation, thus contributing to a fairer, more productive society.
The HEPPP is an important part of the suite of funding to encourage universities to educate Australians from all backgrounds. Supporting students who are first in the family, those from geographical areas where few attend university, and those for whom the higher education culture is unfamiliar and too often intimidating, creates its own challenges, but ones that are worth investing in to improve education levels overall.
HEPPP the flagship equity program has never been allowed to become what it was meant to be. Since its inception, it has been the go-to program when governments of both sides wanted savings.
Rather than reducing HEPPP to insignificance, the Government should allow it to reach its potential. IRU has long argued that the main element of HEPPP funding driven by enrolment of low SES students, should be considered as part of the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) on the basis that the focus should be to improve the incentive for enrolment rather than targeting a set of particular projects within universities.
There is no better way for the Government to confirm its support for all Australians to gain the education suited to their aspirations and capabilities.
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