Increasing equity; compacting quantity

Group of Eight    |      6 August 2013

The Group of Eight’s Mike Teece writes that the demand driven system was introduced to increase overall higher education qualifications attainment, not to improve equity.   While the participation of equity groups has grown, it’s been off a low base and make up, in absolute numbers, only a fraction of overall growth.   A more effective approach to improving equity group participation would involve targetted measures, combined with a sharper focus on diverse and appropriate admissions procedures and effective student support services to maximise students’ success would contribute more to higher education equity than simply removing the sector’s front gates.  He suggests utilising the compact process.

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Go8 Equity scales

A familiar debate about quality and equity in Australia’s universities has recently flared up again.  Some people seem to be suggesting that there is a choice between quality and equity.  This is a false dichotomy.  Quality is essential to genuine equity in higher education: any policies or practices that widen participation without maintaining quality standards serve universities and students badly – especially students from traditionally under-represented social groups.  Equality of opportunity to go to university is an important goal.  If this is not followed, however, by equity in outcomes for those who do attend, it is a false promise.

The current round of the debate started when the new Minister for Higher Education, Senator Carr, publicly asked important questions about how best to manage the demand-driven funding system into the future.  Demand-driven funding removed caps on student numbers, and guarantees Government funding to universities for as many students as they choose to admit.  Not surprisingly, this open-ended funding commitment imposes high and increasing costs on the Commonwealth Budget.  At a time when the Government faces serious fiscal challenges, it is inevitable that questions are asked.  Over the past 12 months, Government has sought to contain costs through arbitrary savings around the edges of university funding (witness last year’s deferral of promised increases in research funding, and the 2013-14 Budget’s ‘efficiency dividends’ and arbitrary caps on tax deductions for education expenses).  This is not a sound or sustainable approach.

Some have suggested that anything less than a blank cheque for further unconstrained growth would scotch the equity agenda that the Government and the sector adopted in response to the Bradley Review of higher education.  This is nonsense.

Demand-driven funding was not intended primarily as an equity measure: its main rationale was to increase participation in university study and supply of graduate skills to the labour market (in this context, it is important to note that the Bradley Review did most of its work before the GFC).  In increasing overall participation, the uncapped system has also increased enrolments by low SES, Indigenous and regional students.  While domestic undergraduate commencements increased by 32 per cent between 2008 and 2012, commencements by low SES students have increased faster (40 per cent).

This is great news for a more equitable and inclusive higher education sector.  But increases in the number of students from equity groups come off a low base and make up only a fraction of total growth.  In absolute terms, domestic undergraduate commencements grew by 59,197 between 2008 and 2012.  Low SES commencements grew by 11,965.  Students who are not from low SES backgrounds accounted for 80 per cent of the growth.  Low SES students increased their share of undergraduate commencements by only one percentage point.  Between 2009 and 2012 absolute growth in offers to high SES students was higher than growth in offers to low SES students.

While demand-driven funding has contributed to improved equity and access, it is not primarily an equity policy.  If demand-driven funding is the main policy lever for increasing low SES participation, it is an expensive and inefficient way of doing it.

A more sustainable – and more effective – solution would be to recognise that demand-driven funding has achieved its initial goal, namely to meet unmet demand for university places, and to make provision for more targeted growth in identified areas of need.  These could include particular skills needs, but also growth in low SES, regional and Indigenous enrolments, and lifting participation in parts of the country where it is too low.  A more deliberate approach to equity and access, combined with a sharper focus on diverse and appropriate admissions procedures and effective student support services to maximise students’ success would contribute more to higher education equity than simply removing the sector’s front gates.

Such a change could be managed through a more meaningful Compacts process, in which Compacts ceased to be pro formas and became genuinely mission based.  Universities could be funded to do different things, and to do them well.  Through Compacts, universities would be more accountable for their performance.  Under these arrangements it would be clear that quality and equity are complementary, rather than antithetical, goals.

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