Opinion: EQUITY IS THE HEARTBEAT OF A HEALTHY HIGHER EDUCATION SYSTEM
15 February 2023
15 FEBRUARY 2023
In his first speech to the higher education sector, Education Minister Jason Clare invoked the participation targets set out in the Bradley Report and stated, “I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on your postcode, your parents or the colour of your skin”.
It was a breath of fresh air to hear a minister talk so passionately about how access to a university education should be open to the many, not the few. In this year, which I am dubbing The Reform Year, where an eminent panel are being tasked with a generational rethinking and reshaping of our higher education system, I think it’s timely to put equity at the centre of our thinking.
Equity is not simply about building aspiration for prospective university students to access higher education – it’s about getting on, as much as getting in. How do we support those students to succeed, to have a memorable experience at uni and to go on and make a significant contribution to society?
Firstly, equity must be baked into the funding system. It’s no longer good enough to treat it as a ‘nice to have’ or an add-on, to be tinkered with and cut at a whim. There are decisions that can be taken immediately which will have wide-ranging effects to ensure equity and student success are at the heart of a student’s learning journey.
For instance, an online lecture or exam might mean some students can skip a time-consuming commute or take an extra shift at work, and for someone with mobility issues, it can be the difference between being at university or not at all. A maths drop-in centre might mean some students can ace the assignment, but it can be the difference between passing or not for a student who had a disrupted senior year at high school.
Numbers don’t lie and it’s clear that we still have a lot of work to do to meet the target of post-school attainment – rates vary considerably across the country:
• from 38 per cent in Upper Hunter Shire to 68 per cent in North Sydney
• from 35 per cent in Corangamite to 62 per cent in Yarra
• from 32 per cent in Playford to 59 per cent in Burnside; and,
• from 34 per cent in Esperance to 65 per cent in Cottesloe.
It’s a sad fact that more than a third of First Nations Australians living in cities and metropolitan areas are not guaranteed a place they are offered at any university. We need to ensure that all First Nations Australians can access a place in post-school education and their success in their learning journey is fundamental to achieving the Closing the Gap target of 67 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15-24 years) in employment, education or training by 2031. This should be the same regardless of the course, whether that be in vocational education or university, and regardless of where they live, whether it’s regional or not.
We must remove the 50 per cent completion rate because it unfairly punishes potential graduates. This disproportionately affects and disenfranchises the very students who we aim to include. The transition into tertiary can be tough and students from low socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds, those from regional areas, First Nations and first-in-family students all can struggle to adapt to university in their first year. This measure will cut off the Commonwealth assistance for some of these students, again preventing universities from being able to properly support them.
Almost 14 years on and low SES participation rates have not yet reached Bradley’s 20 per cent target. We need a renewed focus on the fundamentals of the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) and funding to support achieving this modest target. The Morrison Government’s Job-ready Graduates package complicated things further – bundling up HEPPP into the Indigenous, Regional and Low SES Attainment Fund (IRLSAF) and redistributing some of the funding to those other equity groups. While these other groups deserve attention (and educational disadvantage is often intersectional and compounded), diluting the focus and funding for HEPPP was, quite clearly, the wrong approach.
ATN welcomed the additional 20,000 commencing places for 2023 and 2024 delivered by the Albanese Government – focusing on under-represented students and priority areas of the economy was a good start. However, these places just open the door for students, we still have a shared challenge to improve completion rates, participation in work-integrated and work-related learning, and post-graduation outcomes. This goes beyond the number of students starting higher education – around which so many announcements and funding initiatives are based. It goes back to Bradley’s original intention that additional funding and support leads to teaching a more diverse range of students and recognising that this is worth doing, even if it does cost more in the short term.
The benefits of higher education to those students, their families, their communities and the nation are worth every cent, even if not everyone achieves at the same rate. That is why ATN universities are willing to back our student and industry focus by staking future funding increases on our ability to deliver for these students. We can’t avoid the fact that many students face daily challenges such as personal and family obligations, illness and disability, housing stress, juggling work commitments and study, navigating university as a first-in-family student and, often, long commutes to campus. These challenges often coincide and have a compounding effect especially for students that have experience of multiple educational disadvantages. Australia’s world class income contingent loan system helps make university affordable, but students are still faced with immediate and unavoidable study and living costs that are not covered by the system. Students deserve help to stay at university and make the most of their opportunities.
The Universities Accord is big ticket reform, very much in the Labor tradition, and it will be as important as the Bradley and Dawkins reviews were in their era. We’re off to a great start, and if we can bake equity into the centre of our thinking, then we will have risen to the challenge.
– Luke Sheehy, ATN Universities Executive Director