Universities ‘not good change agents’

Australia’s underwhelming success in making university enrolments more equitable underlines the need to ‘address schooling’, forum hears

March 27, 2023
Source: iStock

A decade of equity initiatives has barely changed disadvantaged Australians’ share of university enrolments, a Sydney conference has heard.

An analysis by former University of New England vice-chancellor Alan Pettigrew has revealed significant increases in raw number terms between 2011 and 2021. Enrolments rose by 16 per cent from regional areas and 43 per cent from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, while indigenous student numbers doubled and the number of students with disabilities almost tripled.

But this occurred amid a 31 per cent increase in overall domestic admissions. As a consequence, disabled students’ proportion of enrolments rose by fewer than five percentage points. The share of enrolments for indigenous people and economically disadvantaged Australians rose by just one percentage point each, while the proportion from regional areas fell by two percentage points.

Professor Pettigrew found that many of these enrolments were concentrated in about eight universities, most of them regionally based. “It’s heavily weighted towards smaller institutions with lower overall student load, smaller staff numbers and lower research activity,” he told the Student Equity Forum at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

Such findings should surprise no one, according to Oxford University higher education professor Simon Marginson, who told a University of Melbourne symposium that 60 years of equal opportunity policies had achieved “no improvement” in the social distribution of prestigious university places.

“Even in Nordic countries…where the principle of social equality is deeply felt, the empirical outcome is no shift at best in the proportion of places…going to people from first-generation families. In many countries, equality of opportunity has actually worsened as systems have grown.”

Professor Marginson said equity imperatives sat awkwardly with universities’ role in generating social status – a topic “never discussed” in policy circles. “It’s the desire that people dare not name, but everybody wants it.

“There are limits to what higher education can achieve in relation to social equalisation. Higher education’s status and stratification function, its direct creation of inequality, is more robust than its capacity to create a flatter society.”

Nadine Zacharias, outgoing director of student engagement at Swinburne University of Technology, said the sector needed to be mindful of this limitation. “Universities are not terribly great change agents,” she told the UTS forum. “Disadvantage is structural. Policy needs to unearth this and the activities we run need to address it.”

Dr Zacharias said a stated aim of the Universities Accord Panel, which is conducting the first major Australian higher education review in 15 years, was for enrolments from under-represented groups to reflect their proportion of the overall population.

“We’re shooting for seriously large numbers, and that changes the game. If we do not address schooling, and the pipeline of young people [who] engage with the tertiary education system and with universities, we are never going to get there.”

She described unrealised recommendations for an equitable school funding model, as proposed in 2012 by UNSW Sydney chancellor David Gonski, as the “missing link” in university attainment. “We will not be able to grow much…if we don’t fix attainment in public schools and disadvantaged areas. It’s as simple as that.”


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