Fair go for all – but not at any price

Paul Johnson Professor Paul Johnson, Vice-Chancellor, La Trobe University.  

First published in The Australian, 7 April 2010

THE way students will be admitted, universities funded, research organised and rewarded is changing, following the government's adoption of the Bradley review.
Last year Education Minister Julia Gillard announced a series of important policies. By 2025 the government aims to increase the proportion of young Australians with bachelors' degrees from about 30 per cent to 40 per cent.

In 10 years it wants 20 per cent of undergraduate enrolments of people from low socioeconomic backgrounds. And from 2012 universities will be funded according to how many domestic students they admit.
These policies create opportunities for growth and innovation on a scale unknown since the 1960s. Higher education will become increasingly competitive. Universities will offer flexible learning and cross-disciplinary research. There will be more private-sector companies and TAFE colleges. While this is good news for students and employers, it creates new expectations about consistency of performance in teaching and research.

This renewed focus on encouraging more of our young people go on to higher education comes at the right time: only 32 per cent of young Australians have been to university.
Compare this with Sweden's target of 50 per cent, which it has almost achieved.
Britain, too, has almost reached its target of 50 per cent; it's at 43 per cent. Both these countries substantially encourage and support disadvantaged young people through higher education.

In Australia we have not been as successful. Young disadvantaged people still comprise only 15 per cent of admissions, about 92,000 students.
Without greater equity in higher education, Australia will not achieve the high-level knowledge and skills needed to compete with the world's most successful economies. Economics aside, equality of opportunity is a moral imperative.

Universities have a big responsibility for educating our future leaders, workforce, innovators and problem solvers. But they also have a moral duty to deliver quality.
The drive for equity must not result in second-rate courses to attract a more diverse range of students so that funding targets can be met.

We must focus on providing programs that offer highly flexible study options and clearly defined professional outcomes.
However, and this is very important, universities are not the only players in achieving this vision of equity.
There are many reasons students from poorer areas are not enrolling: community and family issues, parental attitudes, poverty and lack of aspiration, as well as poorer results at school.

Tertiary education can make a difference only if governments across the country play their part and if schools also rise to the challenge. To achieve higher education targets for disadvantaged students, Centrelink income support needs extensive reform.
Work by the Australian Council for Education Research highlights the need to improve numeracy and literacy among economically disadvantaged students at school so they perform better throughout the whole education system.
We also have to look at the link between the senior high school curriculum and first-year university.

We need a new assessment system, one that identifies students with the potential to do well at university but who may not rank well in high school exams.
And we have to also look at how to help students finance their higher education. The March changes to the youth allowance provide some welcome relief.
But to achieve the higher education targets for disadvantaged students, Centrelink income support needs reform. It has to better address the requirements of a more diverse student population and their demands for a more flexible learning environment.

The rising number of young students opting for part-time study is an important part of this. They need to work to survive. They are not eligible for the full youth allowance or Austudy and scholarships are generally aimed only at full-time students.
Providing financial incentive for universities to increase participation by disadvantaged groups is just that, a financial incentive for individual universities and not a moral imperative.

The challenge is to find people who can benefit from and succeed at university and who are not identified through present processes.
I believe that we should be more courageous in our admission policies to attract a more diverse student population. For there is no question: whichever tertiary institute you attend, your life opportunities will significantly improve.