Advancing Equity and Participation in Australian Higher Education

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1 Advancing Equity and Participation in Australian Higher Education Action to address participation and equity levels in higher education of people from low socioeconomic backgrounds and Indigenous people April 2008

2 This work is copyright-free to universities and other relevant bodies provided that attribution of authorship is made to Universities Australia. Apart from such use, all rights in copyright are reserved. Further inquiries should be made to the Chief Executive Officer: GPO Box 1142 CANBERRA ACT 2601 Ph: Fax: Web: ABN:

3 Contents 1. Background Participation and Equity Study: overall findings 2 3. The specific case of Indigenous students 2 4. Actions to address advancing equity and participation levels in Australian higher education 3 5. Conclusion 7 Universities Australia Equity and Participation Action Plan (April 2008) i

4 ADVANCING EQUITY IN AUSTRALIAN HIGHER EDUCATION: Action to address participation and equity levels in higher education of people from low socio-economic backgrounds and Indigenous people 1. Background In 2007 Universities Australia commissioned a scoping study into Equity and Participation in Higher Education. Key to this investigation was whether a more appropriate definition of low socio-economic status than the postcode of a student s home address could be defined. The study was conducted by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. The results are briefly summarised here. Recommendations from Universities Australia for consequent action are also summarised. 1 The study follows the earlier national study of student finances, Australian University Student Finances 2006 conducted for Universities Australia and released in The Student Finances study indicated that students in 2006 were on average worse off in financial terms than they were in Indeed, a significant proportion of students reported that their financial circumstances adversely affected their capacity to study effectively, especially students who were engaged in extensive paid work during semester. The Equity and Participation Study was then commissioned to investigate participation levels and equity in university education for Australian students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds in three groupings 3 : students from rural and regional Australia; Indigenous students; and students from metropolitan areas. Within these three groupings the study considered access and completion rates for low SES students at the year 10 through to year 12 and in higher education (including Vocational Education and Training (VET)) in order to determine barriers to entry and factors that may influence success. In particular the study sought to address the following key policy questions: whether low socio-economic status students have difficulty accessing university due to resources or entry scores; what measures have been introduced in Australia and overseas to remedy the situation; and what strategies do universities currently utilise to target low socio-economic status students. The issue is important because higher education confers significant personal benefit on individuals in terms of personal development, social standing, career possibilities and lifetime earnings. But it is also important for national and community development in producing a more equitable, cohesive and economically successful society. For the individuals and the nation, Australia must do all it can to ensure all those who can benefit from higher education are able to do so. 1 The longer version of the underlying study is available at Universities Australia website: 2 Australian Student Finances Survey 2006 Final Report (August 2007): 3 International students could not be included as the post-code methodology used could not be conducted for students with an overseas home address. But the gap is an important one for future analysis. Universities Australia Equity and Participation Action Plan (April 2008) 1

5 Participation and Equity Study: overall findings The participation in higher education of people from low SES backgrounds and from rural and isolated areas is presently monitored using indices based on the postcode of a student s home address. This analysis shows that people from low SES backgrounds are significantly under-represented in Australian higher education: urban low SES comprise 12.8% of the population but only 9.0% of higher education places; rural low SES comprise 10.6% of the population but only 5.9% of higher education places; and remote low SES comprise 1.8% of the population but only 0.6% of higher education places There has been little change in this pattern since 2001: basically high SES students continue to be three times more likely to go to university as those from low SES backgrounds. Australian universities vary considerably in the proportion of students from low SES backgrounds partly due to geographical effects and partly due to competitive entry and institutional selectivity. The underrepresentation is strongest in professional faculties such as medicine, law and architecture and in postgraduate studies and, partly for this reason, in Group of Eight universities. Like patterns are also to be found in comparable overseas countries. A set of interrelated factors contribute to the persistent under representation of people from low SES backgrounds. Under-representation is partially the result of lower levels of educational achievement at school, lower educational aspirations and lower school completion rates. Financial factors are also cited by rural and remote students as barriers or deterrents to entry to higher education. Vocational educational training appears to have more appeal than higher education for some people from low SES backgrounds. In terms of performance at university, it appears that low SES participation in Australian higher education is more an issue of access rather than success once enrolled. Indeed once enrolled in higher education it is notable that low SES background students do almost as well as other groups in retention, success and completion. But low SES remote students and Indigenous students are exceptions in relation to these outcomes. Using evidence-based analysis to assess the factors influencing equity and participation in higher education, the latest Universities Australia-commissioned study found that parental educational levels and parental occupation levels are both superior indicators of individual SES compared with the current postcode methodology. Parental education levels in particular a father s education reveal more of the substantial differences in students financial circumstances and more of the effect of differences in finances on students capacity to study, than does postcode-based analysis. 3. The specific case of Indigenous students There are special circumstances faced by Indigenous people; and low access rates, low performance levels and low completion rates are each distinct problems that require targeted policies and programs. A proportion of the access to higher education for Indigenous people has been provided by sub-degree and enabling programs. Higher degree enrolment and completion rates are modest. The university completion rate for Indigenous enrolees remains well below 50 per cent. The low retention rate of Indigenous people is a major problem. Financial factors are likely to be highly significant in improving access and retention for Indigenous students. The issues facing the higher education sector in achieving better outcomes for Indigenous people are partly to do with socioeconomic status and levels of educational disadvantage in schooling but there are also deep cultural issues to be confronted in order for stronger relationships to be built between universities and Indigenous people and communities. Universities Australia Equity and Participation Action Plan (April 2008) 2

6 4. Actions to address advancing equity and participation levels in Australian higher education The limited change over time in low SES higher education participation, and the like occurrence in comparable countries, indicates that major change in improving university access and equity for low SES groups is not readily available. Even with expanded overall participation rates, social polarisation remains entrenched. It is likely therefore, that in the light of present knowledge, the most effective way to improve the participation of people from low SES backgrounds and Indigenous people in higher education is to recognise that the policy framework needed to action change has to consist of inter-related policies and a package of policies, rather than any magic bullet 4. Drawing on the Equity and Participation report, Universities Australia recommends an action plan comprised of policy initiatives and research initiatives. The former suggest steps that can be taken within the current policy framework. The latter suggests a number of research projects that would support better evidence-based policy initiatives to improve equity and participation of students from low SES backgrounds in the future. A. Policy Initiatives Action 1: Conduct technical work to enhance the definition and measurement of socio-economic status A more valid and more precise measure of socioeconomic status is needed for higher education if advances are to be made in policies and programs for the participation of people from low SES backgrounds in higher education. A measure of SES based on parental educational levels would provide individual level data on socioeconomic status, which the present postcode index does not provide. Data collection would be reasonably simple and could be achieved during data collection at enrolment time with tick-the-box items that would require no coding. Education levels lend themselves to relatively simple hierarchical categorisation the Australian Qualifications Framework already does this to some extent. It would be possible to expand the number of SES subgroups from the present three groups should this be desirable for fine-grained analysis. The development of an SES measure based on parental education and to establish suitable population reference points could occur through a joint government-higher education technical committee. The use of the postcode index could be continued to retain time-series data. Universities Australia suggests that a joint DEEWR-Universities Australia technical committee be established to determine how to implement improved measurement of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds in higher education. Action 2: Develop a Federal-State framework to encourage and enhance partnerships and collaborations for approaching the issue of low SES equity and fit it within the Social Inclusion and Productivity agendas Under-representation in higher education of people from low SES backgrounds is multi-causal and the challenges are decidedly cross-sectoral in character and require university-vet-school partnerships. The under-representation is the result of patterns of social and educational disadvantage that are experienced well before people reach the point of considering whether or not university is possible and relevant to them. 4 Even a country such as Finland with a highly egalitarian public school system has a skewed tertiary participation. OECD Thematic Review of Tertiary Education, Universities Australia Equity and Participation Action Plan (April 2008) 3

7 It follows that policies and programs focussed solely on the higher education sector can only partially address the issue of under-representation. A national approach is necessary which recognises the crossportfolio and cross-sectoral influence that arises from quality partnerships between schools, VET institutions, employers, communities and universities. Universities Australia suggests that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) human capital and social inclusion agendas, based on federal-state cooperation, be extended to incorporate the important interactions between state and territory areas of responsibility and their interface with Commonwealth higher education activities. Action 3: Set equity targets and financial incentives for universities to recruit and retain low SES students The present Higher Education Equity Program (HEEP) provides modest financial incentives for annual reporting of institutional equity plans. Universities would respond further to the inclusion of incremental targets and financial incentives so as to proactively focus on the recruitment and retention of low SES students, particularly from under-represented schools. Universities Australia seeks full-cost funding from Government for equity programs, ensuring proper cover for overheads. It also seeks review of the possible role for equity initiatives and performance in the development of the mission-based Compacts to be negotiated in future with the Commonwealth Government. Action 4: Review existing student income support arrangements Existing Government income support and scholarship schemes need to be reviewed with particular emphasis on rural and regional student requirements, and those from low SES backgrounds. This should be a focus of the Bradley Review of Higher Education recently announced by the Federal Government. This inquiry can potentially provide the comprehensive assessment of all student finance and income support matters required, including systematic international benchmarking as a basis for evidence-based policy recommendations. In the meantime and without needing to wait for the final report of that Review, it needs to be recognised that in relation to Youth Allowance and Austudy there has been a 6.4 per cent drop is the number of students receiving either Austudy or Youth Allowance since 1998 with particular impact on low income students. Areas are available to respond to this immediate problem and include the independence status and income support; living away from home rate and parental income and asset test. Universities Australia recommends that in reviewing income support for students, the Government specifically consider: removal of the assessable income component for all scholarships and bursaries regardless of their funding sources, and a staged reduction in the age of independence for Youth allowance over one election cycle from the current 25 years to 18, in order that university students will not be assessed on the basis of their parents income and assets. Action 5: Improve Work-Integrated Learning and home study support arrangements In order for students to better combine the need for work with their commitment to studies, a number of actions could be undertaken which would allow work arrangements to better support studies and vice-versa, and which would allow time at home (often after work) to be more effectively used to pursue study obligations for students from lower SES backgrounds. Universities Australia Equity and Participation Action Plan (April 2008) 4

8 Universities Australia suggests that: supporting the development of a National Internship Scheme which would allow the pursuit work-integrated learning initiatives; and extending the computer provision initiatives being put in place by the Federal Government to include a Tertiary Student Computing Fund to assist in support for suitable home computing arrangements for students from low SES backgrounds. Action 6: Improve university management and teaching skills for socially inclusive planning and practice Overall retention, performance, and completion for low SES group students are close to those for other SES groups, but there remain options for improving that further as in the professional development programs that can be offered by the Carrick Institute and the Martin Institute. Such programs are crucial vehicles for promoting best practice and knowledge transfer, including international precedent and experience. Moreover, both of these bodies can pay further particular attention to the major exceptions to equivalence, which are rural and remote low SES students and Indigenous students. Universities Australia believes Vice-Chancellors on the Boards of the professional development Institutes for higher education should consider how equity and access training can be further improved. Action 7: Improve access and retention of Indigenous students The under-representation of Indigenous people and the low retention and completion rates for Indigenous people require concerted action. A framework for university policies and programs exists in the strategic plan of the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council (IHEAC) and the policy advice provided by IHEAC to government. In 2005, IHEAC established seven priority areas believed necessary to advance the participation of Indigenous people in universities. These priorities are significantly interwoven. The IHEAC priorities are as follows: Priority 1: Encourage universities to work with schools and TAFE colleges and other registered training organisations to build pathways and raise levels of aspiration and confidence of Indigenous students. Priority 2: Develop a concerted strategy to improve the level of Indigenous undergraduate enrolment. Priority 3: Improve the level of Indigenous postgraduate enrolment, enhance Indigenous research and increase the number of Indigenous researchers. Priority 4: Improve the rates of success, retention and completion for Indigenous students. Priority 5: Enhance the prominence and status of Indigenous culture, knowledge and studies on campus. Priority 6: Increase the number of Indigenous people working in Australian universities. Priority 7: Improve the participation of Indigenous people in university governance and management. Key areas for attention include: improving the academic preparedness of prospective Indigenous students; developing alternative pathways into higher education; academic and personal support for Indigenous students once enrolled; and improved financial support. Universities Australia, IHEAC and the Commonwealth Government cooperate together to review progress in pursuing and implementing the IHEAC priorities. Universities Australia Equity and Participation Action Plan (April 2008) 5

9 B. Research Initiatives Action 8: Develop an improved measurement of mature age students and non-school leavers Measuring the socioeconomic status of mature age students using parental-based measures are problematic. In particular, geographic measures of SES are notoriously problematic for measuring the SES backgrounds of adult populations. Annually, roughly 20 per cent of commencing undergraduates and over two-thirds of commencing postgraduates are aged 25 or over (DEST Selected Statistics 2006). Little is known of the socioeconomic background of these students given the limitations of the postcode measure. Without an individual measure of SES that is sensitive to the circumstances of mature age students it is not possible to draw confident conclusions about equity and access in postgraduate education. Further study of the impact of low SES backgrounds and current circumstances upon the educational achievements of mature age students would be valuable and would complete the dataset. Universities Australia suggests that the proposed technical committee also include the issue of mature age students and non-school leavers in its deliberations over improved data for research on social inclusion in higher education. Action 9: Conduct evidence-based research The interrelationships and interactions between the multiple factors that underlie low SES underrepresentation are not clear. These factors include both the lack of encouraging or enabling conditions, which reduce the likelihood of people from low SES backgrounds considering higher education as a serious possibility for them, and the presence of more overt discouragement that is, deterrents or barriers that close off options and possibilities. Improving access to higher education involves working across the spectrum: on the one hand, working on the encouraging factors, such as raising aspirations; boosting school achievement and retention; improving perceptions of the relevance and attainability of university study; and, on the other hand, removing or reducing financial and other barriers where these exist. A research project coordinated within the higher education sector that yielded a better understanding of the: 1) key factors in the formation of educational ambition on the part of young people; 2) relative influence of these factors; 3) times/points at which these factors are most amenable to intervention; and 4) extent of international research action would be highly valuable in shaping policy and programs. Universities Australia recommends that DEEWR: commission a research project to report on evidence to assist the Government in improving policy for social inclusion in higher education; and review options for enhancing wider research to inform higher education policy, including options such as the possibility of establishing a new government education research agency; funding selected existing research centres or funding a new policy research grants program. Universities Australia Equity and Participation Action Plan (April 2008) 6

10 5. Conclusion This paper sets out an agenda for change containing nine key action areas which if pursued will help to improve our ability to advance equity and participation levels in higher education in Australia. This is crucial to national goals because higher education is a powerful vehicle for both personal and social advance. That advance should be more inclusive. A national commitment to making that so, is essential. Universities Australia Canberra April 2008 Universities Australia Equity and Participation Action Plan (April 2008) 7

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