As education minister, Julia Gillard set a target of 20% of undergraduate university students coming from the lowest 25% of SES backgrounds by 2020. Some enrolment statistics released last week showed a 0.30 percentage point gain between 2009 and 2010 to reach 16.47%. This is the biggest increase since this time series began in 2001.
The figure below shows that if this growth rate was maintained for the decade, the target would come close to being met. On the other hand, if the growth rate was the average of 2009 and 2010 the target would be missed by a largish margin.
Which scenario is more likely? At least in the short term, there is a good chance that strong growth will continue. For commencing students, there was a .64 percentage point gain, so as this cohort moves through the system the low SES share will expand. We don’t have any detailed 2011 data yet, but with some expected additional growth in overall numbers I would anticipate that low SES numbers will again improve.
Part of my reasoning here is that for the high SES groups we are close to the market saturation point. There is little realistic prospect of growth, given the likely range of abilities and career preferences. This means that much of the growth must come from lower SES groups – though it may be from the middle 50% rather than the bottom 25%.
However a closer inspection of the applications data over the last decade suggests that we might hit a wall in the next few years. Low SES students are over-represented in the weaker year 12 results, and in the below 70 ATARs we are not yet seeing massive increases in applications. These are only up 7% since 2004. What’s changed is that with an easing of enrolment caps universities have made more places available, and far more below 70 ATAR applicants are getting in. Their numbers have doubled since 2004.
So at the moment we are picking the low-hanging fruit: people who are already interested in university and around the achievement levels where universities will offer them a place, but who were excluded by the old quota system. With that being lifted, they are now attending.
Once all the low-hanging fruit is picked by the ‘demand-driven’ system, low SES growth will demand on improving year 12 results and interest in higher education. There are policies in place to achieve this goal, but this is a much tougher task. So there is still no certainty of reaching the 20% by 2020 target.