Australian higher education equity policy and analysis tends towards cultural explanations of differences in higher education participation rates. The official definition of low socio-economic status is based on the ABS Index of Education and Occupation, not direct financial factors. Parental education and occupation provides a role model for their children and shapes the expectations parents have for their children. University-educated parents can also more easily help their children navigate the path to university.
The relationship between parental education and child outcomes has occasionally led to suggestions that ‘first in family’ – the children of parents who have not been to university – should be an official equity group. There was another such call in an article in The Conversation last week, based on a recent academic journal article by Sally Patfield, Jenny Gore, and Natasha Weaver.
Is first in family at university unusual?
Although the data is rarely released, parental education has been in the official enrolment data collection since 2010. In some figures I have from 2015, of the students who reported parental education first in family were just in the majority, at 50.1 per cent. But the true number was probably significantly higher, with don’t knows or missing data from about 15 per cent of enrolments. At minimum these students had parents who did not regale them with ‘when I was at uni’ anecdotes, blocking one path of influence on educational choices.
If we think back on the history of higher education first in family could never have been unusual. With each generation experiencing much higher participation rates than the one before it, large numbers of students must have had parents who didn’t go to university. According to figures in Anderson and Vervoon’s Access to Privilege, at Melbourne University in the 1960s and 1970s around a quarter of the fathers and 10 per cent of mothers of students had a university qualification – high for the era, but still leaving a big majority of students as ‘first in family’.
The annual cohort completions statistics published by the Department of Education show that low SES students complete courses as lower rates than medium or high SES students. On the most recent figures 67 per cent of low SES commencing students had completed a degree by nine years after commencement. The equivalent figures were 72 per cent for medium SES students and 78 per cent for high SES students.
Their analysis suggests, as seen in the chart below, that receipt of Youth Allowance or Austudy is associated with increases in completion at the six-year point for students in all but the most advantaged areas, with the largest effects for students living in areas with the greatest levels of economic disadvantage.*
The analysis of the results is quite brief, making it hard to fully understand the effects of student income support. If I understand them correctly, they have controlled for full- or part-time study status. However, I would see getting students to study full-time as a major benefit of student income support. In the Grattan Institute dropping out analysis, studying part-time is the single biggest completion risk, and this is supported by the Department’s analysis, which includes additional variables Grattan did not have.
As the policy name ‘Job-ready Graduates’ suggests, the main stated reason for changes to student contributions is to promote graduate employment outcomes. Or as the JRG discussion paper puts it ‘incentives in the current funding system could encourage sub-optimal choices for students and institutions, leading to poorer labour market outcomes and returns on investment in higher education.’ The assumption is that if arts becomes more expensive students will instead choose a course with lower student contributions and better employment prospects.
Employment outcomes can be measured in many ways, but every method shows that graduates in fields typically taught in Arts faculties are at an elevated risk of disappointing outcomes.
Enabling courses are niche product of the Australian higher education system. Although quite diverse, they aim to improve academic preparedness for higher education study. Enabling courses often target general academic problems, but also discipline-specific gaps.
Public universities can offer enabling courses on a full-fee basis with a FEE-HELP loan, but most enabling students are in Commonwealth supported places they get for free. In 2018, universities had nearly 22,000 CSP enrolments, who used just under 12,000 EFTSL (most enabling courses are short).
CSP enabling places are funded from a mix of the normal discipline-based Commonwealth contribution and an ‘enabling loading’ in lieu of a student contribution. Both funding sources come from the Commonwealth Grant Scheme.
From 2011 to 2019, enabling places came from an allocation for sub-bachelor places, but with an implied enabling allocation, the set number of places that received the loading. The ‘fully-funded’ loading was about $3,400 per student place in 2018, but due to over-enrolments – students above the allocated number – it averaged about $2,700. This compares to a weighted average student contribution of $8,100 if these had been charged.
Dan Tehan is the most regionally-focused education minister I can remember, and quite probably ever. Multiple new or expanded programs for regional campuses and students are part of his higher education plan.
But a sector-wide central feature of his policy, the closer alignment of discipline-level funding rates with average costs, poses particular problems for regional universities.
A reader of this COVID-19 series of posts asked me about its implications for low socio-economic status (SES) students in higher education.
I doubt the COVID-19 recession will reduce demand for post-school education from potential low SES students. The same economic logic applies for everyone who might consider further study: education is more attractive than unemployment. Local vocational education policies and opportunities may affect the regional higher education-vocational education divide, but interest in study should increase.
While low SES demand should hold or increase, I nevertheless think that low SES enrolments will probably decline without policy change. Increased total demand for university places in 2021 will intensify academic competition for entry if funding caps remain. And that, in turn, will disadvantage low SES applicants.
I’m sceptical enough of this in normal times. But COVID-19 means that, despite the extraordinary efforts of academics and other university staff to provide continuity of education and student support, three of the four performance indicators – graduate employment, student satisfaction, and equity group enrolment share – will or are likely to worsen compared to recent years. The fourth – attrition – will probably show a positive trend that also has little to do with university performance.
Due to the total amount of performance funding being linked to population growth, COVID-19 driven changes to migration levels will also reduce how much performance money is on offer.
Last week the Department of Education issued a report on equity students enrolled in research higher degree programs. As those who have read my work over the years know, I think we have significant conceptual and empirical problems in measuring socioeconomic status in higher education. And these are even more significant for higher degree students than they are for undergraduates.
What this means is that even though the report’s overall conclusion, that high SES students are ‘over-represented’ in research degrees, must be true based on other empirical evidence and theory, its statement that ‘this data should … be used with caution’ is a warning that should be heeded.
Problem Three: For research students, are we interested in their current socioeconomic status or their background? Regardless of their background, if they already have a degree (which they almost certainly do if they are in a research degree) and work in a professional job, as is quite likely to to be the case, then they are not going to be classed as low SES by the standard bureaucratic measures. And if they have moved to study and/or to be closer to professional job markets, then they will probably live in high SES areas.Read More »
Universities are rewarded for enrolling students from these areas. A participation fund of about $135 million is distributed between universities according to their share of low SES students. A university’s success in the new performance-funding scheme will depend in part on it enrolling low-SES students.
The low-SES definition has been criticised over the years, usually because it often misclassifiesindividuals. High-SES people live in low-SES areas, and vice versa. But we need a balance between precision and practicalities. To recruit additional low-SES students, universities need to first identify them. Geographic areas are easier to find than individuals with particular family characteristics.
Although geographic SES measures should be retained, the lowest 25 per cent definition needs reconsidering. As the chart below shows, in 2016 higher education participation rates in the lowest quartile were not clearly distinct from the second quartile. Generally, the weighted average participation/attainment rates at the ABS SA2 geographic level cluster at around 25 per cent for people aged 18-23 across the lowest 50 per cent of areas by the Index of Education and Occupation. An SA2 is roughly the size of a postcode.*
The three politicians with the greatest impact on higher education participation were Robert Menzies, John Dawkins and Julia Gillard. Yet I never hear anyone say, depending on their age, that “I only went to university because of Menzies/Dawkins/Gillard”.
Yet for Gough Whitlam the story is different. Last week USQ VC Geraldine Mackenzie was reported in the Australiansaying “I was very fortunate to go to university after the Whitlam years when it was all free. Otherwise I may not have had that same opportunity.” And in February shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek told the Universities Australia conference that “it feels like every week, I meet someone in their 60s or 70s who reminds me about how Gough Whitlam was responsible for them going to university.”
I have argued before that Whitlam, Prime Minister 1972-1975, was very significant in the history of Australian higher education and has some lasting legacies. But I think the lesson from Whitlam’s time for now is that the biggest drivers of participation are supply-side policies on student places, and in particular how they interact with demography and fiscal policy. Because both these factors were significant in the free education era, the long-term trend towards increased higher education participation was interrupted.
Free education lasted from 1974 to 1986 (there were small charges in 1987 and 1988, before HECS started in 1989). The chart below shows that 19-year-old participation rates went up in 1976 but then fell and did not return to the previous peak until 1986. At the low point in 1982, the 19-year old higher education participation rate was 2 percentage points lower than it had been in 1975 (unfortunately, my data source starts in 1975).