Bradley’s social justice mindset

The term ‘social justice’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bradley report on higher education policy, but the idea is everywhere in the section on ‘access’. Advocates of ‘social justice’ believe that they can describe in advance what a just society would look like; the actual interests and preferences of the individuals involved typically do not count for much.

The social justice mindset is behind the targets for ‘under-represented’ groups set out by the Bradley committee. They believe that by 2020 the proportion of students from the lowest 25% of socieconomic postcodes should be 20% of the university population. It’s currently in the 15-16% range. They don’t even attempt to defend this figure; like many other numbers in this intellectually weak report it seems to have been taken out of the air as sounding about right.

A measure based on the university population has administrative convenience but lacks analytical precision. If we are interested in improved educational achievement for poor people, the correct measure is low SES students as proportion of the relevant age cohort (say 18-24) of people with equivalent socieconomic status. The trouble with using the university population is that it is a moving target; if enrolments of other SES groups grow more quickly then low SES people will appear to be going backwards.

The reforms started in the Whitlam era are instructive in this. Though the statistics are imperfect, it seems that between 1974 and 1984 the proportion of students whose father was a professional or manager increased relative to lower SES occupations. It wasn’t that fewer people from lower SES backgrounds went to university; it was that with an increasing number of places those from higher SES backgrounds were best placed, given their school results, to take advantage.

By proposing to lift all quantity constraints, unless we have reached saturation point for medium and high SES enrolments Bradley is potentially setting us for a repeat of this scenario.

She is setting a target for 40% of the total 25-34 year old population to have degrees by 2020, so on her own 80% logic it would be more sensible to say that 32% of people from low SES backgrounds should have degrees by 2020.

Target definitions aside, there are some feasiblity questions that should have been answered. How many school leavers from these postcodes have ENTER scores that make them realistic candidates for university? Bob Birrell reported a few years ago that of applicants for TAFE and universities from Victorian government schools in low SES areas nearly two-thirds had ENTERs below 60. If that’s still the pattern – and there is no reason to believe it is not – almost every one of the above-60 group would need to go to university to meet the Bradley target.

And this ignores the issue of whether it is in the interests of all these students to attend university. The report argues that the number of jobs suitable for graduates will grow significantly in the next decade. While I don’t doubt that is true, the Access Economics report they rely on still assumes that very significant numbers of graduates will, like now, be in occupations that don’t require degrees. The significant international literature on over-qualification is not even mentioned (they rely partly on OECD benchmarks to say Australia should have more graduates, but if they had moved another 4 pages through Education at a Glance 2008 they would have seen why more is not necessarily better.)

The Bradley committee propose holding back 2.5% of the Commonwealth contribution to universities unless they meet ‘performance’ requirements that could include meeting participation targets for low SES students. This could lead to unethical recruitment practices, as universities pressure low SES students to enrol so that universities get their 2.5%, even if enrolling is not likely to benefit the student.

Abolishing quantity constraints will allow more low SES students to attend university. But a responsible approach to this issue requires, before we apply any pressure to people from low SES backgrounds, doing more research to see whether or not university is likely to be in their interests. The ‘social justice’ approach could leave low SES people with a HECS debt and a job that is no better than they could have achieved with their Year 12 result or with a TAFE qualification.

10 Responses to “Bradley’s social justice mindset

  • 1
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 23rd, 2008 14:07

    Also the low SES completion rate must be 95% of the high SES completion rate. That would be a very easy target for any university to meet. Why not 100%? That’s an even easier target. 🙂

    The problem with the Bradley report is that the more I read of it, the more confused and inoherant it becomes.

  • 2
    December 23rd, 2008 15:33

    I agree with all of this stuff about target setting — it seems crazy simply to force universities to take low SES students, especially given the small number who would be educated well enough to actually do well in most courses. (Also, for most courses, I would want a higher cut-off than 60 incidentally. I infrequently teach students with that sort of TER score, and most have serious problems with really basic stuff that holds them back) They would be far better off trying to look at what’s wrong with the primary and secondary high school systems and how improvements might be made there. If that was fixed, the low SES problem would no doubt fix itself to a large extent.
    Incidentally, it’s not clear to me that abolishing quantity constraints will lead to more places, even in those courses where universities might want more students. My bet is that it will make very little difference. However, it is easy to imagine cases where there will be less places available, since one of the effects it may have for courses where supply is already meeting demand is simply to concentrate places at a smaller number of usually bigger universities. In the worst case, this would lead to less students, if marginally viable courses are killed off. For example, lets say Monash has 300 students in a course which needs 100 to be viable, and ACU runs essentially the same course, but with only 100 students. Since Monash wants to be as big as big can be, let’s say they drop their standard a little, and 100 more students turn up, all of which come from other universities. Now these students have to come from somewhere. If ACU, who is running a marginally viable course, loses 20-30 students from it, it means the course will not be viable. Thus it will close down, and 70 places will need to go to other universities. However, because Monash is taking the top of the ACU distribution, and the rest of ACU is basically the bottom of the entire distribution, it means those 70 places that are no longer viable will be completely lost if no other universities happens to want to lower their standards to take in those students. Thus abolishing quantity constraints may in fact make it harder for low SES students to get in.

  • 3
    December 23rd, 2008 17:14

    I haven’t had the discipline to read the Report but with that apology offer the observation that some earlier media reports about the start of the review had said the Government had made it clear that “social inclusion” and equity were top priorities. So, might not the Bradley team have decided to simply drop in the sort of targets and philosophy on which they received so direct a message to save time and oil the machine for acceptance? Reviews like this are (to steal from someone I can’t recall) rarely simple and never pure.

  • 4
    December 23rd, 2008 21:09

    For my sins, I have read most of the Bradley Report and I agree with Andrew, Sinclair and Seneca. It is intellectually weak, confused and incoherent. But as Seneca points out, Julia Gillard did make it very clear that social inclusion and equity were top priorities. Maybe Bradley and her co-reviewers are smarter people than this report makes them appear, but it’s social justice and social inclusion that are intellectually weak, confused and incoherent.

  • 5
    Andrew Norton
    December 23rd, 2008 21:40

    They ignored Gillard on other issues. The proposed a revised version of the full-fee undergraduate places, despite Labor just having abolished them. The ignored the idea of ‘compacts’ in the terms of reference and went for vouchers instead.

    I think it is symptomatic of broader problems in the debate – there is a powerful belief in education as a force for social mobility, but a great reluctance to accept that by age 17 or 18 it is too late to fix problems that in some cases will have been accumulating since early childhood.

  • 6
    Fred Argy
    December 24th, 2008 09:05

    I agree that (1) the figure of 25% is not explained (2) there are feasibility issues (3) the problem of over-qualification is largely ignored and (4) there is a need for more research.

    But surely you must be ready to concede that people on low SES postcodes have generally got much less substantive opportunity to succeed (that universities are slipping in their role of skilling the broad population and that they need to be more representative)? Surely, you must accept that some progress should be made towards getting closer to the 25%?

  • 7
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 24th, 2008 10:03

    Bradley tells us that some individuals are ‘discouraged’ from participating in higher education but not by whom, and also that some individuals are ‘denied access’ to higher education but again does not say by whom or even how they are denied access. Part of the problem is that many people seem to have a conscription model of university recruitment in mind. Ultimately in an environment where people choose to go participate or not, universities can only do so much. That is the fundamental problem with Bradley, people won’t so much be free to choose, they might be free to comply, but overall it is a model built on coercion.

  • 8
    Andrew Norton
    December 24th, 2008 10:55

    Fred – I think universities deserve almost none of the blame for the socieconomic composition of their classrooms. The things Bradley suggests – outreach programs, fiddling with entry requirements, extra support when enrolled – have all been standard practice for many years. It’s hard to believe that another tweaking of them will radically change things. Abolishing the cap on numbers will hoover up a few thousand people currently ‘denied access’ by the quota system, but that won’t get us anywhere near 20%, even if there is no increase in higher SES enrolments. The only thing that can make a real difference is improved schooling, and there is no sign of that.

  • 9
    Fred Argy
    December 24th, 2008 11:47

    Andrew, you are right; it is not the universities that are principally to blame. The blame lies with the school system- the great engineer of Australian inequality – and this is where we should be starting. But there is some room also for universities to play a part.

  • 10
    December 24th, 2008 18:16

    Having targets seems odd – unless it’s a roundabout way of saying that there are extra barriers to people from particular groups attending university. Giving particular targets then suggests what the situation may look like if the barriers weren’t there, or perhaps some goal to achieve to effectively remove those barriers.

    My first thought about this is that it would be better to look at the potential unnecessary barriers to participation and attempt to address those. Isn’t it about people being able to attend university or other forms of higher education if they wish (if the resources are there and people satisfy entry requirements etc) ?