Julia Gillard wants to to increase the number of low SES students, and to improve their pass and retention rates. The government has now proposed a number of ‘equity’ policies to achieve these goals.
Part of the problem is that though the government is seeking to replace the current postcode-based measure of SES, probably with individual measures such as parental education, it is still talking about classifying the lowest 25% as ‘low SES’. What I show in the CR article, principally using NAPLAN results, is that lowest 25% is a highly arbitrary cut-off point. People above and below it have very similar (and not especially good) levels of academic performance.
This wouldn’t necessarily matter much, except for the fact that under the government’s policies individual benefits will attach to a low SES classification. ‘Low SES’ students will be favoured in admissions, may receive incentives in financial aid or tuition discounts, and will be funded for additional assistance after they enrol. This means issues of fairness to individuals arise. People with similar needs should be treated in similar ways, regardless of which side of an arbitary class definition they fall on.
What I suggest in the article is that there needs to be a complete break between the funding formula and service delivery:
Funding policy needs easy-to-collect indicators that will deliver resources to universities according to the likely levels of educational disadvantage across their entire student body. Service delivery can be far more complex and nuanced, with frontline university staff making individual assessments of which students need assistance and how much help they need.
Indeed, a direct SES indicator may not be needed for funding policy. The available research suggests that low SES is not in itself a negative factor for academic performance. Its effects are indirect through weaker prior academic performance. From that perspective, why use a proxy for educational disadvantage (SES) when you can use the real thing (school results and other admissions requirements)?