For the last few weeks I’ve been helping to prepare a speech on Australian higher education policy over the last 40 years (for Adelaide readers, you can hear Glyn Davis give it on Thursday, for others the final version will be published in Australian Book Review). As my memories of the 1960s consist largely of Humphrey B Bear and the milk bottles with yucky cream under the lid they made us drink in kindergarten, I had to do some historical reading.
I knew the broad outline, but the detail can still surprise. Even in 1970, an author writing on ‘access to higher education’ could start a sentence with ‘In an ethnically homogenous society like Australia…’. No essay written on Australian universities today could contain the phrase ‘ethnically homogenous’.
As the student statistics released last week record, 239,495 of the 957,176 people enrolled at Australian universities are overseas students. To these can be added 163,820 domestic students who were born overseas. Between them, they make up 42% of all students at Australian universities.
Previous, though now rather dated, research found that the Australian-born children of migrants were more likely to attend university than 3rd or more generation Australians. We’ll have to wait for the 2006 census results to confirm that this is still true, but given the selection effect (ie, the people who are ambitious for their offspring are more likely to migrate) I’d be very surprised if it was not.
Given that, and a large migration programme favouring people with higher education qualifications (who are likely to pass that preference to their kids), it won’t be long, if it hasn’t happened already, before 3rd or more generation Australians make up a minority of university enrolments.
Another huge change has been the percentage of female enrolments. In the mid-1960s it was just under a quarter, only slightly higher than it had been in the 1940s. The professions were still dominated by men. In 2005, enrolments were 54.4% female (and about 57% of domestic enrolments). Partly this is due to ‘female’ occupations like nursing moving into the higher education system. But in almost every discipline, female enrolments now outnumber male. Back in the 1960s, this is an outcome nobody would have predicted.
The smallest change has been in the occupations of students’ parents. A study published in 1970, covering engineering, law, medical and teaching students in 6 universities, found that 50% had fathers who were professionals or managers. In the 2001 census, data on 18-19 year olds living at home showed that 52% of them had fathers who were professionals or managers. There has been a massive change in the proportion of young people of all social backgrounds going to university, but the relative enrolment shares have been quite stable.
It suggests that broad changes in women’s aspirations, work requirements, the ethnic composition of the population, and the number of university places have had their effect on higher education, but all the programmes specifically targeted at increasing the share of low SES people at university have had little observable effect.