They say that university education encourages ‘critical thinking’, but so rarely is that skill applied to university policy itself. At the weekend, Kevin Rudd returned to his anecdotes about higher education:
“We’ve got to look long and hard at how we make higher education affordable for kids from working families right across this country. I’m concerned we’re heading backwards on this, and it’s not good in terms of equity.
“We have young people and their families coming in to our electorate offices saying they don’t know if they can afford to have their kids go to university any more. This is a crying shame. The rest of the world’s investing more in education, skills and training, but public investment by the Howard Government is going backwards.”
Though demand for university places declined over the 2003-2006 period, at current prices it still exceeded aggregate supply (though some universities could not fill places, this was because the quota system of allocating places to universities does not take demand into account).
For 2007, preliminary applications centre data indicates that demand from school leavers is up by 3.8%. What is the point in trying to generate extra demand if there are too few places already? Especially if there are unlikely to be sufficient high-quality jobs at the other end.
In any case, there is no evidence – despite what people coming into Rudd’s electorate office might say – that low SES people are ‘under-represented’ at university once their ENTER scores are taken into account. The Cardak and Ryan research released this year showed that at the Year 12 to university transition point there is no evidence that anything other than ENTER score makes a difference. The problem is that low SES students get relatively weak ENTER scores.
Cardak and Ryan’s research was conducted before the 2005 student contribution amount increases, so it is theoretically possible that this was a tipping point that brought in differential price effects between SES groups. But using ENTER as a proxy for SES, it is very hard to see this in the school leaver applications and acceptances data.
For example, of school leavers applying for the 2004 academic year (before the price increases) 60.5% of them with ENTER scores in the 50-60 range applied for university, and 12.3% eventually accepted a place. For the 2006 academic year, 61.4% applied and 22.3% accepted. In the next highest group, 60.05 to 70, in 2004 76.8% applied and 33.8% accepted. In 2006 applications were slightly down, to 75%, but acceptances were up, to 48%.
Intriguingly, declining applications and acceptances were concentrated in the 80+ group, those most likely to come from higher SES backgrounds, and most likely to benefit from higher education. This, however, is consistent with the trend I have noted over a number of years, of the university starting age edging upwards. My guess is that among affluent Australian families, ‘gap’ years are becoming more popular, though most will eventually go to university if they have academic potential in the upper range. But over the shorter term, this trend could be creating places for lower SES students, if higher acceptance rates for students with low ENTERs is a good proxy.
But say price was (counter-intuitively) having a greater impact in high SES groups. Using lower prices to attract them back in to a system with finite places would squeeze out the low SES kids Rudd is trying to help, but who lose out in an ENTER-dominated admissions system. It would be a perverse result – but what you risk getting if you base policy on anecdote rather than analysis.