Amidst the pre-campaign barrage of media releases from Julie Bishop was one announcing funding for a National Centre for Student Equity in higher education.
“The Centre will develop best practice for attracting and retaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds and will provide outreach programs to universities, schools and the broader community,” Minister Bishop said.
This assumes too much. While we know the main reason low SES people don’t go to university, poor school results, we don’t know very much about the consequences for those who do decide to attend. Mainly due to being less academically prepared to start with, their completion rates are lower than for higher SES students. But is doing some university a benefit, even if it does not end in a degree? Are those who do complete getting jobs that match their qualifications, or are they over-represented among those graduates in sales and clerical work?
Our aim ought to be to help people improve their lives, not use them to help make society look more like the ideological preconceptions of the academic left.
I’m currently working on a paper about private higher education providers, and there is one group of them that is particularly interesting from the perspective of this issue. These are the feeder colleges that offer diploma-level courses via which students can articulate into degree courses at university, if they do well enough. Their courses are aimed at people without the Year 12 results to go straight to university, or mature-age students returning to study.
Because people from low SES backgrounds are over-represented among school under-achievers, these courses represent an alternative route into higher education. The limited DEST data on enrolments in these colleges, which only covers those taking out FEE-HELP loans and is only for the first year of FEE-HELP, suggests that they may have higher than average low SES enrolments, despite being full-fee.
One of the (many) absurdities of the current higher education system is that kids from affluent families attending presitigious universities and taking courses leading to lucrative professions get government subsidies, while the kids in the feeder colleges pay full fees.
That aside, this could well be a good model for the Centre for Student Equity to look at. It gives an exit point after one year, so anyone who passes gets at least something for their year of effort. The organisation is focused on the particular needs of students not immediately ready for university-level studies, and most advertise small classes, something that public universities cannot offer. The annual report of IBT Education Ltd, the biggest operator in this field, reports on pass rates of the students who continue on to university, which are as good or better than students arriving at university through the usual routes.
The irony for people believing in the virtues of ‘public’ education is that a for-profit, stock market-listed company is more innovative in dealing with ‘equity’ groups than most public universities.
This seems to be the case in the US as well. The book After Admission: From College Access to College Success unfavourably compares community colleges with for-profit ‘occupational colleges’. I’m not sure to what extent this can map onto the Australian experience, but one interesting feature is that the private colleges were very focused on ensuring good long-term outcomes for their students, and not just concerned with getting them through the degree (as the Centre for Student Equity seems to be).
One of the keys to this was recognising that many low SES people are socially unprepared for higher-skill workplaces. The occupational colleges taught them how to speak, dress and behave at work as well as how to do the core occupational tasks. They enforce dress codes and punctuality; making college as much like the office as possible. They put a lot of effort into finding their students suitable jobs, guiding them through the labour market to their first employment.
This is nothing like the Australian public university, with teaching and student consultation to be done as quickly as possible so that the staff can get back to research. It’s not a system very well designed for ‘equity’ students. All the more reason to encourage institutional diversity such as the for-profit sector unworried about where they stand in the academic rankings.