Uni fees and the working class

The Age this morning reports the findings of 2006 census analysis I did wearing my University of Melbourne hat.

It looks at 18 and 19 year olds living at home (so we can see parental occupation and household income) to see how socieconomic background affects university and TAFE attendance rates. As there are similar census studies for 1991, 1996 and 2001, we can also observe trends over time.

For regular readers of this blog, the finding that the increased university attendance charges in 2005 had no negative impact on low SES attendance rates will come as no surprise. But the growth observed between 1991 and 2001 for all groups has stalled.

Unfortunately, the 1991 to 2001 census data does not disaggregate 18 and 19 year olds; which means it is hard for me to work out whether this is a real stalling, or a by-product of students starting university studies at a later age. For the 2006 census, there were significant increases in university attendance rates between age 18 and age 19 (21% of 18 year olds, 30% of 19 year olds).

The most striking finding, as it had been in earlier census-based studies, was that for the sons of blue collar families the normal pattern of university attendance increasing with household income is reversed. The more the family earns, the less likely it is that their sons will attend university, and the more likely it is that they will attend TAFE. For the daughters, the usual relationship is observed, but the attendance rate is only 3% higher in the wealthiest blue-collar families than it is in the poorest.

Presumably young working class guys whose fathers earn good money decide that following them into relatively lucrative blue-collar occupations is their best option. Their sisters probably have fewer well-paid job options, and better school results, so more of them go to university.

Despite widespread intuitions to the contrary, it remains very hard to find evidence that tuition costs are a big factor affecting working class university enrolment. A third of the blue-collar households in this data make $100,000 a year or more, but even they don’t achieve the university attendance rates of the poorest professional households.

6 thoughts on “Uni fees and the working class

  1. “Presumably young working class guys whose fathers earn good money decide that following them into relatively lucrative blue-collar occupations is their best option.”

    Yeah, but just because Father is a successful plumber doesn’t mean that Son will be.


  2. Conrad – I can’t think of a specific study of families with low SES rankings on education and occupation but high on income. However, given that boys on average do worse at school than girls across all SES groups, and that on average kids whose parents are in blue collar jobs do worse at school than those in professional jobs, it seems highly unlikely that the one-third of so of boys in high-income low SES households are on average strong academic performers. (And those that are probably make up the 12% or so who do go to university.)


  3. Spiros – I would take issue with your argument and argue that exactly because Father was a successful plumber, Son may have a much better chance of being one.

    Firstly, the Son has possibly spent all the holidays of his adolescence either following Dad and his workmates to job sites and labouring for them, or doing work with Dad around the house. All those hours spent around a successful trades person are hours where the Son is learning how to emulate the successful habits and practices of the Dad. It wasn’t necessarily intentional (Dad may have wanted Son to go to uni and become an engineer), but it is an effective communication of knowledge and skills.

    Secondly, the Dad may have hereditary attributes which make him a brilliant tradie. That may be physical size or strength, dexterity, etc. etc. The Son may have received these in his genetic inheritance.

    Thirdly, the Dad knows what disciplines it takes to be a great tradie, and may have inculcated these in his son. Getting up early, paying attention to detail, looking after your tools – all of these things may be intentionally taught at home.

    Lastly, Dad can probably instruct the Son on how to play the game of getting started. Either the Son can work for Dad, or Dad can make a call and get the Son to work for a mate, or Dad knows the right place to apply, and exactly what they are looking for. Once begun, Dad can make sure his Son takes the overtime, buys the best tools, treats people right, works on the bigger and better jobs.

    So while Dad being a great tradesperson doesn’t guarantee that the Son will follow in his footsteps, Dad can do an awful lot to improve the Son’s chances.


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