A simpler way to increase low SES uni enrolments

Never choose a simple scheme when there is a complex alternative: that, unfortunately, seems to a maxim of higher education policymaking. It was on display again yesterday morning at a Group of Eight forum on higher education and social inclusion.

In her presentation (ppt), Sydney University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Ann Brewer suggested an ‘equity trading scheme’ to encourage universities to enrol more students from low SES backgrounds. I must admit she lost me on the detail of how it would work, but presumably it would mean that those universities (like, I suspect, her own) that failed to meet their equity targets would have to buy credits from those that had more credits than they needed.

There is a much simpler way of dealing with this problem, which is to fix the market design of the whole Commonwealth funding scheme. At the moment, the total number of Commonwealth-supported places is largely fixed overall and for particular institutions. This means that all the specific proposals for recruiting low SES students she and other presenters offered would operate in a zero-sum game. The only way to increase low SES numbers is by decreasing numbers from other SES groups.

Universities have weak incentives to spend large sums coaxing under-prepared low SES students into university when they can take bright, well-educated upper-middle class kids who apply without needing encouragement. Brewer is right that the incentive structure would need to change before this would happen. But there is a simpler option than an equity trading scheme: just deregulate the market.
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