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.

Instead of recruitment being a zero-sum game with a fixed number of places, it could expand to meet all demand, regardless of SES backgrounds. This in itself would do more than any other policy measure to enrol the current group of low SES students interested in higher education. Indeed, we can be pretty confident that the significant increase in the number of places in the last few years will continue to increase low SES shares of commencing students. There is a leading indicator of this in the statistics on accepted offers by Year 12 score, with the below-70 group continuing to increase its share of the total.

The added competition taking away all quantity restrictions would create would give universities more of an incentive to recruit in innovative ways. Brewer herself suggested colleges that provided pathways to universities through diploma courses. But the for-profit higher education sector has been doing this for years. Why? Because they have an incentive to tap into markets left vacant by the public sector.

Vice-Chancellors at the forum, Ian Chubb from ANU and Alan Robson from UWA, were endorsing moves by universities to relax the emphasis on Year 12 results to let more low SES students in. But the reason they are doing this is not, despite their spin, principally altruism. It is because a combination of soft demand in some areas and the new Commonwealth-supported places means that some institutions are having trouble meeting their enrolment quotas.

Wanting to help the poor is a nice sentiment. But it is self-interest that moves universities the most, and it is that self-interest that policymakers need to harness. A market scheme, in which universities are directly rewarded for enrolment success and punished for enrolment failure, will focus their minds far more intently and with much greater simplicity than an equity trading scheme.

19 thoughts on “A simpler way to increase low SES uni enrolments

  1. I think the problem will solve itself in Australia — there are many courses now where essentially anyone can get in due to low student demand and universities needing to fill quotas (the announcement by ACU and UWA of “special” entry schemes to let essentially anyone in is a good indicator of this).

    As for those courses where this is not the case, I wish universities taking these lower end students would actually do a bit more than letting them in and giving them access to a rather limited amount of help. Where I work, they have a scheme like this, and what seems to be the case is that often duller or less well educated students get stuck in a group of smarter/more educated ones, and the results are entirely unsurprising (they do poorly). I believe there is similar data from some of the US private universities where similar things have happened in the name of affirmative action — as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


  2. Conrad – I agree that this is a big issue that is almost entirely overlooked as the ‘equity’ people try to reshape society according to how they think it should look. There needs to be far more attention given to the ethics of enrolling people without sufficient regard to the likely consequences for them.


  3. I think the problem is that a lot of the people that love large amounts of social engineering also believe in the ultra hard left line (and rather scientifically ignorant line) that there are no differences between individuals, and that any differences that emerge due to long term environmental pressure are easily and quickly ameliorated. If you believe this, then you can also believe that that all those kids that dropped out of school when they were 15 need is a bit of love and attention, and they’ll be doctors (or star dancers) before you know it. I think Hollywood movies are used as their main source of evidence, which proves that they are correct and not just causing more problems for people that don’t need them.


  4. Conrad – Try this too:

    I think the problem is that a lot of the people also believe in the ultra hard right Ayn Rand line (and rather scientifically ignorant line) that there are no differences between individuals, and that any differences that emerge due to long term environmental pressure are easily and quickly ameliorated. If you believe this, then you can also believe that that all those kids that dropped out of school when they were 15 need is a bit of application and determined self interest, and they’ll be doctors (or star dancers)[or architects] before you know it.

    I think Hollywood movies are used as their main source of evidence, which proves that they are correct and not just causing more problems for people that don’t need them.

    I agree that just getting people into a university is not enough – struggling to get through VCE in a family that struggled to get you second hand desktop with pirated software and a family that hasn’t ever formally studied at that level is difficult enough.

    Landing in a class where most of the people have new laptops, swishy mobiles on $49 plans, and think nothing of blowing $20 on lunch can be the most difficult thing in the world to deal with.

    When combined their access to university educated dads, mums and aunties for essay help (or even having most of your essay done when in a pinch) , any disadvantage at VCE is only compounded.


  5. FXH,

    which hard right groups are trying to push affirmative action and so on onto universities?

    Also, I don’t mind thinking about the idea of equity, I just want people to be realistic. You could take smart students from poor places (most of country Australia), or if you really insist on taking these guys with poor scores (who haven’t learnt many academic skills at all), then people should admit that and send them to Tafe or such places first. Personally, in my books, if you’re worried about equity, the school system, and not the university system, is the place to start.


  6. Kill HEX, bring back AUS study, increase the places for first year so kids get second chance and set a reasonable academic standard for the second.

    It really is that simple


  7. I still don’t understand where the money for these deregulated degrees is going to come from. My understanding is that low SES students are adverse to HECS as is, I don’t see them taking out real loans.


  8. Who wants to increase low SES enrolment and why? Are there many low SES people who would love to go uni, but are locked out by their low SES status? I doubt it. There are so many universities in Australia, many with incredibly low entrance requirements, I doubt anybody is lcoked out of our university system.


  9. In fact, both students and universities would improve immensely if we spent policy energy on deterring students from university. One vital method is of course to close half of these “universities” down.


  10. John- I suspect the private sectors already dealing with this. There’s a University within walking distance of where I live, but it’s well known that their graduates consistency lose out in job applications against graduates of most other Universities (around here at least). I can’t see Universities like the one described above continuing their standards over the longer term.


  11. I am so glad you people are so full of it. I am allowed to use this dribble in my university Assignment. Oh by the way I am from a drug infested poverty filled area. I only finished year 8 at school. I had no in between training and are now in the top 15% of all students at Murdoch, a top International Australian University. If you feel that kids lower scores in low ses areas are due to being dumb, you are an idiot. You have no idea how these kids live or what they think is normal in life. Wake up.


  12. Pamela – Not taking a social science course I hope! Of course not all kids from low SES areas do badly, but on average they get much lower school results than kids from high SES areas. You won’t find any evidence that contradicts that.


  13. Even worse a primary school teacher. I can direct you to a site though, which cites the Education Minister Julie Gillard and states that once entered to Uni low ses students have comparable scores to other students.

    This is also my uni posting on this topic. Hope it opens your eyes and if it doesn’t I can tell you worse stories.

    Hi all,
    I just wanted to express my views on this topic of class. I have now read more than once, that students from low ses backgrounds have no excuse not to go on to uni.

    By saying this you are just showing you have no idea of what some of these kids face on a daily basis.

    I agree if you have support, resiliency, and a belief in yourself you can make it even if you are from a low ses area.

    These things are often learnt by example. Parents in these areas often lack these skills for themselves.

    When you are emerged in an environment full of people that lack confidence, self belief and resiliency skills, it is not hard to see the world as to intimidating, cruel and a place where you are not wanted.

    Try and imagine you are living in a house with 11 people. You sleep in the lounge with your mum her boyfriend and your baby brother (in the wheel barrow). You are not being feed properly, so you are hungry a lot. You do not sleep properly because your ‘support’ is off their face making noise all night. You have had a cold for 3 months but it is cold and you do not have a jacket. Last night was bad because mums boyfriend tied a noose around his neck and threatened to kill himself for over two hours. Mum was no better because she has just popped two anti-psychotic drugs even though she is not psychotic. You are secretly glad she did pop the drugs though, because last time she cut herself pretty bad when they fought.

    Oh yeah I for got to mention, Mum self harms because she does not believe in herself. There are no books in my house. No one to talk to about me. I am a burden. My mum loves me just as much as yours, but she lacks so much. It is not her choice. She hates her self for not coping but does not know better.

    Is there nothing different about my situation it is only money hey?.

    The above case is mild compared to what I can tell you about the kids from 1 class from 1 school.

    As teachers unfortunately we can not control the outside forces that are influencing children, ie family situation. We are also not there to judge. Parents come as they are.

    What we can do is believe in our students. Encourage them to believe in themselves. Teach them resiliency. Help them to realise that the world out there is reachable for them and believe it yourself.


  14. Pamela – Low ENTER score students do have lower rates of success (which usually just means pass/fail, rather than grade point average). But I agree from the studies I have read that independently of the effects of low ENTER scores there is little evidence that low SES students have worse academic prospects.

    One explanation for the success of low SES students who do make it to uni is that they are particularly resilient and determined, and have not just coasted into uni as middle class students can.

    As for your case study, I’m not sure we have any disagreement on this general point.


  15. I understand what you mean, but if a child scores lower at school due to issues at home as long as they can compare at uni it should not matter.

    I do agree that the scores should not be lowered for anyone regardless, except maybe Indigenous Australians, which is an different issue. Uni is for the elite but not should not be just rich.

    I sat my Uni entrance exam (STAT test) and scored in the top 5%. Rules should not be changed for low ses students but the real support they need is not there. That is why in the last 15 years their has been no improvement. Lowering entry scores for these students is not a solution to these kids problems that do need addressing. To financially support students that could easily be support by their parents and then say there is no money to help capable ses students go to uni, is the biggest problem.

    You have no idea what it is like. I am 29 with 3 kids. My out of pocket day care fees have nearly doubled. I now have to pay $261 per week for day care. My income is $248(Government). My house is now for sale to pay for me to finish my degree. (1 year 2 weeks to go)My husband is working 60 hours a week but after out weekly bills we have only $53 a week for food, clothes and general living expenses. My husband and I have lost nearly 30kilos in the last 3 months as we are saving our food for the kids. I can not relate to the students at uni but who do I go to? No one I know can relate to me, it is the most horrible feeling.
    I have a 300mhz, 10gig computer, no laptop no mobile phone. I had to use one of my sons old school books as a note book as I can not afford one. I miss readings from books as I can not afford them. I sit there hungry in class watching the other students. They scoff when they get put with me. I am a good person and do not deserve what I get. All low ses students get the same treatment, not just me.

    I was the parent committee President for 5 years at one of the schools with the lowest national scores in WA. I know these sorts of kids and families from many perspectives. They are ‘injured’ not deficient! and as we all know ‘injuries’ can take a long time and a lot of money to heal, so do it!

    How can Child care rebates not be means tested and more support given to struggles? Did you know that someone earning hundreds of thousands a year gets the same childcare rebate as me? Did you also know you get more money on the dole than you do on astudy? As well as rent assistance is only given on unemployment.

    The middle class majority do not want low-ses students there, it is as clear as day, but they have me now and I am loud and will fight for these kids!.

    Well thanks for replying and I hope people see how unfairly these children are being judged, they are not stupid, just lost.


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