The term ‘social justice’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bradley report on higher education policy, but the idea is everywhere in the section on ‘access’. Advocates of ‘social justice’ believe that they can describe in advance what a just society would look like; the actual interests and preferences of the individuals involved typically do not count for much.
The social justice mindset is behind the targets for ‘under-represented’ groups set out by the Bradley committee. They believe that by 2020 the proportion of students from the lowest 25% of socieconomic postcodes should be 20% of the university population. It’s currently in the 15-16% range. They don’t even attempt to defend this figure; like many other numbers in this intellectually weak report it seems to have been taken out of the air as sounding about right.
A measure based on the university population has administrative convenience but lacks analytical precision. If we are interested in improved educational achievement for poor people, the correct measure is low SES students as proportion of the relevant age cohort (say 18-24) of people with equivalent socieconomic status. The trouble with using the university population is that it is a moving target; if enrolments of other SES groups grow more quickly then low SES people will appear to be going backwards.
The reforms started in the Whitlam era are instructive in this. Though the statistics are imperfect, it seems that between 1974 and 1984 the proportion of students whose father was a professional or manager increased relative to lower SES occupations. It wasn’t that fewer people from lower SES backgrounds went to university; it was that with an increasing number of places those from higher SES backgrounds were best placed, given their school results, to take advantage.
By proposing to lift all quantity constraints, unless we have reached saturation point for medium and high SES enrolments Bradley is potentially setting us for a repeat of this scenario.
She is setting a target for 40% of the total 25-34 year old population to have degrees by 2020, so on her own 80% logic it would be more sensible to say that 32% of people from low SES backgrounds should have degrees by 2020.
Target definitions aside, there are some feasiblity questions that should have been answered. How many school leavers from these postcodes have ENTER scores that make them realistic candidates for university? Bob Birrell reported a few years ago that of applicants for TAFE and universities from Victorian government schools in low SES areas nearly two-thirds had ENTERs below 60. If that’s still the pattern – and there is no reason to believe it is not – almost every one of the above-60 group would need to go to university to meet the Bradley target.
And this ignores the issue of whether it is in the interests of all these students to attend university. The report argues that the number of jobs suitable for graduates will grow significantly in the next decade. While I don’t doubt that is true, the Access Economics report they rely on still assumes that very significant numbers of graduates will, like now, be in occupations that don’t require degrees. The significant international literature on over-qualification is not even mentioned (they rely partly on OECD benchmarks to say Australia should have more graduates, but if they had moved another 4 pages through Education at a Glance 2008 they would have seen why more is not necessarily better.)
The Bradley committee propose holding back 2.5% of the Commonwealth contribution to universities unless they meet ‘performance’ requirements that could include meeting participation targets for low SES students. This could lead to unethical recruitment practices, as universities pressure low SES students to enrol so that universities get their 2.5%, even if enrolling is not likely to benefit the student.
Abolishing quantity constraints will allow more low SES students to attend university. But a responsible approach to this issue requires, before we apply any pressure to people from low SES backgrounds, doing more research to see whether or not university is likely to be in their interests. The ‘social justice’ approach could leave low SES people with a HECS debt and a job that is no better than they could have achieved with their Year 12 result or with a TAFE qualification.