According to a report in today’s Australian, the
Group of Eight research universities are tough institutions for disadvantaged students to get into, but they are not, according to a surprising new study, the toughest of the lot: that dubious honour goes to the University of Canberra.
Of course, the University of Canberra is not especially tough for anyone to get into. You can do a Bachelor of Business at the University of Canberra on an ENTER/UAI of 65. It charges the same prices as any other university for a Commonwealth-supported place. The reason it has few low SES students is that low SES is defined as being in the bottom 25% of Australian postcodes according to an index of education and occupation, and Canberra being full of university-educated professionals working in the public service it has no such postcodes. No matter how poor you are, if you live in the ACT you are not ‘low SES’ by this measure.
For the Group of Eight (the ANU aside), locational issues are less important than academic issues. Relatively few people from low SES backgrounds get the scores needed to go to these universities. From research I have seen on Victorian and NSW universities, the Group of Eight get the vast majority of the small number of people from low SES postcodes with strong results. But because they are few in number, they are not a large percentage of all Group of Eight enrolments.
The Australian‘s headline ‘unis slow to open doors to the poor’ is far from the truth; universities are falling over themselves to enrol people from poor backgrounds. They have special recruitment programs to attract them and fudge the entry requirements to let them in.
I have no objection to these enrolment practices provided the students can do the course ok, but the danger with the social justice mindset behind the ‘equity’ movement is that the interests of individual low SES students are placed below the social goal of more equal rates of SES university participation. Encouraging them to enrol in institutions where they have a high chance of being bottom of the class would not do them any favours.
I am, however, reasonably optimistic that not too much of this will happen, whatever the policy settings. In the ‘equity’ literature, low SES students are implicitly assumed to be hapless victims of circumstance who are unable to make good educational choices. In reality, there is little evidence that they systematically make poor decisions, given their school results and aspirations. They can work out the approximate long-term costs and benefits of various options, which is why – contrary to repeated predictions – they have not been deterred by rising HECS/student contribution amounts. And they will work out that if they have an ENTER of 75, an institution where most students have an ENTER of 95 may not be the best choice.