Low SES students and the Group of Eight

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.

19 thoughts on “Low SES students and the Group of Eight

  1. Well, good to see that it’s not only the left that’s elitest.
    .
    The poor will always be with us, hopefully just not too near: “Encouraging them to enrol in institutions where they have a high chance of being bottom of the class would not do them any favours …. 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.”
    .
    Very considerate, for it would be difficult getting off the bus outside uni as your classmates cruised by in the BMWs that Daddy bought. And what to talk about when discussions of ‘what I did in my gap year’ come up?
    .
    Except that if you managed a score of 75 from some rotten school and unsupportive home, you might be more than a match for those who came from very expensive schools (plus extra coaching). I think I’ve read (perhaps on this blog) that private school kids generally have higher entry scores than state school kids, but that by second year there’s no difference in the marks.
    .
    Let’s remember that it’s the prestigious unis who have the prestigious courses (UWA has medicine, Edith Cowan has nursing) so you can’t really compare the top unis with the bottom. Not to mention that when VSU came in Edith Cowan lost almost all its clubs etc, whereas UWA just funded them because it’s part of a proper university education. The elite unis are another pleasant way that the wealthy perpetuate their advantages. Isolated W.A. is probably more insular that the east coast states, and here old school tie networks are quite an advantage.

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  2. “Except that if you managed a score of 75 from some rotten school and unsupportive home, you might be more than a match for those who came from very expensive schools (plus extra coaching)”
    .
    Russell, that isn’t true. If it was true, it would be super, because all those rotten schools would be doing a good job teaching kids. We therefore wouldn’t need to worry about fixing them (we’d just need to fix the uni entry test up — which some places want to do anyway). At most, the difference is a small number of TER points — so 75 might be the equivalent of 78, not 95.
    .
    “Let’s remember that it’s the prestigious unis who have the prestigious courses ”
    .
    That used to be true, but it becomes less so these days. In Victoria, for example, you can do Law and Medicine at Deakin (an average uni), and in Sydney and you can do medicine at Western Sydney (aweful). Where I work (an average uni), I could pick a number of courses where you would be instantly middle class upon finishing that are not especially hard to get into.

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  3. Thank you Andrew. Someone had to point out that Luke Slattery’s angle on this story was a crock.

    It’s interesting to note that the original research that Slattery was reporting on wasn’t about the share of low SES students in higher education, but about how well VET provides pathways for low SES students into higher education. According to the data provided, part of the reason fewer low SES students make it to uni is that TAFE’s aren’t attracting these students into the higher level VET qualifications (Diploma or higher) so they less likely to be able to on to uni.
    Instead of using the research to bash up the unis, maybe it would have been more informative to actual report the finding of the paper itself!
    http://www.unisa.edu.au/hawkeinstitute/ncsehe/publications.asp

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  4. Conrad – but what if we’re not talking about the comparatively few very top end 95 score courses. It can be a few points that will make the difference between getting into arts, or even architecture say, at UWA, versus Curtin (which was once Perth Technical College).
    .
    The resources at the two unis are a world apart – study anthropology at UWA for example, and on campus you have one of the best collections of aboriginal artefacts in the world, plus its curators etc. Then there’re resources in libraries etc. So it’s all a bit like the elite schools versus the rest – you will get a better, richer education at the top universities, and it might be just a few marks that exclude you from them.
    .
    I’d be surprised if graduates from UWA weren’t favoured by employers who were also UWA graduates and why not, they’ve probably had a better education. So the question is, is sustained, handed down, privilege over the generations OK, nothing to worry about, or do we make some efforts to even things out a bit.

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  5. Russell,

    these days, I’m surprised at how similar most courses are. The main reason for this is that everyone gets the same funding per student, and since no-one wants to run at a loss, you essentially end up with quite a similar standard. Perhaps there are a small number of courses where there is a massive difference like your examples, but it generally *isn’t* the case (as for libraries — even my average university will allow students to get stuff that isn’t in them). It’s easy to see this from employer surveys (your worry) and graduate destination surveys. If the courses were really so different, you would see high unemployment from graduates from the lowest universities from the same courses, but that isn’t the case as far as I’m aware. At least in Australia, I believe it also isn’t the case that graduates from prestige universities are doing much better than the average ones (it is in the UK for some areas, but the type of education you get at the best universities in Australia isn’t even close to that which you get at the best universities in the UK — so the difference between good and bad, at least in terms of learning, is far less).
    .
    Another factor in this that will become important is that once more places go for Melbourne-model style degrees (i.e., cheap to teach style courses — this will no doubt happen at UWA), it will give average universities a vast advantage over the prestige ones. This is because with the MM style universities, you can only do a relatively small number of subjects that a zillion other people also do (it also rules out almost all lab-based subjects). Thus, in some areas (such as the allied medical health), employers are faced with getting students who have been trained in areas from average universities versus those that haven’t from MM style universities. The preference is obvious to me — I know when I go and check on industry-based learning students (again, a huge advantage of average universities — most prestige universities don’t have this, but it helps enormously with employment outcomes), a great proportion of the the staff initially did courses that MM-style universities will not offer to undergraduates. This of course is not surprising — if you did work experience somewhere, and they loved you, of course they want to employ you when jobs come around.
    .
    So in sum, I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as you think and I think the major changes we see of late will actually help things.

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  6. “everyone gets the same funding per student, and since no-one wants to run at a loss, you essentially end up with quite a similar standard”
    But the government isn’t the only source of funding. UWA. I believe, is fabulously wealthy, not only because of its endowments, but also from bequests and gifts and sponsorships etc.
    I heard on the weekend that Peter Sculthorpe has given Sydney University millions of dollars for their music department. The already prestigious unis are of course more likely to attract these funds. so the advantages will be perpetuated.

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  7. The bottom line of Andrew’s argument is that poor kids get so screwed before they get to uni that any who survive are immune to further screwing.

    I’d be more impressed if he was as passionate about fixing the earlier screwing as he is passionate about the uni’s right to continue screwing.

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  8. The bottom line of Andrew’s argument is that what the papers are saying is a load of rubbish. They’re deliberately misreading the data so as to produce yet another ‘the poor kids miss out’ beat up.

    The means of discrimination is not one’s level of disadvantage, it is, for better or worse, the TER. But it’s easier for the newspapers to beat up the G-8 universities than to investigate what is wrong with the schooling given to poorer kids.

    DD, Andrew DOES write about the quality of school education, it is something that he is interested in – at time of writing he has 46 entries in the ‘schools’ category of postings, on the right of your screen. It just happens that his area of professional expertise is higher education. I don’t think it’s fair to beat up on him for concentrating his writing on his area of professional expertise.

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  9. Thanks, Jeremy. I can’t do much about the families kids get born to, but I am ‘passionate’ (much as I hate that term, but the equivalent for someone with my personality type) about ending the public education system, which has let poor kids down for generations.

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  10. “UWA. I believe, is fabulously wealthy, not only because of its endowments, but also from bequests and gifts and sponsorships etc”
    .
    Of which I’ll bet around 0.1% is spent on undergraduate education, excluding a few trophy departments, like music, medicine and possibly law. Indeed, I’ll bet without even looking that most bequests are for things like medical research, some new musical instruments, a few paintings for a gallery, club A that former rich student B loved, or “in your face” research. If they’re really lucky, someone might give enough funds for a building. All of this is of course great for post-graduate students (which no doubt they take from many universities — our top student are constantly getting taken by Melbourne, more evidence for how similar the degrees are) and research staff, where places UWA really do well. Alternatively, the benefit to undergraduates is basically zilch, excluding the occasional tagged scholarship.

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  11. Conrad, “a few trophy departments, like music, medicine and possibly law” …. you left out Business Schools! I’ve just looked at UWA’s website and lo the Business School has just got Woodside to fund a chair in Leadership and Management, Mitsubishi to chip in $150,000 (peanuts), and alumnus to fund scholarships for their business students “with an interest in the mining industry” etc etc. The money pours in.
    .
    I think it does affect undergraduate education – it affects everything. UWA can afford to bring out really inspiring visiting lecturers, even if they’re only there for 2 weeks. They have various kinds of internal scholarships, they’re linked up with good universities overseas which gives students a much larger perspective on possible opportunities etc.
    .
    I don’t want to reduce UWA in any way, I just don’t want what it offers it to become an experience only for the already advantaged.

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  12. Russell,
    .
    I think we are going around in circles, but I think you are too pessimistic about the real difference in most degrees at different universities (especially if you look at outcome statistics, like that on graduate careers, or that which is published by the government based on various surveys), and too optimistic about what scholarships and money does at the undergraduate level (I think you are under the false impression that these scholarships generally go to poor kids and also under the false impression that most of these special chairs actually teach more than a tiny amount to undergraduates — they don’t).
    .
    Here is the order of what I think is most likely to help you in life from your degree:
    1) Industry based learning if you are 18 (where you go and get trained in a job for a year). You now have 1 year experience someone else from mega-university doesn’t. Guess who gets employed? Untrained person from mega-university or person who can already do the job?
    2) Being in the top 10% of your course. This is the pool big employers first choose from. Everyone wants the top students, no-matter what the university. Lots of employers pick across disciplines in this respect. The best students from even the most-despised degrees get good jobs because many employers simply want smart people for complex jobs that no specific university course can teach you, and the top 10% means you get these people.
    3) Smart degree choice. If you don’t do a vocational degree (and even if you do), try and mix your majors into different areas, so even if you love some Arts subject (e.g., philosophy), you still do something that gives you an entirely different skill set (e.g., statistics). Too many people pick two subjects with the same skill set — indeed, it is foolishly encouraged by many universities.
    4) For many 3 year degrees, doing a 4th year. Students at even the average universities that do well in 4th year pick up better jobs than their 3 year counterparts, and the reason is obvious — it basically guarantees they are decent. If you do well in 4th year, you can also essentially go anywhere in Australia to do postgraduate stuff.
    5) Good postgraduate courses. This could be anywhere. The rather small place I work out at is the largest provider of one type of post-graduate degree that gets you onto the medicare swipe card scheme, for example (and you know what that guarantees). I don’t put this higher because you can come back and do it, and it is really independent of the above.
    6) What university you go to.
    .
    So there’s my list for you to think about. As you can see, I think there are many more important factors than what university you go to. Even if you disagree with the absolute order, you might want think about how important some of the things I put up with are, and who offers them. Most of your comments pertain to (6), which I don’t think is important as you do — I think there is a big snob factor, and you are far better off doing something good at an average place than something average at an excellent place. Perhaps there is some overall difference, but I think the difference is tiny compared to things like industry placements (which almost none of the top universities in Aus offer). There are probably a few caveats — I don’t know anything about the really awful providers (like CQU) — my experience with universities in Australia basically ends with the low but not awful.

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  13. Conrad – I think you’re probably right about all that stuff. But I’m always thinking from the perspective that a university education should be more than just vocational – it should be an experience. The experience can be much richer, broader and more inspiring in the top universities because of the resources they have.
    .
    Andrew has a point – you don’t want, for ideological reasons, to mix students into an environment where they can’t cope or catch up. That might just mean they drop out and miss their chance for a university education – I just didn’t like his dismissal of the ‘equity’ movement as if equity were unimportant.

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  14. As a student from a single parent family who’s at Melbourne Uni I guess I’m a case study.

    I got the 94 needed to get into Melbourne Uni without any type of Special Consideration. I also spent about a semester at Monash before deferring for a while. Both are “high tier” Unis, but Monash less so. Overall things that I’ve struggled with are:
    -Failure- I’m used to doing well and being far ahead of my peers. Being “average” at a Uni with a bunch of other smart people was a blow. I didn’t need to work hard to get into Uni- I had a good memory- but I do need to work hard at Uni. Not doing well, and not having a successful family to fall back on when not doing well has been without question the biggest challenge. This applies to Monash slightly less so than at Melbourne, but it still applies.
    -Exclusivity/ High School connections- Coming to Uni from Tasmania I didn’t have any social connections at Monash, or on my subsequent enrollment at Melbourne. At Monash I found it a little easier to connect with some class mates, but at Melbourne less so. Melbourne has its on-school colleges and a lot of other students already at least know a few other people. But I knew no-one and not many social groups seemed open. Clubs I’ve joined have never been that welcoming, or socialising has stopped as soon as club events are over. I’d actually say rather than socio-economic background being important going to a Uni with High School friends is important- or least being able to afford on-campus accommodation (which is a socio-economic factor).

    Otherwise going to a Uni that is out of ones league, or even a Uni in one’s league that is a different atmosphere than High School is challenging. To be honest while I like being able to brag about being at Melbourne Uni, I’d probably get a bigger confidence boost being at a Uni where I’m clearly top of the class.

    Just some feedback based on my own experiences… Other people’s mileage may vary…

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  15. “I think I’ve read (perhaps on this blog) that private school kids generally have higher entry scores than state school kids, but that by second year there’s no difference in the marks.”

    That isn’t completely accurate. I think the study you are talking about is a 2005 study looking at first year Monash University students, which found that for students of the same ENTER, non-selective state school students performed their private school counterparts.

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  16. Unfortunately most research focus is on first-year results, but there are no significant differences in completions according to the one study of it I can locate.

    The main misunderstanding is that the finding is that kids from non-selective government schools do better in first year for a given ENTER score is confused with kids from non-selective government schools doing better in absolute terms. Because on average they are well behind on their ENTER scores compared to private school or government selective school students, the common inference from this research is incorrect.

    It does however justify the common university practice of letting students from non-selective government schools in on slightly lower ENTER scores.

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  17. What a nauseating exhibition of bourgeois pud-pulling. Who says these working class oiks – oops low SES – want to go to university anyway? Just what every westie male dreams of; three years of Catharine Lumby and Robert Manne!

    Quelle horreur!

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  18. The more I think about this, the more annoyed I get. The ANU is infested with social democrats professing concern for the disadvantaged. All the while, however, there are probably more staff concerned about the disadvantaged than there are disadvantanted getting an education at the ANU. Probably a slight overstatement, but nonetheless a very poor performance. The argument that Canberra is a high SES area only goes so far. But for being the national capital, Canberra is a remore rural city that should otherwise attract a lot of students who by post code alone are likely to be identitfied as low SES.

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