From one Soviet-style policy to another

In a particularly bad day for long-suffering university administrators, Julia Gillard yesterday joined Kim Carr in piling on the bureaucracy. Though she did not say so directly in her speech to the AFR higher education conference, she clearly intends to follow the Bradley report recommendation to impose institutional enrolment targets for low SES students, which will cumulatively meet a national target.

By 2020, 20% of university undergraduate enrolments are to be of low SES students. She says the current figure is ‘around 16%’. Though it sounds about right, I can’t verify this because this number is not currently reported (it is for all students, but not for undergraduates only).

This is, however, the least of the statistical problems with this target. As I argued in December, even if targets are adopted the denominator should not be total university enrolments. This is a shifting target, in which the most important factor is not low SES enrolments but enrolments of other SES groups. In order for low SES to increase their share of total enrolments their enrolments need to grow more quickly than that of other groups. Substantial improvements in low SES enrolments are not in themselves enough.

Short of engaging in class discrimination against applicants from middle and high SES groups, substantially increasing low SES as a share of total enrolments is going to be very difficult to achieve. Gillard herself notes that the school completion rate for high SES students has room to increase, but to the extent that it does reaching the low SES target would become more difficult.
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