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.
Within the targeting philosophy, the more sensible target is low SES enrolments as a percentage of low SES persons in the relevant age group (or more sensibly still, as a percentage of the relevant age group who have completed Year 12).
With a 2020 target, we need to keep in mind that the school leavers who will be counted towards that target are already at school. The first years of 2020 will mostly be in Year 2 this year, and the students who will make up the later years will mostly be in Years 3 and 4 now. The literacy results published late last year showed that by Year 3 the kids from low SES backgrounds are already well behind their high SES contemporaries, especially in the top bands of achievement. For all the billions of dollars that will be poured into schools in the coming decade, I don’t think anyone seriously believes the low SES students will catch up.
And the whole targeting exercise – this and the 40% overall degree completion among 25-34 year olds – is based on the assumption that many more graduates are required, when even on our current 32% attainment more than a quarter are in jobs that don’t need degrees.
Gillard looks like she will replace one Soviet-style bureaucracy managing student places with another Soviet-style bureaucracy policing production targets, with little regard for whether the necessary inputs are available or whether there is any demand for the outputs.