Yesterday my U of M boss, Glyn Davis, gave a speech on the difficulties in reaching the government’s target of 20% of all higher education enrolments being from a low socieonomic status background. The current definition of ‘low SES’ is living in the lowest 25% of postcodes according to the ABS index of education and occupation.
It is well established that socieconomic differences in school results are the major reason why low SES students are ‘under-represented’ at university. However, it was not until I recently analysed 2008 Victorian Year 12 results that I realised that lowest 25% seems like an inappropriately narrow target group. As the figure below shows, while students living in the lowest 10% of postcodes are clearly the weakest performers, those in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th deciles have very similar (and not very good) school results). Very few receive ENTER scores in the 90s, and nearly half have ENTER scores below 50. While results trend upwards after the 5th decile, it is only a modest exaggeration to say that we really have the top 20% and the rest.
Source: Own calculations based on Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre and ABS data. Note: ENTER is a ranking of school results, called UAI or TER in other states. The vertical axis shows what percentage of each socioeconomic decile received scores in the color-coded bands; the total of the bands is the proportion who received 50 or more. The 1st decile contains people with the lowest levels of qualifications and occupations; the tenth the highest.
The effects of these differentials on university enrolments are even greater, because the higher deciles have larger populations. Students from the top 25% of postcodes receive half as many again 90+ ENTERs as the other 75%. Even looking at the whole 70+ ENTER group, the main candidates for university entry, more than half are from the top 25% of postcodes.
As with many of the numbers set by higher education policymakers, the lowest 25% seems – if not simply picked out of the air – to be based on long-forgotten historical considerations. But it would seem perverse to focus simply on the lowest 25% when there are many others whose school results leave them no better off than students in the lowest 25% of postcodes.
We are expecting more detail on this policy in next week’s budget. The government’s performance in higher education policy does not exactly fill me with confidence that this problem will be remedied, but I hope it will.