An unfair university equity policy?

Julia Gillard wants to to increase the number of low SES students, and to improve their pass and retention rates. The government has now proposed a number of ‘equity’ policies to achieve these goals.

In this week’s Campus Review I argue (try here if the CR link does not work) that we could be headed for an unfair equity policy.

Part of the problem is that though the government is seeking to replace the current postcode-based measure of SES, probably with individual measures such as parental education, it is still talking about classifying the lowest 25% as ‘low SES’. What I show in the CR article, principally using NAPLAN results, is that lowest 25% is a highly arbitrary cut-off point. People above and below it have very similar (and not especially good) levels of academic performance.

This wouldn’t necessarily matter much, except for the fact that under the government’s policies individual benefits will attach to a low SES classification. ‘Low SES’ students will be favoured in admissions, may receive incentives in financial aid or tuition discounts, and will be funded for additional assistance after they enrol. This means issues of fairness to individuals arise. People with similar needs should be treated in similar ways, regardless of which side of an arbitary class definition they fall on.

What I suggest in the article is that there needs to be a complete break between the funding formula and service delivery:

Funding policy needs easy-to-collect indicators that will deliver resources to universities according to the likely levels of educational disadvantage across their entire student body. Service delivery can be far more complex and nuanced, with frontline university staff making individual assessments of which students need assistance and how much help they need.

Indeed, a direct SES indicator may not be needed for funding policy. The available research suggests that low SES is not in itself a negative factor for academic performance. Its effects are indirect through weaker prior academic performance. From that perspective, why use a proxy for educational disadvantage (SES) when you can use the real thing (school results and other admissions requirements)?

29 thoughts on “An unfair university equity policy?

  1. I fall within the “low SES” category and I live in/have grown up in government housing. My UAI/[EN]TER was 95+ and I am doing a technical degree at university with a HD average.

    Some of the Rudd Government policies in my view are good. The policies which I judge to be beneficial are those which pertain to a rationalisation of means testing rules as well as the so called “student start up scholarships”.

    I also endorse the changes to student income accounting which pertain to merit based scholarships. I receive one of these and I currently work full time for a mining/minerals company so I do not know much of these measures I will benefit from but nevertheless if I were not in the position I am in I would be grateful for such policies.


  2. I just don’t get it; I downloaded the document:
    Is that what your blogging about?

    Bit of money thrown at universities to try and get kids with low SES scores to go to university; with guidelines still to be set?


  3. Charles – No, it is two of the discussion papers (SES and performance) at the end of the page I linked to plus some draft guidelines that I cannot immediately find online. I did not directly link because it requires a lot of reading to get a full picture of what they have in mind.


  4. “Bit of money thrown at universities to try and get kids with low SES scores to go to university; with guidelines still to be set?

    This is actually one of the really curious aspects of the policy. There actually isn’t a real incentive to enrol low SES students, since the way the policies are constructed new costs will match or exceed the new money on offer.


  5. Here’s my bet. Universities will take the extra money, take the students who need further assistance because they went to schools where they didn’t learn anything, and do approximately zero about it.
    I think this because the “special category students” (or whatever they’re calling them now) taken in where I work generally do extremely poorly and end up getting marks where they are not exactly going to be on the top of employer’s lists when they finish (would you employ a person with 3 fails and 12 passes when you know the passes mean they may not even be able to write a decent paragraph?).
    This of course isn’t entirely unsurprising, since the teaching is done by people that generally don’t know they are a special category (for the sake of equity you are generally not even told, but some people seem to find out and tell you when you look at your lists of fails), don’t teach the basic basics which they need, and people don’t have the time to help people that can’t string a sentence together anyway. That’s the problem of extremely high staff-student ratios. It’s also the reality. Thus what is a good idea for management (money) and the government (we helped low SES students!) isn’t always a good idea for everyone else involved. They’d be better off just offering incentives to really low SES individuals that actually do have a decent academic ability and not telling universities at all.


  6. Andrew is one of the issues that 25% is arbitrary and so university’s will discriminate in favour of those just below the line and discriminate against those just above the line?

    Does you get the perverse incentives like tanking in the AFL where it is better to finish at the bottom them say 10th?


  7. M – An underlying issue is that the governement is not in my view 100% clear on what problem it is trying to solve. The SES discussion paper keeps going back to the idea of ‘educational disadvantage’, measured by poor educational performance. But poor academic peformance is spread across the SES spectrum, and as I note above is better measured directly rather than via proxies. Any SES measure, not just the lowest 25%, will be arbitrary for allocating individual benefits such as student support while at uni.

    If the aim is increased social mobility, that’s a possible reason for encouraging soft admissions standards. But that does create possible perverse incentives – fraud by applicants and unethical recruitment of people who probably will not benefit from higher education.

    My article and post focused on implementation issues, but Conrad rightly raises the big question of whether the whole thing makes sense. Higher education policies are only a trivial part of the explanation for SES differences in degree attainment – parenting, schooling and cultural differences between the SES groups are the overwhelming drivers.


  8. ‘Julia Gillard wants to to increase the number of low SES students, and to improve their pass and intention rates. ‘
    Hmmm, do you mean ‘retention rates’?


  9. Well done WHR! Some decades ago, certainly in the 1960s, a good HSC result earned a Commonwealth Scholarship which paid fees and provided a means-tested living allowance. Early in the sixties only about 3% of people went on to uni but revealed merit among poor people resulted in free education and support.
    And many people who did not get great HSC results took teacher studentships for financial support.
    The point at present is to get people ready to attend uni, that is to have half decent levels of literacy and numeracy (and the right intentions as well!). The best way to achieve the stated intention (but not overnight) is to improve primary and secondary education. Otherwise efforts to engineer more low SES people into uni will be a waste of effort.


  10. charles

    Any money that is to be thrown should be thrown at the actual low-SES kids, NOT the universities, themselves. The universities should focus on research and teaching excellence, not social work.


  11. Andrew Norton

    I am pleased I have found someone who is working on these issues with a more nuanced mind than the old throw money at the universities way.

    There is no doubt that in general, a kid from the lower end of the SES scale is at a disadvantage compared to rich kids. But the universities should be totally blind to this. Far better, would be to identify those kids from low SES who completed the HSC, but not well enough to get into a competitive uni course. Design a one-year “catch-up” post-HSC course for those kids. This one-year “catch-up” course would be run away from schools, perhaps at TAFE, or even the unis themselves.

    Then if the low SES kids apply again and get in, not only will they themselves feel they did so on the basis of their own qualities and effort, but the universities could stop wasting so much time, money, and energy, on playing “catch-up” Nanny.

    This whole malaise has infiltrated the university entrance exams – such as the HSC – where the curriculum ideologues have tried to improve the chances of low SES kids by dumbing down exams and assessment.


  12. “Design a one-year “catch-up” post-HSC course for those kids. This one-year “catch-up” course would be run away from schools, perhaps at TAFE, or even the unis themselves.”
    You’ve just thought of what already exists at many universities (mine included). The problem with it is that low SES kids still need the money to go there, and I imagine it’s pretty difficult for the government to determine who will or won’t benefit from it if you only take in kids that wouldn’t get in otherwise (alternatively, it does work quite well for those that go there).
    “but the universities could stop wasting so much time, money, and energy, on playing “catch-up” ”
    Which universities in Australia do that? The most you’ll find is a few sporadic bridging courses and a few help centers that arn’t designed to help people that are really miles behind.
    “where the curriculum ideologues have tried to improve the chances of low SES kids by dumbing down exams and assessment”
    Dumbing down the HSC has occurred for lots of reasons, although I imagine trying to get low SES kids through is not one of the major ones.


  13. conrad

    I shall find the journal articles that crow of their success in re-orienting the English exams away from issues such as literary devices and methods, and other such “bourgeois” values. I shall also find similar essays that crow of their success in degrading essays, and other long-form responses, in favor of multiple choice.

    Explicitly and repeatedly these Education academics frame their revolutionary victories in terms of victory against private schools and “bourgeois” values. I kid you not.

    If you really want your eyes to pop, settle in for an afternoon or two reading academic journals read by Education academics. And for dessert, flip through the English Teacher’s Association blurbs!


  14. Conrad’s point about catch-up or lateral entry options is a good one, and one of the obvious holes in the government’s policy is that they have excluded from the funding system the TAFEs and private providers that offer these courses. So if you need extra help you have to pay full fees. If you are already academically well prepared you get a nice big taxpayer subsidy.


  15. Andrew

    Thanks Andrew I followed the link and found:

    “measuring the socio-economic status of Higher eduction students.

    The government seems to want to fund students from low socio-economic groups that don’t take education seriously; you seem to want to fund those that don’t perform well academically.

    To my mind both are probable lost causes; but trying to help those that don’t perform is a bigger lost cause. At least the former group would have some acedemically capable students within it.

    The first paper I linked to seemed to be talking about outreach to high schools etc. Surely the problem with the low socio group is a lack of interest and knowledge about higher education and attempts to spark interest would be an advantage?


  16. Charles,

    my suggestion is that if they want to fund low SES kids, then they fund the kids that are doing well academically but don’t have or would have a hard time getting the money (like WHR), especially in courses that are not easy to do part time (I’m sure there’s enough of these kids — not all low SES kids do poorly and I’m sure many would love to go to uni — especially girls and kids from some minority groups). You could do this intelligently, because in many courses, you can find windows of TER scores where you know the people will generally be okay because the scores don’t correlate well with outcomes above a certain level (e.g., 70+ is fine for many course that you don’t need super high marks to get into). Alternatively, funding people that got, say, 50 and then sticking them into a course you need 80 to get into is just wasting everyone’s time (and this is the horror I expect). Money spent on that would be far better spent on something else.


  17. Charles – I’m not favouring encouraging people with very weak prior academic performance to go to university, because I don’t think we have the evidence to show that this is sufficiently likely to produce significantly better outcomes than alternatives such as TAFE. However, if we are funding programs that assist people who go to university and struggle (for whatever reason) that funding is better driven by the best predictors of trouble at uni.

    I agree with Conrad that 70+ students should have reasonable prospects in some courses. What we don’t have is evidence that low SES students with 70+ scores are making poor choices that need to be corrected. The one study on short term higher education decisions found no difference between SES groups. In this area there is a serious lack of analysis, and worse little or no interest in conducting the needed analysis.


  18. The one study on short term higher education decisions found no difference between SES groups. In this area there is a serious lack of analysis, and worse little or no interest in conducting the needed analysis.

    Ya, public policy based on research tends to be better. You do need proof there is a problem before you attempt to correct it.


  19. In my view I lost this argument; Andrews point that you need proof that there is a problem before you try to fix it was the winning blow.

    At the high school level we now have literacy and numeracy tests and a promise to fund those schools that fall behind with extra funds:

    Andrew do you oppose the literacy and numeracy tests; and if so what form of research do you believe should be used to determine schools that need extra funding to deal with poor performance? Or do you believe in equal funding for all?


  20. Charles – I support the literacy and numeracy tests, while recognising that there is something to many of the criticisms or concerns. But I would not necessarily say that schools need more funds to deal with poor performance. That is a diagnostic decision that needs to be made in individual cases. The disaggregated data that schools have should show with more accuracy where the problem lies – it could just be one teacher who needs to be replaced (schools aren’t that big, and one bad teacher can significantly change a year-level average).


  21. There’s are two other problems with providing extra funding for schools that have poor performance:
    1) It’s basically anti-intellectual and symptomatic of why the right hand tail of the distribution is disappearing in Australia (and these are the people that really do matter — it’s easy to produce lots of people reasonable and things like maths, but hard to produce really great people , and in some areas, it’s only the great people that think of all the great things). Why does the poor performer deserve extra funding versus the good performer? Both maybe able to benefit — and indeed, the good performer maybe able to benefit more. If you go from poor to average at mathematics, for example, this is not going to do much for your life (you arn’t going to get into most jobs that require high levels of these skills, like engineering, for example). Alternatively, if you go from average to good, it might.
    2) It’s basically rewarding poor performance. You need to be ultra-careful doing that (and, as Andrew notes, it could be for many reasons that arn’t really to do with money).


  22. I can’t believe this announcement of Gillard’s. Schools which perform at the bottom on NAPLAN tests are not suffering from a lack of money. They are suffering from completely dysfunctional families and communities, and from a lack of those teachers with peculiar abilities to thrive in these social wastelands.

    This approach announced by Gillard sounds like the ALP Left 30 years ago talking about Aboriginal policy. God help the Mt. Druitts of this world, if federal Labor policy is to treat them like Aborigines in the 1970s!

    Gillard would be far wiser to cut out the AEU middlemen and decades of dissolution by implementing Aboriginal policy circa 2007.

    Declare an Education Intervention. Send the troops to Mt.Druitt’s primary and high schools today!


  23. Mrs. Krabappel hands out a test to Bart’s class.

    Edna: Remember, class: the worse you do on this standardized test, the
    more funding the school gets. So don’t knock yourselves out.
    You have three hours to —
    Martin: [joyous] Finished!
    Edna: [grunts] Then put your head down on your desk and sit quietly.
    Martin: Ah, a duet of pleasures. [does so]


  24. Jeremy

    I have no problems per se with $2 billion being spent on Education, so long as it is spent fully-acknowledging where the real problems lie.

    Spending money on more celebrating diversity, tolerating difference, Harmony Days and Equity Managers is no different than dropping suitcases of $100 bills out of airplane.


  25. So, conrad, I assume you’d prefer to give extra funding to schools that rank highly in the tests; to him that hath shall be given. Don’t you think that would create what the economists call a “separating equilibrium”? Poor (in both senses) schools would become ever poorer.

    But then you’re right about the moral hazard problem of giving more money to schools with a low NAPLAN score.

    So combine these two problems and you get a strong argument for not tying funding to NAPLAN scores at all.


  26. You don’t need a great deal of money to teach infant and primary school kids numeracy, vocab, syntax, grammar, reading, and writing. You could do a splendid job even if your school amounted to little more than a church hall, and a few shady trees.


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