A hopelessly flawed university ‘equity’ policy

Alas, the government’s equity funding policy announced today is no better than the draft version released late last year. Here’s a quick summary of what’s wrong with it:

1) It is based on an arbitrary definition of low SES – people living in the lowest 25% of postcodes – slightly alleviated by a formula that includes means-tested student payments. It’s arbitrary because people outside the definition are for all practical purposes no different from people inside the definition. The definition may change in future, but we are off to a bad start.

2) An arbitrary definition would not necessarily matter much if it was merely a driver of funding to universities. But the money is supposed to be targeted on official low SES students, and so unjustly discriminates against people outside the definition.

3) As we have been reminded this week, the core assumption of the policy, that low SES students are particularly in need of additional help, is weak at best. Even if future low SES students are less capable than the low SES students of today and the recent past, it’s not clear why the money should not be spent on general support services available to all students who need it, regardless of where they live or their Centrelink status.

4) It is administratively complex. ‘Low SES’ is a bureaucratic-academic construct – many people deemed low SES by DEEWR won’t think of themselves in those terms, and won’t necessarily know there are special services available for them. And nor can those responsible for delivering services to students easily work out which students are low SES and which are not. I pity the frontline staff who are going to have to ask intrusive questions and make absurd distinctions to stay within the guidelines.

5) Despite all the money being spent – $126 million by 2012 on this, and another $42 million on a more defensible ‘partnerships’ program with schools etc – the program actually provides nolittle incentive to take more low SES students. If unis have to spend all they receive on this target group, they are no better off than they were before. (Update: An email commenter rightly points out that where unis can classify existing spending as fitting within the guidelines they can make a profit from the program.)

The ‘partnerships’ program, which aims to target low SES students at a younger age to shape their views of university study, is probably worth a try. But the rest of the low SES equity program should be scrapped, and the money saved or put toward much-needed reform of the overall per student funding system.

19 thoughts on “A hopelessly flawed university ‘equity’ policy

  1. It is based on an arbitrary definition of low SES

    LoL. So all those hippy lefties at the G8 unis who are always crapping on about their commitment to ‘equity’ and ‘the disadvantaged’ will actually have to make an effort to recruit some ‘low SES students’ and teach them. I’m still shocked to discover that Australia’s National University only has about 4% low SES numbers. 🙂


  2. The welfare recipient measure is probably there at least partly for the ANU’s benefit – because there are no low SES postcodes in the ACT, the problems with this usual measure are particularly highlighted for Canberra unis.

    All previous efforts by Group of Eight unis to recruit low SES students have met with little success. There are simply too few of them within the range of Year 12 results G of 8 unis are willing to accept.


  3. Why the concentration (of commentary) on G8 universities? Low SES students are more likely to be recruited to the lesser universities, like the one that employs Sinclair, where the standards (of everything) are lower. It’s horses for courses. Some people are meant for the G8 (staff and students) and some are meant for the rebadged technical colleges. LOL.


  4. SOTR – such elitist talk. 🙂 I’m just enjoying the hypocrisy of social democrats who crap on about the ‘disadvataged’ while teaching at elite universities and saying that those same ‘disadvantaged’ are just not good enough to get in. My motives are entirely base and are for my amusement only. 🙂


  5. “like the one that employs Sinclair, where the standards (of everything) are lower.”
    I don’t work at RMIT, and I don’t know about most courses in most universities, but I can think of at least one (IMHO) that is better at RMIT than Melbourne apart from snob value (architecture), one that has been historically been better that I don’t know about these days (IT — mainly because the latter at Melbourne has been very average), and a few that are similar. So saying the standards of “everything” are lower is just not true. There are good courses at average universities — you just need to know which ones they are, which most 18 years old don’t.


  6. The Group of Eight produce more research than the other unis. The average Group of Eight student is more academically able. But there is no evidence that the average standard of curriculum or teaching is better.


  7. The average Group of Eight student is more academically able.

    The average Group of Eight student did better in high school.


  8. Andrew, I’ve compared course content from a G8 and a G9-16 university and can tell you that the G8 were a year advanced on the G9-16. What the G17 and down are like, I can only imagine. I also know several employers of graduates who will not look at anyone outside the G8, Macquarie partially excepted. They reckon that while they might miss some good ones it’s not worth their while sifting through the bad ones.


  9. SoRP,
    all this is stuff is entirely course dependent. I don’t work at a Go8 uni, but I know what the Go8 universities in my state teach in my area, and most of the content and hence difficulty is entirely up to the lecturer (often constrained within a professional organizations), and the difficulty can vary substantially depending on who takes it. In some areas, our courses are harder than the Go8 ones, and in others, easier. You can also look at the average starting wage paid to graduates, and what you’ll find is that the technology uni’s do just as well as the Go8 (in fact slightly better if I remember correctly), so your observations are not born out in reality, unless the companies you are talking about also don’t pay well. It’s also the case that hard doesn’t mean good. The reason I gave Architecture as an example was because one of my friend’s kids was at Melbourne, did a year overseas at an uber great university, came back and realized that RMIT was teaching stuff that was new and relevant and employers wanted and used, and Melbourne was teaching stuff that wasn’t. Similarly, with IT, Melbourne was teaching things like logic programming (Prolog) and mathematical algebra to students well into the 90s (perhaps they still do), which, for all intents and purposes, no-one cares less about. You may as well have taught the students string theory — that would have been really hard for them, but it wouldn’t have done them any good.
    At least in my area, I also have a good real life experiment, replicated each year. Basically, for our 4th year selection, half come from our university and half come from others. Now as it happens, we take the top tier from our universities (minus a few that leave), but only get the second tier from other universities (basically every university does this). An interesting question then is how well people do in what is a reasonably challenging 4th year if you just line up all the students in order of their final overall mark. The results of this, year after year, show that almost everyone in our top tier scores better than Melbourne and Monash’s second tier. What this tells me is that the difference between universities is not great enough such that the middle-range at the best unis is better than the top range at the average ones. Now, perhaps there are differences in the top range, but even there I think it’s minimal, as Melbourne and Monash are quite happy to take out top 4th years into their postgraduate programs (presumably over their own not quite top ones). This shows how reality trumps snobbery — if you take postgraduate students, your first concern is getting one’s that won’t be a nuisance to you, wherever they come from, and I assume most of the job market works like that also.


  10. I’m pretty sure Conrad is right here. Apart from minimum requirements for professional admission, there is little external control over curriculum, and only modest institutional control. Possibly G8 unis do on average take advantage of the more academically able school leavers they typically receive, but I have never seen proof of this.

    There is no clear evidence in either straight-out or five-years out salary (see this post) that Group of Eight graduates earn more.


  11. Andrew, in your link, you write “there is no statistical analysis in this report to see whether there is a distinct Group of Eight effect”. Which means there is no clear evidence that G8 graduates don’t earn more. Someone should gather the evidence. In the meantime, I assert without any fear of contradiction that G8 law graduates, commerce graduates and MBAs earn more.

    Conrad, that is interesting, but you are talking about the best of your students, the ones who do honours (Ipresume). I am prepared to believe that best students in some non G8 universities in some courses are very good. High School students are often not well informed and some will stumble into second tier (rate) universities because they don’t know whoi is good, or the second tier (rate) universities are close to home. But I assert that if you look at the entire distribution of students, your students are nowhere near as good as the entire distribution in the G8s.


  12. “High School students are often not well informed and some will stumble into second tier (rate) universities because they don’t know whoi is good, or the second tier (rate) universities are close to home. ”
    I bet that 99% of students know that Melbourne is better than, say, La Trobe, in terms of prestige, so I’m sure you’re wrong on that one. I agree that some go to unis for reasons other than prestige, like distance traveled, particular courses offered etc. If I wanted to to do Architecture, for example, I’d do it at RMIT if I could, and IT I’d do at Monash.
    “But I assert that if you look at the entire distribution of students, your students are nowhere near as good as the entire distribution in the G8s”
    I think the cut-off where I work for essentially the same course at Melbourne was around 75 last year, and Melbourne was in the 80s. I doubt 8 points (or whatever the real number is) makes that much difference, although no doubt Melbourne has more super-high flyers (i.e., 90+ students, although we have a few also). Melbourne also gets far better postgraduate research students, but that’s another story.
    Alternatively, what you mean by distribution at the end of the course is harder to evaluate (and more important), because there are lots of things you can evaluate them on. If you mean “get reasonable paying jobs in the field of their degree” I would think ours are probably better off than Melbourne (and I’m not being biased by where I work here, because I wouldn’t say the same thing for other places I’ve worked, including ones of equivalent status to Melbourne). This is because half do a major that nowhere else in Victoria (possibly Australia) has, and that major is well liked by many employers because they basically learn skills no-one else is willing to teach them, and I think about a third of them do industry based learning, and many get jobs from that also. Indeed, when I go and do IBL visits, it’s quite disturbing how many of our old students I bump into. The moral of all of that is that I think choosing your degree/major is probably more important than where you go, depending on what you want.


  13. The fact that there is so little data on long-term earnings by uni reflects the scandalous state of higher ed research. But I think it is at least a plausible hypothesis that at least if you controlled for prior ability Group of Eight graduates would earn no more than graduates from other unis.

    And Conrad is correct that discipline effects will swamp uni effects. You’d be better off financially with almost any vocational degree from RMIT than a Melbourne BA.


  14. Given how huge the undergraduate intakes are at the G8 universities, I wonder how accurate it is in 2010 to argue that the the students at say ANU/Melb/UNSW/Sydney are a cut above the rest.

    Universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge take around 1,500 to 2,000 undergrads each year. How many do the G8 take each? Thousands.

    Even at Sydney/Melb/UNSW the UAI/TER spread from less than 80 to 100. I remember finding History tutorials impossible, because of the clear gap in student abilities.

    On a few occasions, we all had to swap each others essays 1 week before they were due, and comment/grade them. My jaw dropped at just how BAD the average ones were (which presumably get ‘Credit’ grades. The ones in the bottom 20% were just scarily bad.


  15. I think where Sydney/Melb/UNSW would be cut above is the number/% of kids who have UAIs over 95 compared to the rest.


  16. From my time assisting disabled students, the average quality of teaching at TAFE was better than at university.

    It seems to me, that if some employers do restrict to G8 graduates, they are mostly selecting for successful-at-high school graduates.


  17. Actually, having been invloved in recruitment, there is a bit of that; the presumption that G8 graduates have higher IQs, can study longer, pick up difficult concepts more quickly, show resilience in the face of tedium. etc.

    Prestige-whoring is more acute in the recruitment of professional degrees – especially Law and MBAs. The firms see the universities as having already done some of the screening for them.

    But don’t underestimate a firm’s experience with graduates of different universities. Depending on the size of the organization, and for how long it has been recruiting graduates.


  18. Regarding IT courses, I have a little first-hand experience of RMIT’s teaching from the late-1990s as well as somewhat more subsequent experience of working with the organization’s alumni. The teaching was truly woeful. As is often the way of the world, IT seemed to have been punished for the financial misconduct of managers in other areas of the business. The lecturers were so stretched, and the place itself so chaotically organized, that it was well nigh impossible to get in touch with one outside of class (and catching one at the end of a class, before they rushed off to their next one, was just as challenging). Most of the tutors were students themselves (and not even post-graduates, but third-years). In fact, the place seemed to run on student labour. The sys admins who setup new students’ accounts were students; later, I worked with RMIT alumni who did not merely mark exam papers, but got to set the questions too!
    I have no doubt, however, that this woeful environment produces some truly outstanding graduates. The RMIT alumni I have worked with have been quite outstanding. Perhaps what happens is that the woeful teaching acts as a kind of natural-selection mechanism. Hard luck on the average students, who might sink where a more gentle institution could help them swim, but the talented students band together, help one another along, and emerge better able to cope with whatever the IT industry can throw at them.


  19. Re Peter Patton at #17

    Prestige-whoring is more acute in the recruitment of professional degrees

    I love that phrase “prestige-whoring”! There’s a fair bit of it in the IT consulting world, too. I’m reminded of a woman I knew whilst studying post-graduate IT at Swinburne who was quite bitterly disappointed because some people at the “big 4” consulting company where her husband already worked had led her to believe that Swinburne was acceptable – only for her to discover, once enrolled, that they would only consider the graduates of one specific course – the industry-sponsored “Bachelor of Information Technology” that only enrolled 30 students per year, and only ones direct from school.
    Yet there are definite differences between universities. Passing from studying at G8 Monash to tutoring at non-G8 Latrobe a few years ago, I found that students at Monash had to do an extra Minor’s worth of subjects, to qualify for a BA, than did the students at Latrobe.
    This does not justify the assumption that LaTrobe students are intrinsically inferior – one might well choose LaTrobe because it is closer to home, and hence cheaper to study at than Melbourne or Monash or RMIT. But as an indicator of the ability to cope with a workload, the LaTrobe BA surely has to count lower, just as any BA (Monash or Melbourne or wherever) surely has to count for less than a Law degree.


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