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.