Upping access Down Under

April 3, 2014

In regard to “Lifting the cap ‘fails to widen access’ in Australia” (News, March), your article on the impact that Australia’s approach to funding higher education by demand rather than supply has had on access: it is true that most of the extra places have been taken up by students from relatively wealthy backgrounds. A reader might thus infer that, from a student equity point of view, the policy has been a failure; however, this is not the case.

First, as a direct result of this approach, Australian universities are more accessible than ever. Enrolments of poorer students, indigenous students and students with disabilities have all risen in both real and proportional terms. The target for enrolment of students from low socio-economic backgrounds (20 per cent) was set for 2020, not 2013, making critics’ conclusions premature. Based on current patterns of enrolments, there is every indication that this target will be achieved.

This leads to a second issue. Although the “uncapping” aspect of the policy is the most publicised, it is not its only significant effort to widen access. Along with removing the caps, the federal government has committed more than A$300 million (£167 million) over five years to bolstering university/community outreach programmes to raise and support tertiary aspirations within target groups. These are as critical to widening participation as uncapping supply. However, as they focus on students in primary and secondary education, the results will not be known for several years.

Finally, the official data for student retention, progression and success rates show no evidence of a link between widening access and falling standards. Rates vary widely at the local level and are primarily a result of institutional practice, not student quality.

For the past 25 years, Australia has been at the forefront of enacting bipartisan higher education policy that has widened access sustainably, without harming educational quality. The current demand-driven policy is a key part of the nation’s continuing efforts in this respect and should not be discarded.

Tim Pitman
Senior research fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education
Curtin University

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

United Nations peace keeper

Understanding the unwritten rules of graduate study is vital if you want to get the most from your PhD supervision, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

David Parkins Christmas illustration (22 December 2016)

A Dickensian tale, set in today’s university

Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (5 January 2017)

Fixing problems in the academic job market by reducing the number of PhDs would homogenise the sector, argues Tom Cutterham

Houses of Parliament, Westminster, government

There really is no need for the Higher Education and Research Bill, says Anne Sheppard

poi, circus

Kate Riegle van West had to battle to bring her circus life and her academic life together