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

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