Australia has become the model for new fee regimes, but the reality does not live up to the rhetoric, say Bob Birrell and Ian Dobson
Successive Australian governments have made commitments to improved university access for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, but little progress has been made. The proportion of university students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (the poorest 25 per cent of residential locations) has remained at 16 to 17 per cent since the 1980s despite the introduction of the deferred fees Higher Education Contribution Scheme.
Hecs is very much the basis for the English fees model that will be effective from 2006, and the Sutton Trust has alerted the UK to the disproportionate numbers of independent school students at leading universities. So can the English experience be any different?
A number of reasons for Australia's lack of progress can be identified.
First, the equity initiatives had no teeth. The Commonwealth allocated tiny sums to help universities implement the programme, while there has been limited focus on the circumstances of students from poor backgrounds. The Government's major equity push has been directed at helping female students. Yet, throughout the period in question, women were overrepresented on most university courses, engineering and information technology being the exceptions. Secondary education is also a big factor.
In Australia, it comprises free government schools, and fee-charging Catholic and independent schools. Government-initiated research in Victoria has shown that only 32 per cent of ex-government school students who complete secondary education enter universities compared with 64 per cent and 47 per cent of those from independent schools and Catholic schools, respectively.
The public perception that non-government schools deliver better outcomes for students in their final school year than government schools is correct.
Only about 11 per cent of students from government schools in Victoria ranked above 90 in the scores that form the basis for determining university entry, compared with 14 per cent from Catholic schools and 37 per cent from independent schools. The cut-off point for places in courses such as medicine and law is in the high 90s. To win a place on other courses at prestigious universities requires a score of at least 80.
These outcomes are a stark reminder of the relative disadvantage for those who attend government schools. Such schools (with few exceptions) do not have the resources to compete for the best teachers. They also cater for a range of students with both vocational and academic objectives. State governments in Australia are reluctant to invest in high-performance government schools because of opposition to differentiation in the government sector. One consequence is that ambitious parents are moving their offspring to private schools, leaving the state sector looking like a residual system.
These results help explain why private school students are advantaged in access to university places. Independent schools charge very high fees, well above the means of most families. Victoria asserts that the government sector delivers a valuable service by providing an entry point to apprenticeships and other vocational outcomes. But this is little consolation to parents who cannot afford to send their children to a private school, and who believe that their children ought to have a fair chance to compete for university places. The Commonwealth Government has contributed by increasing support for the private sector and by allowing the proliferation of private schools regardless of the stabilisation of Australia's secondary school student population.
A final factor in the disadvantaged position of poor students is Australia's financial support system. Students can defer repayment of fees until they have found a job, but they cannot defer payments for living expenses while studying. The proportion of full-time undergraduates eligible for financial support has been dropping - to about a third in 2002 - and the real-terms value of the payment has declined. An only-child student aged under 25 living at home receives about A$105 (£42) a week under the Youth Allowance scheme if their family's income is less than A$28,150. For every extra dollar of income, the award falls 25 cents.
Students who qualify for the scheme can earn only A$6,000 a year in part-time work before payments decline. This sum has not increased since 1993.
The rhetoric about equality of opportunity is little more than hot air. But at least people are becoming more aware of the inconsistencies.
Bob Birrell is director and Ian Dobson a senior research fellow at the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, Melbourne.