For more than five years Australia has encouraged universities to enroll more students from non-English-speaking homes. Institutions have devoted large sums to creating special programmes and the former Labor government allocated Aus$5 million (Pounds 2.5 million) a year to reward universities that achieved set targets.
But a new study suggests that millions of dollars may have been misspent attempting to overcome the so-called disadvantages faced by Australia's ethnic minorities.
A report by researchers at Monash University disputes government claims that students from non-English-speaking backgrounds are disadvantaged. The study found that some ethnic groups are gaining access to higher education at double the rate of English speakers.
The programme is helping those who do not need it, the report argues. "It favours groups which, in most cases, are already over-represented in the higher education system and ignores most of the genuinely disadvantaged language groups."
The researchers, led by Monash sociologist, Bob Birrell, say that students from non-English-speaking backgrounds should not be singled out for special treatment. Yet, according to government statistics, of Australia's 37 universities had developed equity programmes for the 1992/94 triennium.
For the 1994/96 planning period, 24 universities said they would be instituting support programmes for such students while 14 were putting awareness plans in place.
No university, however, has tried to find out if its efforts are aimed at the right groups.
The report notes that students from Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Eastern European homes are doing twice as well as English speakers in gaining places at university - and four times better than those from Arabic, Italian, Kmer and Turkish backgrounds.
Vietnamese students stand out in defying the stereotype of a disadvantaged group, despite language problems and the fact that many are from low socio-economic group families and suburbs. They have a participation rate in higher education double that of students from English-speaking homes.
Dr Birrell says it may not be practical for the government to establish targets for individual language groups. But universities should be given more advice on the relative achievement of ethnic students.