Australia’s inclusivity gains ‘will be reversed by pandemic’

Dreams will be dashed and the sector could take a decade to recover, expert warns

April 8, 2020
U-turn sign
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The coronavirus crisis could reverse years of progress that Australian universities have made in opening themselves up to students from poor backgrounds, an education researcher has warned.

University of Western Australia science education professor Vaille Dawson says it could take five to 10 years for higher education inclusivity to recover from the crisis.

Professor Dawson said some disadvantaged students had spent all their high school years being “nurtured” to achieve the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR). “Their families and communities are hoping that they will get that holy grail,” she continued.

“A lot of those dreams are going to be completely dashed.”

Equitable access improved markedly after Australia’s 2008 Bradley review of higher education. While the number of students accessing public universities grew by 28 per cent between 2009 and 2018, entrants from disadvantaged postcodes rose by 50 per cent and Indigenous students’ access numbers increased by 73 per cent.

But Professor Dawson warned that the pandemic’s effects could now torpedo opportunities for school students in disadvantaged areas, where relatively poorly resourced schools and a lack of educational aspiration left many young people far behind their more privileged peers in their prospects of qualifying for university.

“There is no time for them to catch up,” she said, citing the online literacy and numeracy assessment (OLNA) that students must pass to obtain the Western Australian Certificate of Education. Some schools offered one-on-one classes to help Indigenous students who received little support at home because their parents spoke no English.

“A lot of the voluntary and philanthropic support that was available for those students has evaporated,” Professor Dawson said. “My university has an equity programme that goes to schools, provides support, brings students on to campus – that’s all ceased. This cohort is not going to have those aspiration-raising experiences.”

Australia’s education ministers have promised that ATARs will be awarded this year despite misgivings about how homebound students will perform. Advocates of retaining the ATAR argue that while students may not achieve the same results as their counterparts from previous years, that does not matter in a single-year ranking because every student faces the same circumstances.

But Professor Dawson cautioned against assuming that the pandemic would disadvantage all students equally. She said those at well-resourced schools had experienced effective remote learning for weeks: “The kids are in their school uniform; they’re logged on; the teachers are there in Zoom or Webex.

“Whereas in some areas, [schools] haven’t managed to get the work packages assembled so that they can mail it to [students]. And there are whole regions where you may only have a handful of students doing ATAR subjects.”

She said disadvantaged students on the cusp of securing ATARs were likely to miss out because of the pandemic. One-on-one “masterclasses” should be organised for such students as the end-of-year exams approached, she said.

Australian National University higher education policy expert Andrew Norton said that unless funding arrangements changed, opportunities for disadvantaged students were likely to decline next year. While their appetite for university would probably increase during a coronavirus-generated economic downturn, school-leavers from wealthy backgrounds would also flock to higher education as opportunities to work or travel dried up.

“Universities will probably decrease their offer rates, in the expectation of more higher ATAR students accepting their offers,” Professor Norton blogged. “That will mean fewer offers to [disadvantaged] students, whose school results are clustered in the lower ATAR ranges.”

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