Double the equity target group, Australian universities told

Every below-average neighbourhood should be defined as socioeconomically disadvantaged, conference hears

August 28, 2019
Rich versus poor
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Efforts to boost the number of underprivileged Australians in higher education should be extended to half the population, a Brisbane conference has heard.

Grattan Institute higher education analyst Andrew Norton said that the threshold currently used to define low socioeconomic status students – those from the most economic disadvantaged quarter of neighbourhoods – was set too low.

Mr Norton said that the next most disadvantaged quartile of areas was “sociologically very similar” to those in the bottom group. “We’re focusing on only half of the genuine equity population,” he told the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit.

“The most transformative thing you could do would be [target] the bottom 50 per cent rather than the bottom 25 per cent.”

Under Australia’s proposed performance-contingent funding scheme, which the government hopes to finalise in the coming days, universities will qualify for additional teaching grants by recruiting specified proportions of their students from underprivileged neighbourhoods.

But Mr Norton said that universities had already been doing “a huge amount” to attract students from lower socioeconomic backrounds. “You’ve got to ask what things could still be done that haven’t already been done,” he said.

He said that widening the low-SES measure would also be fairer for universities situated too far from underprivileged neighbourhoods to have realistic prospects of recruiting many of their residents. “You have to be realistic about where people live,” he said.

In a submission to the review panel that devised the scheme, Mr Norton quotes Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing that a little over 30 per cent of young people in moderately disadvantaged areas went to university. This was only marginally above the 25 per cent participation rate in the poorest neighbourhoods, and well below the rate of almost 80 per cent in the richest parts of the country.

“Although there is room for debate about exactly what constitutes educational disadvantage, there is a case for including the lowest 50 per cent of regions,” the submission says.

It says a reclassification of low-SES to include neighbourhoods in the second bottom decile would help ensure that universities’ performance in addressing disadvantage was “properly recorded or rewarded”.

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