Faux ‘demand-driven’ equity approach won’t work, Canberra warned

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be treated little differently from their privileged cousins, critics say

June 27, 2024
Contestant trying to fly his home made flying contraption taking part in the Birdman Rally in Melbourne, Australia to illustrate Faux ‘demand-driven’ equity approach won’t work, Canberra warned
Source: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Australian proposals to boost student diversity risk backfiring, commentators have warned, if universities conclude that recruiting from under-represented groups is too much trouble.

The government plans to give disadvantaged students “demand-driven” access to undergraduate places, according to a recently released discussion paper. But places will be uncapped only for Indigenous students, with universities funded to teach every Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander student they admit.

Students from other equity groups – people with disabilities or from regional or socio-economically disadvantaged communities – will have to be accommodated within predetermined enrolment caps. These quotas, known as “managed growth targets” (MGTs), will be assigned to each university by the proposed Australian Tertiary Education Commission (Atec).

If places are unavailable in the courses or universities of their choosing, equity students will be offered places in similar disciplines or in nearby institutions. Atec will be empowered to increase universities’ caps only if equity students remain unplaced after “all universities in a student catchment area have exhausted their MGTs”.

This means that equity students will be treated very similarly to their more privileged peers. The difference is that Atec will be able to intervene on their behalf in limited circumstances.

Higher education marketing consultant Tim Winkler said the proposed approach “simply isn’t going to work” for many equity students, such as individuals with disabilities or from “far-flung” regional areas who could realistically reach only nearby campuses.

The proposed system was also unlikely to work for many universities, Mr Winkler noted in the Future Campus newsletter. “Given the…costs of recruiting and supporting students from equity backgrounds, there would be no incentive for institutions to recruit increasing numbers of equity students.”

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton said the “convoluted” proposal was “not really demand-driven funding. It’s just a bureaucratic mechanism to try and ensure that an equity applicant has the highest possible chance of getting placed, within system constraints.”

Writing in The Conversation, Professor Norton said it would be preferable to allow universities to enrol unsubsidised students – a practice the government intends to stamp out through the enforcement of “hard” caps.

He said that if universities were able to pocket the tuition fees from overenrolled students, equity group applicants could attend their preferred institutions “rather than one chosen for them” without waiting for Atec’s approval.

“The commission can never completely foresee the preferences of the hundreds of thousands of people who apply for university. Every year some universities will get more applicants than anticipated and others fewer. Student contribution-only places are a flexible way of quickly adjusting supply to demand.”

The proposal represents a complete about-turn from the demand-driven system introduced by the Gillard Labor government in 2012. It is also more prescriptive than the preceding system, which gave universities limited flexibility to enrol above or below their quotas.

A source said the government appeared to have lost faith with market-driven approaches to enrolment, after the demand-driven system failed to significantly change the profile of university students. While domestic enrolments surged by 28 per cent over the five years after the system was flagged in the 2008 Bradley report, socio-economically disadvantaged students’ share of enrolments rose by just 1 percentage point.

The source said the government had concluded that it needed to take a much more “hands-on” approach, forbidding universities from enrolling even one extra student “unless it’s an equity student”.


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