The Australian Labor government's efforts to provide greater access to university for socially and economically disadvantaged students appear to have failed.
Since taking office in 1983, the government has allocated more than Aus$35 billion (Pounds 16.7 billion) to higher education and has boosted enrolments by more than 70 per cent. Yet the proportion of students from low socio-economic backgrounds has undergone little change.
Getting into university remains, as it has for the past 100 years, largely a matter of family circumstance rather than intellectual potential. Students who have been to the top private schools and whose parents hold degrees are up to five times more likely to win a university place than their chums from working-class families; they also overwhelmingly dominate the elite faculties of medicine and law.
Today, more students from working-class families are on campus; there are more Aborigines, more rural students, and more who have been to government or Catholic schools. Nevertheless, each of these groups is still under-represented compared with their numbers in the general population.
Now the government wants to develop a new set of equity goals. Education minister Simon Crean has asked the Higher Education Council to prepare a framework for boosting the number of students from disadvantaged groups who will apply to the end of the century.
Statistics will first be compiled to determine where advances have been made and what still needs to be done. Mr Crean wants the council's advice and recommendations by January.
"We will be looking at whether current programmes to redress disadvantage should be maintained and whether the disadvantaged groups so defined are still appropriate, or whether some combination of characteristics needs to be considered," a council spokeswoman said.
Five years ago, the government conceived another set of goals and put universities under direct pressure to change their enrolment mix. Institutions were required to develop special entry arrangements for socially disadvantaged groups by 1992 and to meet the targets by1995.
These included a 50 per cent increase in Aboriginal enrolments, an increase in the proportion of women undertaking engineering degrees (from 7 to 15 per cent), and a doubling in enrolments of students with disabilities.
As part of their equity plans, universities were to examine the composition of the student body and focus on attracting groups not well represented. Institutions were expected to provide updated equity information annually as part of their annual negotiations over funding with the education department.
The government provided $4 million each year to promote equity, a sum that Mr Crean raised to $5 million in 1994. Grants from the fund are based on performance against the targets set out in institutional equity plans, although universities can use the money as they think best.
An investigation last year into a sample of six universities revealed stark differences. The oldest and most elite university enrolled few students from low socio-economic backgrounds whereas former colleges of advanced education had a preponderance of students from this group.
One finding was that although Aboriginal students were enrolling in far greater numbers, and many were succeeding, a significant proportion dropped out.
The council spokesman said that changing the socio-economic profile of universities had proved extremely difficult and that only the imposition of quotas was likely to effect much change although some universities had already tried this.
With few exceptions, equity officers appointed by the universities held low-level posts in the hierarchy. Senior management often showed no serious commitment to tackling the issue of disadvantage.