Increasing numbers of poorer young Australians are likely to be deterred from going on to university because of increased fees and a federal government decision to tighten eligibility requirements for financial assistance, according to researchers at Monash University.
There was a decline in applications for places this year and universities fear they will have difficulty attracting enough students in 1998. Under new rules to apply next year, institutions will be penalised financially if they do not fill their quotas of federally-funded places.
But the Monash study has found that the financial barriers to university entrance are mounting. In a report of their investigation, Bob Birrell and Ian Dobson present a picture of a tertiary sector already dominated by an economic elite.
The researchers say the new means test for the Austudy scheme cuts out young people from most working-class and lower white-collar families, especially where both parents are working. Application of the test, coupled with a decision to raise the age by which a student is considered to be independent from 21 to 25, means that most formerly independent students will also be ineligible for Austudy.
The report states: "The data give substance to concerns that the severity of the Austudy means test has left something of a financial black hole for young people aspiring to attend university who do not come from well-off families."
Families in low socio-economic areas comprise 25 per cent of the population, but their offspring make up less than 17 per cent of students at university. In contrast, over half of all students are from professional homes.
The most recent figures from the federal education department show that 16.7 per cent of all students aged 15 to 24 in 1995 (the latest information available) came from the lowest socio-economic category, an increase of 0.1 per cent over 1991, but the figures do not yet reflect the impact of this year's increases in Higher Education Contribution Scheme charges.
Students from low socio-economic backgrounds make up between 11 and 14 per cent of enrolments at the big elite universities of Sydney, New South Wales and Melbourne while at Monash they comprise only 11 per cent.
The researchers propose that the government introduce scholarships for high-performing secondary students from lower income families. This would amount to a return to the days of the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme but they argue that recent higher education policy is "in effect, returning us to the access situation of that era".
The proportion of students staying on to year 12 had risen under Labor from around one in three to close to nine in ten. As a result of conservative state governments cutting schools spending on schools, the ratio has dropped to about seven in ten. Those who leave early tend largely to be students from disadvantaged backgrounds.