Private pupils edge out poor Australians

August 27, 2004

A study has revealed a growing divide between students of Australian private and public sector schools in gaining access to university.

The study tracked students who left school in 2003 for five years. It found the proportion of those from the top church-run schools enrolling at university was double that from state schools.

In contrast, public-sector school-leavers were almost five times more likely to be unemployed as those from the private system. Even compared with students from Catholic schools, the ratio for public-sector students was twice as great.

About 40 per cent of Australians in their last year of secondary school are in the private sector.

The Victorian state education department is tracing the movements of 34,500 students from almost 500 schools who finished in 2003. Releasing the first set of findings, Lynne Kosky, the Education Minister, said changes in employment, training and education of the class of 2003 would be tracked until 2008. The research would help contribute to refining school education programmes.

Ms Kosky played down the differences between outcomes from the public and private schools, saying that the results showed more than two-thirds of students were continuing their education or training after their final year at school.

It was ridiculous to suggest university entrance rates were the only measure of a school's worth, she said. Gaining an apprenticeship was as worthwhile as winning university entrance, and while finding a job was the ideal outcome for some, for others it was further study at a technical college.

"No number of highly trained medics, scientists or engineers are able to build the houses we need, to fix our wiring, build our roads, distribute our goods or staff our businesses," Ms Kosky said.

But when public school students do try for university, they are likely to lose out to their private school counterparts. And it is the children of poor parents who are most affected.

"Poor families comprise 25 per cent of the Australian population, yet students from these homes make up on average only 15 per cent of university enrolments. At elite universities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Queensland, the proportion of disadvantaged students is well below that average. Of students enrolled at Melbourne in 2002, those from low socioeconomic families comprised less than 8 per cent of the total. At the University of New South Wales in Sydney, the ratio was down to 4.5 per cent.

When disadvantaged students do gain access to university, it tends to be at the less-prestigious institutions and in faculties where demand for places is lower. Students are much less likely to gain access to the high-demand courses of medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and law. As a result, a two-tier higher education system is evolving in line with the growing disparities between public and private schools.

Since 1990, a succession of federal governments have demanded that universities adopt equity policies to boost participation of target groups, including disadvantaged, indigenous and rural students. Despite this, poor students especially continue to miss out.

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