Lifting the cap ‘fails to widen access’ in Australia

More students are entering higher education but most places are taken by those from wealthy backgrounds

March 27, 2014

Australia’s move to a demand-driven higher education system has not increased the proportion of poor students entering the system, a report has concluded.

According to The Australian newspaper, the forthcoming report by Australia’s National Centre for Vocational Education Research finds that although the demand-driven system – which was fully implemented in 2012 – has led to more students entering higher education, most of the extra places have been taken up by students from relatively wealthy backgrounds.

The report,The impact of increasing university participation on the pool of apprentices, also finds that the uncapping of apprenticeship places has not led to more wealthy students becoming apprentices. It says that the only change wrought by the demand-driven system in the university and college sectors has been a slight lowering of entry standards.

In his Autumn Statement last December, George Osborne, the UK chancellor, said the UK would abolish student number caps from 2015-16. One of the reasons he cited was a desire to see more poor students attend university. Mr Osborne told Parliament: “This year we have the highest proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to university ever. But there is still a cap on aspiration.”

The conclusions of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research report echo those of a report by the elite Group of Eight mission group of Australian universities, published in February.

That document, Demand Driven Funding and Equity, noted that although the proportion of Australian students from low socio-economic backgrounds increased by one percentage point between 2008 and 2012, 80 per cent of the extra students attracted into higher education came from medium or high socio-economic status backgrounds.

“Though demand-driven funding was not originally conceived as a measure to improve equity and access, latter day discussion of the costs and benefits of the system has often justified it on equity grounds,” the report said.

It added that the demand-driven system was introduced at the same time as a target to recruit 20 per cent of new undergraduates from poor backgrounds by 2020.

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