Meeting the Rudd Government's equity targets for universities: three scenarios.

Author:Phillimore, John
Position:Kevin Rudd

The Rudd Government has outlined a goal that by 2025, 40 per cent of Australians aged 25 to 34 should hold a Bachelors level qualification and that, by 2020, around 20 per cent of undergraduate enrolments at Australian universities should he filled by students from low socio-economic-status (SES) backgrounds. The current level of low SES participation is 16. 3 per cent, with substantial diversity in outcomes between institutional groupings and stales and territories. This paper considers three policy options for raising national participation levels of students from low SES backgrounds: (i) uniform increases across all institutions to meet the 20 per cent national target; (ii) differential increases in indirect proportion to current levels of low SES participation by institutions: and (iii) differential increases proportional to the share of the low SES population located within each state and territory. The authors find that a national approach to achieving the 20 per cent target needs to consider both current enrolment patterns across institutional groupings as well as differences in the low SES population across the states and territories. Students SES is currently determined, by their postcode. The authors argue that this is unsatisfactory and that better measures must be developed before targets can be set for individual institutions.


As part of its ambitious plan for increasing higher education participation in Australia, the Rudd Government has announced an attainment target whereby 40 per cent of all 25 to 34 year olds in Australia will hold a qualification at Bachelor's level or above by 2025.

While this will partially reflect the arrival of skilled migrants to Australia, it will almost certainly still require large absolute increases in domestic undergraduate enrolments. (1) The Government estimates that the Australian higher education sector will have to accommodate 735,000 domestic undergraduate students by or before 2020, an increase of 31 per cent over the 2008 domestic undergraduate enrolment of 561,856. (2) To some extent this change will also be driven by economic and demographic factors which are driving the demand for university graduates.

In addition to the numerical target, the Government is committed to increasing the level of higher education participation by people from lower socio-economic status (low SES) backgrounds. In March 2009, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that in keeping with its commitment:

the Government will pursue vigorously the ambition that by 2020, 20 per cent of higher education enrolments al undergraduate level should be of people from low socio-economic backgrounds. (3) The goal of 20 per cent participation by students from low SES backgrounds compares to twenty years of virtual stability in the percentage of domestic undergraduate students coming from such backgrounds at between 15 and 16 per cent. (4) Achieving the 20 per cent target will require a two-step increase in low SES enrolments--one just to keep pace with the overall growth in enrolments, and one to raise the share of low SES students in those enrolments.

In this article, we show that the basic growth trend implied by the Rudd Government's policy will require low SES enrolments to increase from around 86,500 in 2008 to 113,000 in 2020 if their current share of enrolments, 16 per cent, is to hold; and that an increase in the low SES share to 20 per cent will require a further increase in enrolments to a level of 139,000 students. This means that an overall increase of 53,000, or 61 percent, in low SES enrolments over the period 2008 to 2020, is needed for the 20 per cent target to be met. (5)

A central issue that arises from this policy is the share that each university will have to shoulder in order to achieve the 20 per cent national target. Will all universities be expected to attain the 20 per cent target? Will those universities currently with lower levels of participation be asked to do more than those already on or above the target range, or does the current range represent a relatively efficient division of labour between institutions?

This issue will become particularly relevant in the near future as universities meet with government officials to discuss the compact which each institution is required to sign as pari of the Commonwealth government's broader higher education reform agenda. Funding from the Commonwealth will then be determined on the basis of performance, including low SES enrolment. The Commonwealth has already budgeted to allocate $394 million in institutional performance funding linked to low SES enrolments over the four years to 2012-13. (6)

Addressing this institutional distributional issue of low SES enrolments forms the basis for this article. We examine, quantitatively, a number of scenarios or pathways by which the higher education sector could feasibly reach the 20 per cent low SES target by 2020, focusing in particular on the distribution of effort between universities.

We do not provide an analysis or a critique of the target itself, or of the various policies and programs thai might be adopted to increase equity student participation. The Government has announced several policy measures aimed at increasing the access of equity groups in higher education, (7) and there has already been some commentary on the target by Vice Chancellors and others. (8) Instead, this article focuses on ways in which the target could be met solely in terms of the distribution of low SES students between universities.

Further, we assume that all institutions will experience similar growth in overall enrolments, with some divergence in terms of low SES participation, but we do acknowledge that differential growth in total enrolment is another potential pathway to reaching the low SES target.

The article is structured as follows. Following this introduction, we outline key aspects of the low SES target. The next section describes the current situation for low SES enrolments. We then outline a number of scenarios whereby the 20 per cent low SES target could be reached in 2020. Finally, we summarise the main findings and suggest lines of further investigation in order for the policy target to be sensibly advanced.


There are three key aspects to the low SES target that need to be borne in mind when analysing its feasibility.

First, low SES background is defined by current government practice which uses the so-called 'postcode measure'. This defines low SES students as those whose permanent home address postcode falls within the postcodes that comprise the bottom 25 per cent of the population aged between 15 to 64 years at the date of the latest census, as coded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) SEIFA Index of Education and Occupation. (9) This measure is controversial and the government in December 2009 released a discussion paper on the topic, aimed at developing a better measure based on the circumstances of individual students and their families, rather than on the characteristics of the postcode from which they originate. (10) For now, in the absence of a new measure, this article will work with the postcode definition.

Second, the target is limited to a subset of the total higher education population in Australia. The Government has indicated that the low SES target only relates to domestic undergraduate higher education students--effectively excluding international and, more relevantly, domestic postgraduate students, from the analysis. It should be noted that the 20 per cent low SES target is a participation share, which is itself a function of the rate at which new students enter higher education (their access rate) and their retention rate between years. According to the Bradley Review, the retention rate of low SES students is about 97 per cent of all students. (11) Consequently, increasing low SES participation from the present 16 per cent to the target of 20 per cent is unlikely to be achieved by increasing retention rates for low SES students. Instead, their access rate will also have to increase.

Third, as a further refinement, only the domestic undergraduate population of Table A institutions is considered. These are as defined in the Higher Education Support Act, namely the 37 public higher education institutions (HEIs) and the Australian Catholic University (ACU), who combined, account for almost 95 per cent of all domestic undergraduate higher education enrolments. The remaining five per cent of undergraduate enrolments are accounted for by private universities such as Bond University and the University of Notre Dame and a range of smaller, often specialist, institutions across Australia such as the Perth Institute of Business and Technology and the Australian Maritime College in Tasmania. Because of the relative heterogeneity of the Australian higher education system, we also categorise the 38 Table A institutions into the four commonly identified university groupings:

(1.) The Australian Technology Network (ATN)--Curtin, UTS, RMIT, QUT, UniSA.

(2.) The Group of Eight universities (Go8)--ANU, Melbourne, Monash, Sydney, UNSW, UQ, UWA, Adelaide.

(3.) The 10 universities founded in the 1960s and 1970s plus the University of Tasmania (founded in 1890) (1960s-70-s)--Murdoch, Flinders, Griffith, JCU, Macquarie, Newcastle, New England, Wollongong, La Trobe, Deakin, Tasmania.

(4.) The 14 Post-1988 universities (post-1988)--ACU, Canberra, ECU, Charles Darwin, Batchelor Institute, Swinburne, Victoria, Ballarat, Sunshine Coast, CQU, USQ, Southern Cross, UWS, Charles Sturt.


An indication of current participation levels by low SES students in higher education for all higher education providers is given in Table 1 below. This shows that in 2008 there were 90,467 domestic undergraduates enrolled in all HEIs who were classified as low SES, or 16.1 per cent of the total enrolment...

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