Building a fairer system in Australia

By Denise Bradley –

Recent changes to higher education in Australia are the most significant in twenty years and are shaped by a vision for higher education as an agent of social transformation. The initiatives to increase participation from under-represented groups start from a basic assumption that:

‘Social inclusion must be a core responsibility for all institutions in receipt of public funding, irrespective of history and circumstances.’

But will they advance this aim?

Implementing change

Universities are now responsible for establishing coherent programs to change patterns of social disadvantage, no matter how entrenched these are. They can no longer wait for other education sectors to address the socially skewed outcomes of schooling which result in some social groups without tertiary qualifications or having qualifications clustered in the lower levels of Vocational Education and Training. Universities must play their part in a national effort to improve school completions and increase the numbers of people from disadvantaged backgrounds gaining higher level qualifications. 2

Targets of 40 per cent of 25–34 year olds completing a degree and participation of the bottom SES quartile of the population moving from 15 to 20 per cent have been set. The commitment by government is very public and specific and moves this aspect of higher education policy to a new level of seriousness. In particular, by

requiring action from all institutions in receipt of public funds to address low SES disadvantage;
increasing the funds available for equity initiatives;
supporting a more interventionist approach through the use of targets and performance monitoring; and
adopting an approach to outreach which involves the schooling and VET sectors,
these reforms require higher education to change significantly. They also address many of the criticisms of the effectiveness of past equity policies and programs in Australia. 3

Will we see change in patterns of participation?

Can we learn anything from past success? There has been substantial improvement in the last twenty years in the participation and success of three groups: women in non-traditional fields of study, people with disabilities and people from non-English speaking backgrounds. But low SES students and those from rural and remote areas have seen little change in participation patterns and while Indigenous access has improved, completions remain poor.

The three groups—women, people with a disability and people from non-English speaking backgrounds—where participation has markedly improved in the last two decades, share some characteristics: (1) a reasonable spread of members across all income groups, (2) group members are not clustered in particular localities and (3) in most cases, they meet conventional entry requirements. This combination of circumstances, pressures and programs appears to be responsible for an increase in their participation and success within individual higher education institutions (not that they have always been accepted with grace or embraced with enthusiasm) and this has changed national patterns.

The combination of

  1. government policy commitment
  2. targets and performance monitoring of institutions
  3. modest funds for programs
  4. institutional adaption

appears to have been successful for these groups. Nevertheless, James and McInnis question whether higher education equity policy and programmes have been critical to these changes.

For the other three groups there is strong evidence that locality is a major factor and work on the distribution of disadvantage in Australia by Vinson suggests the situation may be getting worse as we see consolidation of poverty in particular localities. Such consolidation has serious implications for those who live in these localities.

Vinson argues that ‘…when social disadvantage becomes entrenched within a limited number of localities, the restorative potential of standard services in spheres like education and health can diminish. A disabling social climate can develop that is more than the sum of individual and household disadvantages and the prospect is increased of disadvantage being passed from one generation to the next.

Young people who live in such areas—where there are poor transport and health services, little access to secure or well remunerated employment and schools struggling to deal with the cumulative disadvantages of their students—do not complete school or do not complete with great success. Consequently, they fail to enter higher education and are denied access to the benefits it brings. This increasing concentration of poverty in particular localities has a major impact upon the possibility of improving participation in higher education and is reflected in the SES profile of Australian universities as it is in other mass higher education systems ‘within the most expanded higher education systems there is evidence of a polarisation of the socio-economic profile of the student body across different universities… [and] growth in overall participation in higher education almost invariably leads to institutional stratification’.

Low SES student participation in Australia’s universities ranged from 4 per cent to over 50 per cent in 2007. 7 These poorer students are concentrated in outer metropolitan and regional campuses and in the more recently established universities.

The issue of institutional stratification

A program solution to address the underrepresentation of groups for whom locality is, broadly, an issue can be addressed by two policy options. The first is to make action on participation of underrepresented groups a core responsibility of all higher education institutions in receipt of public funding and ensure that even the most socially elite institutions are obliged by policy to address social disadvantage. The second is to designate some institutions as ones which will concentrate effort on the education of those groups currently underrepresented while, inevitably, allowing the rest to concentrate on provision of education for an elite that, while identified as an intellectual elite, would, given prevailing patterns here and internationally, be one defined by SES background. Government has chosen the first and, while matters of the adequacy of funding remain contentious, Australia’s universities, whatever their SES profile, have embraced this direction.


While the reforms announced to equity programmes address many of the weaknesses of past policies and may well, given experience elsewhere,c8 increase higher education participation from low SES populations, it seems unlikely that the social stratification already apparent in student bodies across existing universities will show immediate or drastic change or that the implicit status of particular universities will change rapidly. The weight of tradition, the financial safety net of reserves from centuries of endowments and the status associated with high research performance will continue to ensure that those institutions which are currently seen as prestigious will continue to attract high SES students and will have to make very serious efforts to enroll more students from low SES backgrounds.

However, the public policy commitment to action by all institutions on this issue has already seen serious engagement by such institutions on diversifying their SES base and the chance of a student from a disadvantaged locality enrolling in such institutions does seem to have improved.

In summary, then, the reforms in Australia are likely to improve the patterns of participation by the most socially and economically disadvantaged in higher education through the mix of incentives and performance measures now in place. However, the impact of other imperatives, driven by international trends in research policy and the power of tradition suggest that change in the patterns of institutional stratification will be slow.

Emeritus Professor Denise Bradley AC was Chair of the Australian Government’s Higher Education Review Expert Panel in 2008. She is a former Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of South Australia (UniSA), the largest university in South Australia, and has been extensively involved in national education policy groups for more than two decades.

  1. Review of Australian Higher Education: Final Report (December 2008),, p.33
  2. Australia maintains one of the most accessible higher education sectors internationally. Clancy and Goastellec demonstrate that, in Australia, the chance of someone from a low SES background participating in higher education is greater than in other comparable countries. However, there has been no change in this likelihood of participation for two decades. See: Clancy, Patrick & Goastellec, Gaële (2007) ‘Exploring access and equity in higher education: policy and performance in a comparative perspective’, Higher Education Quarterly, v.61, no 2, April.
  3. The best and most comprehensive analysis of equity policy is James, R. & McInnis, C. (2005) ‘Equity policy in Australian higher education: A case of policy stasis’, in Gornitzka, A., Kogan. M. & Amaral, A. & (eds.) Reform and Change in Higher Education: Analysing policy implementation, Springer: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.
  4. Ibid., p.8–9.
  5. Vinson, Tony, with assistance of Rawsthorne, Margot and Cooper, Brian (2007) Dropping off the edge: the distribution of disadvantage in Australia. Richmond, Victoria, Jesuit Social Services/Catholic Social Services, p.ix.
  6. Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne (2008) Participation and equity, a review of the participation in higher education of people from low socio-economic backgrounds and indigenous people. Prepared for Universities Australia, p.72.
  7. Review of Australian Higher Education: Final Report (December 2008),, p.34.
  8. Ibid., p.35.

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