Address at the 2019 AFR Higher Education Summit

Great to be here this afternoon. I too acknowledge the Yuggera people on whose land we meet.

My topic this afternoon is equity and university access. A topic less controversial but just as important and challenging as some of the other fraught issues we are dealing with at present.

This afternoon Minister Tehan emphasised the importance of working with our sector to ensure that the education we provide delivers for the future of Australia, creating economic growth, productivity, jobs and opportunities.

We can all, I hope, agree that doing so requires ensuring that all potential students who can benefit regardless of socioeconomic background, school or geography have the opportunity to attend our universities. We have a lot to do to close that gap.

I preface my talk today by saying this is a topic I feel passionate about, having like I suspect many of you been a beneficiary of equitable access to education.

My grandparents arrived in the UK from Russia and Poland at start of 20th century with no English and no education. My parents, despite no higher education of their own, knew it was important. With their encouragement I went to a direct grant school, with means-tested fees – they paid relative to their limited income. I went on to Cambridge University where the government at that time paid all the fees and provided a living allowance with no loan. It was educational nirvana. For me, founded on family encouragement but not wealth, class or socio-economic background.

Sadly, direct grant schools no longer exist. Private schools in the UK, like Australia, give enormous differential benefit and students have massive loans for all tuition and living costs. I benefitted from an era of publicly-funded education, available regardless of socio-economic background. That is too rarely the case today in Australia or the UK.

I will cover three areas in my talk. First, I will consider whether there is a university sector somewhere globally that is the gold standard of equity. Second, I will look at the barriers to university admissions in Australia and third I will discuss steps Australian universities are taking to overcome barriers to University access, finishing by outlining a more radical approach we would like to advance at UNSW.

Last year, former tertiary education coordinator at the World Bank, Jamil Salmi, published a paper which compared higher education equity policies from 71 countries. On the positive side, he found the elimination of tuition fees for the poorest students in countries such as Chile, the Philippines and South Africa, is translating into greater opportunities for typically under-represented groups. On the other hand, he found that, participation in higher education is still unequal in every country in the world where evidence exists.

Research produced by UNESCO in 2016 from more than 70 mainly low-income countries, found that only 1% of the poorest 25-29-year olds had completed at least four years of higher education, compared to 20% of the richest. Wealthier countries have their challenges too.

We see massively growing student debt in the US, and legal challenges against affirmative action – most famously with the class action against the Harvard admissions process driven by Asian-American students. The UK also has a student debt problem and particular issues related to elite schools. The Guardian reported last year that the ‘number of disadvantaged students at Russell Group institutions was virtually unchanged since 2010.’

Part of the explanation is convincing evidence that the barriers to equity form at the very beginning of a student’s education – meaning attempts to intervene at the university gate may be too little too late for some. Early intervention is the key to making significant differences in educational outcomes for socially disadvantaged groups.

Illustrative here is Scandinavia, and the Nordic model of education. In countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland, high levels of equity have been achieved. According to OECD figures on Finland, for example, students whose parents went to university are only slightly more likely to participate in tertiary education than their peers whose parents did not go to university.

And the key seems to be – as you’d expect – funding. If you look at a graph of public investment in education in Scandinavian countries compared to others, you quickly notice that the Nordic education systems are almost entirely publicly funded. Universities in Australia are about 45 per cent funded by the public purse but in Finland, Norway and Denmark, it’s around 95 per cent.

Public funding not only eases the financial burden on individuals, but fosters a key cultural difference. As Finnish Professor Jussi Valimaa writes, ‘the most important difference between the Nordic countries and [other countries] is the ethos of education as a civil right and a public service rather than a commodity.’

In a sense, investment in education from school to university is seen through the lens of education as a public and individual good in itself; a human right rather than an economic imperative. Against that background the second part of my talk is to consider the barriers to equity in Australia.

In the global context, in his survey, Jamil Salmi noted that Australia is one of the more motivated countries when it comes to higher education equity, with a ‘great degree of consistency over time in terms of government strategy, policies, goals and targets, and strong alignment between equity goals and the financial and non-financial instruments used to promote equity in higher education.’

And I should acknowledge the vast improvements over the past decade in participation by students from Indigenous, low SES, disability, and regional and remote backgrounds. This can be attributed in part to the demand driven system – unfortunately, capped in 2017 – and the Australian Government Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (or HEPPP).

As Margaret Gardner explained at the Press Club last year, the introduction of the demand-driven system was ‘a bold advance’ and had achieved ‘55% growth in enrolments from the poorest fifth of Australian households, 48% growth for regional and rural students, 89% for Indigenous students and 106% growth for students with a disability.’ These results are, by any measure, an important achievement but we have a lot to do, both to attract and to retain these students.

Living and dying by an ATAR score is one obstacle. Work by UNSW’s Gonski Institute for Education shows strong evidence of the relationship between higher ATAR scores and more privileged socioeconomic profile of the student and their school. This is partially due to the more privileged schools having greater resources to enable students to gain a high ATAR, but also higher SES students and their schools being more attentive to the application process; more likely to understand how preferencing works; and more likely to understand how different HSC subjects are weighted in calculating the ATAR.

In this sense, their advantages multiply as they are able to shape, in their favour, their interactions with the tertiary admissions system. But dropping the ATAR altogether will not by itself solve the problem when you consider that even high-ATAR students from certain equity groups, particularly those who live rural or remote, have lower expectations of attending university.

The 2014 Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth by the Department of Education found that cultural factors, such as aspiration, had more of an impact on Year 12 or university participation than wealth or location did. Individuals who intend to go on to university are up to 20% more likely to do so, compared with those who do not have those plans in mind.

Research indicates that whether or not a student feels they ‘belong’ at a university also has an enormous impact on their educational aspirations. Geography is another factor. While I am happy to note that Go8 universities’ retention rate for regional, remote and Indigenous students is at least 7% higher than the national average , we have seen historically low rates of participation of equity groups.

The low SES enrolment proportion nationally in 2017, for Go8 universities was just 9.8%. We have made progress but there is long way to go to overcome admissions barriers, financial, psychological and emotional factors.

Which brings me to my final area - the steps Australian universities are taking to overcome the barriers to attracting and retaining students from equity groups and what more we can do. Many universities have implemented strategies, often funded in part by HEPPP to lift participation by students from under-represented groups.

Sydney Uni works with students and staff in disadvantaged schools in metropolitan and regional communities.

Charles Sturt’s ‘Future Moves Program’ supports students parents, and schools.

Macquarie University’s LEAP (Learning, Education, Aspiration, Participation) Program encompasses university preparedness for regional students.

And UTS’s Humanitarian Access Package has social, academic and financial support for students from refugee/asylum-seeker backgrounds.

In addition, regional universities like La Trobe and Curtin are leading on research in this area through the Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research and the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. And that’s just scratching the surface of the fantastic work happening across Australian universities to close admissions gaps.

At UNSW, we are fortunate to have Professor Ellen Baldry as our first DVC Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Professor Megan Davis as our first PVC Indigenous as well as the enormous support and inspiration in these areas from our Chancellor, David Gonski whose seminal reports on school funding highlighted the unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage.

We concluded that although universities cannot easily influence equity of primary or secondary education or broader socio-demographic and economic factors, there is a lot more that we could achieve through an integrated, holistic and properly funded approach.

To do so we have developed a multifaceted approach as part of our overall 10-year strategy. That includes:

- Expansion of outreach, widening access work to ensure all school children consider post-school education options.
- Changing admission criteria to university to ensure that young people with ability are admitted even if circumstances have prevented that being demonstrated through metrics such as ATAR.
- Implementing effective transition courses to prepare these students for their first year at university.
- Providing sufficient equity scholarships for accommodation and living costs to complement tuition fee loans.
- Ensuring that additional mentoring and support are available to the students during their time at university including sound careers advice to assist in securing jobs.

None of this is trivial and all of it is extremely expensive, but if we are to fulfil our mission as university leaders to contribute to an equitable and just society, it is incumbent upon us to continue prioritising this. We have a long way to go but since starting our widening access program called Aspire in 2007, university offers to our partner schools have increased by 155%. Many of you will have similar data.

The program’s aim is to show children from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunities open to them post-school. They may choose vocational training; another university; or UNSW but, ultimately, it is about giving them the message that they belong in those institutions as much as anyone else.

We are also redeveloping pathways from TAFE to university via diplomas, pathways that were strong until TAFE was disrupted via privatisation some years ago.

Linked to ASPIRE is our Gateway program which, in its trial year in 2018, saw 241 offers made to students from LSES schools who came within 10 points of the required ATAR. We have set ourselves a medium-term target through this approach of shifting from 9% to 13% of undergrad domestic students enrolling from LSES backgrounds. That is a start but is not enough and we have recognised that it will take a dramatic shift in our approach if we are to see the results we want.

So or more radical long term plan is to offer a place at UNSW to the most talented students in the 300+ disadvantaged schools in New South Wales regardless of ATAR. Our intention is to work with these schools to identify the most talented students who show promise and want to access University. So achievement and grades will be contextualised to opportunity and school.

A crucial step in making this possible is working towards a large endowed scholarship fund to be able to offer living cost and accommodation scholarships for these students for the duration of their degree.

This exciting plan is in its early stages not because of any hesitation about its importance but because the transitional courses, additional mentoring, scholarships and support required to get us from 9% low SES participation to 13% extending to 20%, whilst maintaining our high degree completion rates, will run in to hundreds of millions of dollars.

I know that other universities have similar worthy plans and I hope that the enthusiasm of Minister Tehan for this agenda – which is in a small way reflected in the plans for Performance Based Funding – will lead to greater public funding to add to our philanthropic efforts.

In summary, there are key aspects of equity that universities have limited ability to influence including, critically, home environment and differential school quality. But there are steps our sector can take to attract and support talented but disadvantaged potential students if we can generate the resources, which could have a big impact.

I often refer to Indian Economist Surjit Bhalla, who argues persuasively that ‘education is the new wealth of nations’. It is a transformational gift for the individual that, unlike possessions or money, can never be taken away and nationally creates human capital more valuable, globally, than any financial asset.
We are all in this sector because we understand well the transformative power of education.

That it can be the path to a fulfilling life for those who are otherwise hostage to circumstance.

A key part of Minister Tehan’s call for government and universities to work together to deliver productivity for Australia must be steps to ensure that all those Australians who can benefit from a university education have an opportunity to so.

Thank you

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