Job-Ready Graduates Package risks entrenching inequity
Do universities exist to prepare young people for the workforce and the labour needs of the economy, or do they have a grander purpose to serve society and create new knowledge and insight? These are questions a Senate committee must contemplate as it debates the future of higher education in Australia.
The government’s leaning is clear. It is right there in the label of the latest policy to reform the sector, the ‘Job-ready Graduates package’.
At a time of COVID-created economic downturn, it is correct that the government is focused on jobs. But a close reading of the government’s package begs the question – jobs for whom?
Reviewing the package as a whole reveals that it will deliver outcomes that further entrench social inequity, through three main avenues: a flawed method for managing underperforming students, misdiagnosis of equity issues across rural, remote and metropolitan areas, and a fee structure that risks perpetuating wealth inequalities.
The legislation introduces a fifty per cent pass rate requirement for students to continue to be included as part of the Commonwealth Grant Scheme. This method for managing underperforming students is a cut and paste copy of the regulations introduced to respond to the FEE-HELP scandal that erupted when certain unscrupulous non-university providers roamed the country offering free iPads to any person prepared to sign up for a course, and is not fit for purpose for the university sector.
University completion rates for students from equity backgrounds are often lower than the average, and when equity students are able to complete their degrees, they typically do so at slower rates. The reason for this is multi-faceted but has a lot to do with the fact that many students from equity backgrounds are the first in their family to attend university, are more likely to have additional work, caring and other responsibilities on top of their university studies, and have less overall financial, social and cultural support. All universities take their responsibilities to low SES students seriously, and have robust practices in place to identify and support students who are at risk of failing their course. This is a key part of supporting low SES and first-in family-students to transition successfully to university. But the government’s proposal creates an environment where it will be safer financially for the university to pre-emptively exclude lower performing students, rather than investing in their academic success.
The package also proposes reallocating funding from low SES groups in metropolitan regions to rural, regional and remote students. This does not reflect the significant differences between students outside metropolitan areas. There are many wealthy rural and regional students. They are now included in a university’s ‘equity’ funding at the expense of a significant group; students experiencing disadvantage in metropolitan areas. Based on our estimations, Western Sydney University is the biggest loser in the government’s new equity funding arrangements, reflecting its geographic location at the heart of Western Sydney. This is a ridiculous outcome considering the role Western Sydney University has played expanding access to higher education for low-SES and first-in-family students.
The third concern vis-à-vis equity outcomes regards the design of the proposed funding clusters. The assumption behind the bill’s new funding arrangements is that students will be influenced by course cost when choosing which degree to study. This is in fact, debateable. However if the government is correct, this logic assumes that students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds will be influenced by cost more than their higher SES counterparts.
Making high status courses (Law & Economics, Management & Commerce, Political Science, Communications) considerably more expensive than nursing, agriculture and teaching further cements underrepresentation and reduced diversity in high income professions such as law, management, politics and journalism. No one could argue that these society-shaping professions are not in desperate need of a greater diversity of perspective and lived experience.
Australia is facing the worst recession since the Great Depression. We know from previous recessions that people will seek to study and re-train. Now is the time for the government to be expanding access to education and training so that people, especially young people, can gain valuable education and skills while they wait for the economy to rebound.
Low SES students are already at risk of facing long-term educational and labour market disengagement. COVID-19 only exacerbates this issue, and the biggest proposed higher education reform in decades ignores this challenge, and risks winding back years of progress.