Demand Driven System Review: lower-ATAR students can achieve
Written by Professor Sue Trinidad, NCSEHE Director, and Mel Henry, Curtin University Manager Corporate Values & Equity
The Federal Government’s Review of the Demand Driven System report (released 13 April 2014), has strongly endorsed the current demand-driven funding system that enables students from under-represented backgrounds to access higher education, a result welcomed by the NCSEHE and Curtin University’s Ethics, Equity and Social Justice department (EESJ) teams.
It is reassuring to us and the community to know that the quality of university programs has not declined, but has been enhanced through the demand driven system. It has enabled the sector to extend its reach by more than 100,000 students, and increase higher education enrolments for students from regional and remote areas, low SES backgrounds and Indigenous Australians.
The review found “strong evidence that lower-ATAR students can achieve academic success,” but that pathway programs and academic support are critical to their achievement. As a result of this finding, Kemp and Norton recommend extending the demand driven system to support sub-bachelor courses.
NCSEHE and EESJ agree it is important that access to higher education is not artificially limited and that there is a place for every person with the desire and ability to participate. The recommendations to extend the demand driven funding system and remove caps on postgraduate courses that offer community benefit will result in alternative pathways for students with the required skills but who are under-prepared due to circumstances beyond their control. It will also help maintain the already high quality of our higher education system, by further improving the attrition and success rates of students, which will facilitate a significant shift in the Australian community by beginning to break down the cycle of disadvantage through education.
In response to the increased number of Commonwealth supported places resulting from the proposed widening of the demand driven system, it has been acknowledged that the Federal Government will need to make budget cuts. Possible solutions to this funding problem as proposed by Kemp and Norton include introducing a loan fee for HECS-HELP, or reducing the amount of the Commonwealth Grant Scheme payments (and consequently increasing the student contribution). It is our belief that the introduction of a loan fee could cause significant hardship for low SES students. However, reducing the Commonwealth Grant Scheme payments and increasing student loan contributions is likely to have a lesser effect on participation rates (although increased debt will be a deterrent for some) and may be an appropriate compromise.
Finally, the report’s recommendation to drop the 40% attainment for 25-34 year-olds by 2025 and 20% low SES enrolments by 2020 targets recognises that these are arbitrary and that not every university can contribute equally to meeting national targets. Instead, the recommendation is to continue monitoring enrolments and to encourage universities to continue to meet demand, including for low SES populations. However, as excellent as Australia’s universities are certain groups of students continue to experience barriers to participation. Equity targets remind us of the important work still to be done and help hold all universities accountable to their social compacts, which is why the NCSEHE is currently working with the Australian Government Department of Education to develop a comprehensive equity performance framework for the entire sector.