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The good, the bad, and the ‘TBC’: How the Job-Ready Graduates Package affects student equity

Dr Mel Henry, NCSEHE

The recently announced Job-Ready Graduates Package presents a complex set of reforms to Commonwealth funding of higher education. Some changes offer promising opportunities to further enhance student equity, particularly for regional, rural and remote (RRR) and Indigenous students; others present potential challenges to inclusive education; and some necessitate further refinement to ensure benefits extend to underrepresented and disadvantaged groups. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees, and there are some less obvious impacts to student equity that risk being overlooked, so here’s an overview of the proposed reforms through a student equity lens.

How the Job-Ready Graduates Package will benefit student equity

The Minister for Education’s commitment to student equity is evident in the Job-Ready Graduates Package. A number of changes specifically respond to the historical disadvantage and significant barriers faced by students in RRR Australia, as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The financial burden for relocating RRR students may be lessened to some extent by changes to the Fares Allowance and establishment of the Tertiary Access Payment (TAP). These targeted payments will help to cover costs of relocating for university study, and enable RRR students to return home between semesters. Reducing these financial barriers will go some way toward levelling the playing field for RRR students, and help to reduce the stress, anxiety and isolation associated with relocating (Pollard, 2018).

At the policy level, RRR and Indigenous attainment is specifically prioritised through the proposed Indigenous, Rural and Low SES Attainment Fund (IRLSAF), driving targeted institutional outreach and support for RRR and Indigenous communities, alongside low socioeconomic status (SES), and facilitating stronger outcomes for these students. Increased funding for regional campuses and additional Regional University Centres (RUCs) will help institutions actively grow student support and course delivery in regional and remote areas. In addition, specialised funding for RRR outreach through the revised Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) Regional Partnerships Project Pool should encourage and support universities to target RRR communities and collaborate with other institutions to proactively grow RRR enrolments. The revised HEPPP allocation formula will also consider multiple types of disadvantage, counting students more than once where they fall into more than one equity group, recognising and giving weight to cumulative disadvantage, and the complexity of associated student needs.

Additional Commonwealth Supported Places (CSPs) will further support enhanced access for RRR and Indigenous students. Increased CSPs in priority study areas may reduce competition for places in popular courses, having the potential to relax pressure on ATAR as a mechanism to manage student numbers (Pitman, 2019). With ATAR known to favour high SES students (Li & Dockery, 2014), reducing ATAR inflation may lessen higher education access inequities associated with prior educational disadvantage. Guaranteed CSPs for RRR Indigenous students will also mean more places for these students, regardless of field of study.

Public benefits may also be achieved through enhanced graduate diversity and evidence-based student equity policy. It is feasible that lower student contributions will make courses in teaching, clinical psychology, English, mathematics, nursing, languages and agriculture more attractive to low-income students, enabling greater diversity among graduates in these industries. Meanwhile, establishing a Regional Education Commissioner will help facilitate greater accountability and evidence-based policy decisions around RRR student attainment and support. This role may also go some way to address RRR internet connectivity disadvantage, and help to build more inclusive tertiary access strategies.

Some challenges for student equity in the Job-Ready Graduates Package

Not discounting the aforementioned benefits to student equity, the Job-Ready Graduates Package presents some notable challenges to inclusive education. In particular, several changes run the risk of limiting student choice, particularly for those from low SES backgrounds. While the flexibility to reallocate CSPs gives institutions greater capacity to satisfy demand, it may equally result in increased competition for fewer places in less popular courses, potentially inflating associated ATARs and limiting access to those courses. Increased student contributions may also discourage low-income students from seeking more expensive courses, driving them toward cheaper degrees that may not align as well with their strengths and aspirations. Likewise, one must acknowledge the potential for reduced university income associated with some areas of study (through lower student and Commonwealth contributions) to place greater strain on operating costs and discourage delivery of associated courses (Marshman & Larkins, 2020).

Limiting student choice may subsequently impact diversity in particular industries in the longer-term. Low SES, regional and remote, Indigenous, non-English speaking background and students with disability may be more highly represented within more expensive areas of study (Richardson, Bennett, & Roberts, 2016). These already educationally disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, therefore, may be disproportionately impacted by proposed fee changes. Discouraging students from more expensive areas of study could mean fewer low-income students accessing and graduating from associated courses, resulting in underrepresentation and reduced diversity in professions such as law, management, politics and journalism. Cheaper areas of study may also correspond to lower paid jobs, such as teaching and nursing (Social Research Centre, 2019), perpetuating income disadvantage. Longer term, discouraging particular career paths may impact the diversity of thought reflected in public discourse and decision-making (both in business and public policy), risking further systemic disadvantage of underrepresented groups.

Incentivising RRR student participation and career choices also presents an ethical question about the desired outcomes of higher education. What the Australian Government considers to be the “best employment outcome” may not necessarily align with a graduate’s perspective, or be in a graduate’s best interest (O’Shea & Delahunty, 2018). Merely having a job, does not in itself demonstrate the public or private value of a qualification. It is not enough to maximise the number of graduates in employment, and incentivise participation to this end. Underemployment is a significant problem, particularly for disadvantaged and underrepresented graduates (Social Research Centre, 2019; O’Shea, 2020). Effective higher education should equally facilitate employment in well-paying jobs and rewarding careers which justify personal and public investment, satisfy individual needs and interests, are of value to the broader community, and actually apply one’s learning. The estimated costs associated with relocating for university study, furthermore, are substantial (Napthine, Graham, Lee, & Wills, 2019). One must question the ethics in incentivising RRR students to move away from their family, country and community, and to assume significant financial burden, in order to study at university. The TAP, for instance, is specifically designed to discourage RRR students from taking a gap year, yet $5,000 is unlikely to cover the full cost of living away from home, and could force some students to either work long hours to afford metropolitan living expenses, or succumb to poverty. The result may be more RRR students under financial and academic stress, risking their wellbeing, success and retention. Any incentive designed to influence student choice, therefore, needs to consider these broader public and private benefits to relocating and particular career pathways.

And some issues to be ironed out

The Job-Ready Graduates Package is a set of proposed reforms outlined for further discussion. As such, there are many intricate details yet to be unpacked and negotiated in Parliament. The aforementioned challenges warrant further exploration to ensure the Minister for Education’s intent to support enhanced access and participation is realised, and historically underrepresented groups are supported to enter meaningful and rewarding employment through higher education. Further discussion and refinement of exactly how the proposed reforms will be implemented is equally important, to maximise the desired impact.

Effective implementation of the proposed RRR reforms, in particular, necessitates balanced consideration of the costs of RRR outreach and delivery, and the need to facilitate student choice. While additional funding to support RRR outreach partnerships is very welcome, spread nationally, $1.8M is unlikely to impact RRR participation significantly, particularly for more remote communities, where travel costs are likely to be substantial and infrastructure limited. Regardless of additional funding, many RRR communities will remain out of range of RUCs and regional university campuses, by the sheer remoteness of much of Australia. It will always be difficult to argue financial viability to establish critical educational infrastructure outside of already heavily populated (and resourced) regional centres. We need workable solutions for remote Australia too.

Many of the RRR reforms operate on the assumption that students want to, and should, relocate to study. This may neglect an opportunity to enhance distance and online learning opportunities, and to incentivise capable students to remain in the regions. Regional communities should also benefit from higher education attainment through increased knowledge, skills and opportunities within those regions. RRR graduates who relocate for study may also not return to their regional communities once they graduate, thereby limiting the benefits for the communities they leave (Rerat, 2014).

Eligibility restrictions for RRR payments may inadvertently exclude some of our most disadvantaged students. The TAP, for instance, would not apply to part-time, non-immediate school leavers, or students seeking courses of less than one year. Pathway students entering higher education via six-month full-time bridging/enabling courses would not have access to this payment. Students who need to work in order to afford living costs away from home may also need to study part-time or complete a gap year to save up, making them ineligible for the TAP.

In addition, under the proposed reforms, metropolitan Indigenous students will miss out on guaranteed CSPs for RRR Indigenous students. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students across the board remain underrepresented in higher education, however, including those in metropolitan areas, some of whom may have previously relocated from RRR areas for secondary school but are no longer considered RRR. Support for students with disability, furthermore, is notably absent from the package altogether.

On the whole, the Job-Ready Graduates Package presents opportunities to enhance student equity in higher education, particularly for RRR and Indigenous students. The specifics of how these reforms might be implemented, nonetheless, requires further scrutiny to ensure benefits will be realised for more remote and low-income communities, as well as for RRR students who choose not to relocate. These complex concerns warrant further consideration as the sector and parliament deliberate on the proposed reforms, to pave the way for more inclusive and impactful higher education funding.

References

Li, I. W., & Dockery, A. M. (2014). Socio-economic status of schools and university academic performance. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University. Retrieved from https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/publications/socio-economic-status-of-schools-university-academic-performance/

Marshman, I., & Larkins, F. (2020, June 24). The government is making ‘job-ready’ degrees cheaper for students – but cutting funding to the same courses. Retrieved from The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/the-government-is-making-job-ready-degrees-cheaper-for-students-but-cutting-funding-to-the-same-courses-141280

Napthine, D., Graham, C., Lee, P., & Wills, M. (2019). National Regional, Rural and Remote Tertiary Education Strategy. Retrieved from https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/national_regional_rural_and _remote_tertiary_education_strategy.pdf

O’Shea, S. (2020). ‘Mind the Gap!’ Exploring the post-graduation outcomes and employment mobility of individuals who are first in their family to complete a university degree: Final Report. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/OShea_ResearchFellowship_FINALREPORT_.pdf

O’Shea, S., & Delahunty, J. (2018). Getting through the day and still having a smile on my face! How do students define success in the university learning. Higher Education Research and Development, 37(5), 1062–1075. doi:10.1080/07294360.2018.1463973

Pitman, T. (2019, November 27). What actually is an ATAR? First of all it’s a rank, not a score. Retrieved from National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education: https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/what-is-atar/

Pollard, L. (2018). Remote Student University Success: An Analysis of Policy and Practice. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University. Retrieved from https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/publications/remote-student-university-success-analysis-policy-practice/

Rerat, P. (2014). The selective migration of young graduates: Which of them return to their rural home region and which do not? Journal of Rural Studies, 35, 123-132. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074301671400062X

Richardson, S., Bennett, D., & Roberts, L. (2016). Investigating the relationship between equity and graduate outcomes in Australia. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University. Retrieved from https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/publications/investigating-the-relationship-between-equity-and-graduate-outcomes-in-australia/

Social Research Centre. (2019). 2019 Graduate Outcomes Survey. Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from https://www.qilt.edu.au/docs/default-source/gos-reports/2019-gos/2019-gos-national-report.pdf

Posted 22 July 2020 Posted in Disability, Editorial, First in Family, General, Indigenous, Low SES, Non-English speaking background, Regional

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