Equity, performance and accountability
NCSEHE 2017 Equity Fellowship Final Report
La Trobe University
Australian governments have actively enabled the transition from an elite to a high-participation higher education system that now places higher education within reach of all capable students. However, some groups are underrepresented in higher education compared to their representation in broader society. The Australian Government allocates significant public funding to redress underrepresentation and to support the participation of capable students who experience barriers to participation in higher education.
Public investment in student equity is inescapably tied to public accountability. Public funding for student equity is substantial and spans a range of equity-specific and general funding programs. Equity-specific programs such as the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) represent around $300 million of annual Commonwealth investment. Programs that support the participation of all students are also relevant to student equity. The Commonwealth Grants Scheme, income contingent loans and student income support represent billions of dollars in public investment that support equity goals.
The Fellowship research sought to better understand how accountability for performance against equity policy goals and funding operates across the Australian higher education system. This entailed consideration of: how equity goals are defined; who defines equity goals; how equity goals are resourced; how performance against equity goals is monitored and reviewed; and what consequences arise from a level of equity performance.
Optimising accountability for public expenditure on student equity in higher education is a major challenge. There are numerous stakeholders, equity groups, programs and institutions. Securing consensus on reform is difficult.
The best way of securing bi-partisan support in Australian government is to provide a sound strategic case for good public policy-based on the efficiency and effectiveness of public expenditure. Collaboration and consultation with all stakeholders may achieve a consensus around which reform can be achieved.
The report seeks to understand, reconcile and integrate legitimate different perspectives from a range of system stakeholders. Accountability at a system level is contentious because it throws a spotlight on the operations and performance of multiple stakeholders. However, all parts of the system can improve the role they play in student equity.
To improve accountability in student equity, there must be greater clarity around student equity objectives to provide a reference point for policy across the system. This requires high levels of transparency so that stakeholders are aware of the equity goals, how they are embedded across the system, and how elements of the system are performing.
The Australian Government needs to take the lead in bringing stakeholders with diverse interests together to develop an equity in higher education narrative that will strengthen the education system as well as contribute to a more productive and socially mobile society. The Commonwealth is best placed to facilitate strong working relationships with schools, training, innovation, industry and public sectors, and to achieve a more ‘joined up’ policy framework than that currently in place today.
To better understand how accountability for performance against equity policy goals and funding operates across the Australian higher education system, this research involved four strands of activity:
- Theoretical perspectives on equity and accountability, through a review of the literature. This process informed research design, data collection and analysis.
- Analysis of secondary data to identify how equity and accountability is embedded within relevant legislation, regulation, statistics, strategic plans and annual reports.
- Interviews with leaders from across the sector, including current and former Vice-Chancellors, to understand their perspectives on student equity and accountability.
- Surveys of managers from across the sector to understand the perspectives of staff within institutions on equity and accountability.
Challenges Identified in the Research
The research identified six challenges for accountability in equity in higher education:
- Student equity is framed at system, group, local and individual levels but accountability for student equity is not.
Student equity is framed as a general principle (an accessible system for all), as concern for the participation of underrepresented groups (such as regional students), at a local level (such as a university’s local community), and at an individual level focused on participation of marginalised and disadvantaged people. Accountability for equity is primarily focused on designated equity groups, with limited consideration of the relevance of how equity fits to higher education accountability at a system, local and individual level. Conceptualisations of equity do not appear to have adjusted to universal rates of participation.
- There is inconsistent alignment between equity group goals, and their resourcing, measurement and evaluation.
Australian higher education equity policy is focused on designated equity groups. There is inconsistent alignment of funding, measurement and evaluation by equity group. Participation for some groups is supported through equity-specific programs. The participation of some groups is not linked to a specific program, which are instead enabled through general funding programs that are available to all students. Commonwealth and institutional performance reports are inconsistent in the equity groups included for analysis. There is no systematic approach to resourcing, measurement and evaluation of equity at a local and individual level.
- There is consensus around legitimacy of some groups, but opinions differ as to whether other groups warrant equity group status.
There is broad consensus on the legitimacy of policy attention on representation of some groups, particularly Indigenous, low socioeconomic status, regional and remote, and disability. Some sector leaders questioned the relevance of women in non-traditional areas and non-English speaking background. Some sector leaders proposed groups based on different characteristics (e.g. religion or sexual orientation).
- Equity is shaped by many institutions and different time frame considerations outside of higher education.
Sector leaders recognised that there were many components to equity policy that spanned Commonwealth and state governments, school, early childhood and vocational education systems, and higher education institutions. This complexity of these stakeholders contributes to challenges in aligning equity policy, performance and accountability.
- Public investment in financing student equity is not well understood.
Interviews with sector leaders and surveys of institution managers highlighted uncertainty about the full extent of Commonwealth funding for student equity, or the proportion of institutional income linked to student equity. Knowledge of equity-specific program funding is far better than knowledge of other forms of public expenditure in support of equity. Accountability for equity can be consigned to lower order importance where focus is placed on equity-specific revenues, which in many cases represent a low proportion of institutional financing.
- Student equity is not a sufficiently prominent feature of the higher education regulatory environment.
Interviews with sector leaders highlighted support for the new Higher Education Standards Framework, but with reservations around the role that the Tertiary Equity Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) might play in accountability for student equity. There is scope for TEQSA to increase the level of attention given to student equity. Leaders highlighted limits to the regulator’s influence in matters of student equity and the importance of embedding student equity in institutional governance to progress student equity goals and enhance accountability for student equity.
Strategic Priorities for Change
There is a case to strengthen accountability given public policy importance of student equity, the magnitude of public investment, and challenges identified around accountability for equity. The strengthening of accountability is best seen as a system level challenge, resolved by progressively and collaboratively embedding strategic equity goals across the system when opportune to do so.
Refine equity goals
The current equity groups were first identified over 30 years ago and since then both Australian society and higher education have changed significantly. The Department of Education and Training is currently reviewing equity groups and changes are likely to be made to their composition.
In addition to national equity groups recognised by the Australian Government, some institutions have developed their own equity priorities, often shaped by local circumstances and needs. Balancing national agendas and local autonomy is a challenge. We must also not lose sight of the individual and diverse support needs. A strategic priority for change is to integrate these tiers within a coherent system of equity, performance and accountability.
A multi-tiered approach could form the basis of a new way of thinking about equity. The top tier would represent the core national priorities, linked to specific funding and other policy interventions. Below may be groups and circumstances that do not fit criteria of national priorities but have relevance at a local level and warrant continued monitoring, and are supported by general programs that support the participation of all students. Below this, policies that ensure that individuals who experience educational disadvantage are well supported could be made more explicit. The cyclical review of the tiers may assist the re-prioritisation of equity groups over time, creating a dynamic feedback loop rather than the intermittent inquiry-based approach to change with perceived winners and losers.
Improve information management
The collection of the right data is a critical enabler of transparency and accountability for equity in higher education. While there is a growing body of data on equity in higher education, there are many gaps in information, and student equity is described in diverse ways within policy and planning documents.
A fragmented approach to student equity makes it more difficult to assess system and institutional performance against student equity goals. One cannot, for example, readily identify base funding for the participation of students from equity groups. Public accountability for student equity is eroded if the full extent of public investment is opaque.
Any changes to equity goals, such as the multi-tiered approach described above, will have implications for higher education information management. There is a need to harmonise reporting, and reporting standards and definitions, to enable researchers and policymakers to investigate student equity more effectively. This means clarifying what data is collected, improving how it is managed, and making better use of the data that is already collected.
One challenge in improving information management is the tension between balancing institutional autonomy with consistency in reporting across institutions. Claims to institutional autonomy and regulatory burden can be used to thwart attempts to strengthen and standardise data collection and such claims need to be assessed on their real merits. Similar issues and challenges arise in relation to privacy.
There is also a process issue with data collection — who is engaged in data collection policy and what is the process for discussing and debating change in data acquisition?
Embed student equity goals across the higher education system
Student equity is moderately embedded across the higher education system at national, local and individual levels. Challenges such as misalignment of goals, performance measurement and reporting, and transparency of full public funding suggest that more could be done to embed current equity goals across the system. Any refinement of equity goals will need to be integrated within a complex variety of policy instruments.
There is limited visibility over how institutions comply with current equity-related administrative or funding requirements. Much of this compliance is left to institutional governance processes, cyclically assessed by TEQSA. Student equity does not currently feature in TEQSA’s risk framework, and institutions are unlikely to face regulatory consequences-based on their equity compliance regime, profile and performance, particularly where equity commitments are voluntary responses to local need.
More could be done to leverage the full public investment in student equity in pursuit of student equity goals. Public subsidies should flow to those institutions who can deliver accessibility and quality. However, under current funding arrangements, prestige and exclusivity confer financial rewards for which comparatively few students from equity groups benefit from.
The Australian Government is moving towards some performance funding and these reforms will provide lessons and opportunities to further embed equity as a design feature of a fair, accessible high-quality system.
Analyse, report and communicate outcomes
To improve equity outcomes, we need better reporting of data, better analysis of broader datasets and better communication of the outcomes of data analysis to all stakeholders. Because reporting is so fragmented, we are not sure what best practice looks like and there is a need for a conversation about what this means and how we reach it sector-wide. The Australian Government can play a key role in this area. It is already the custodian of important national datasets and how they interlink. It can set the parameters by which data is collected and reported. This can extend from articulating specific requirements for information within the Higher Education Information Management System (HEIMS) and Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) to more subtle expectations around what elements a strategic plan or annual report should include.
There is also some need to think more broadly about the ways in which data is comparable or can be linked across sectors. The transition from school or TAFE to university should not mean entirely new conceptualisations of equity and how it is measured and tracked.
These are some of the challenges and implications that could be addressed by an Operational Framework for Equity and Accountability, as illustrated in the report.
In looking at systemic changes to the way in which equity in higher education can be advanced, the report does not focus on isolated recommendations of an incremental nature — instead, it proposes a framework through which four priorities for change can unleash significant and continuous system-wide reforms.
The Australian Government is the only authority that can lead this process, one that requires cooperation and coordination in a process-based consultation and consensus building exercise with all stakeholders.
The report has just two significant recommendations consistent with this position:
- The Australian Government adopts an Operational Framework for Student Equity that integrates system, national, local and individual dimensions of student equity across Australian higher education.
- Processes for developing pathways for each of the four strategic priorities for change be developed and implemented, with reference to each other, and in consultation with all stakeholders.