Student equity accountability: A billion-dollar issue
Half of all domestic students now belong to a designated equity group, supported by a multi-billion dollar Commonwealth investment, but optimising accountability for this public expenditure is challenging in an increasingly complex and dynamic higher education system.
New research by NCSEHE 2017 Equity Fellow Matt Brett (La Trobe University) has identified opportunities for recalibrating and strengthening evaluation at a system level, through a process-driven approach.
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 of staff within institutions on equity and accountability.