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Uncapping of university places has not failed disadvantaged students

Written by Dr Tim Pitman for The Conversation

The Group of Eight (Go8), which represents Australia’s elite universities, has called for university places to be recapped, saying that the demand-driven system has failed to sufficiently boost numbers of disadvantaged students entering higher education – one of its primary goals – and therefore the additional cost to the taxpayer is unjustified.

In its paper, the Go8 said:

“Against the target of 20% of university enrolments to be students from a low SES background by 2020 the demand-driven system has delivered just a 1.5% increase, while the majority of the growth has come from medium and high SES students.”

The word “just” implies the policy has been a failure, but such rhetoric is misleading.

In real terms this represents more than 35,000 extra students from low-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds between 2009 and 2014, the period analysed by the Go8 in its paper.

This figure does not include other groups of disadvantaged students that have also benefited from the uncapping of places. These include Indigenous students, those living in regional and remote areas, and students with disabilities.

There are too many variables to know whether or not the 20% target by 2020 will be achieved. But even if, in the incredibly unlikely event that no more gains were made from now on, the policy would still have resulted in access for tens of thousands of disadvantaged students.

A small but significant gain

While on the face of it the 1.5% change might seem minimal, in real terms this is genuinely significant.

Using the same time period, enrolment population and low-SES measurement as the Go8 did for its paper, we find that between 2009 and 2014, an additional 36,720 low-SES undergraduate students were enrolled.

32,875 enrolled in non-Go8 universities, which is a proportional improvement of 7% over the period. That is, the relative change from an 18.4% share of enrolments to a 19.7% share was 7%.

In the eight elite universities an extra 3,845 low-SES students enrolled, which is an even better improvement of 11.7% over the period.

The Go8 is therefore calling for the scrapping of a system that has, it could be said, had more success in its own institutions than others.

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Posted 20 June 2016 Posted in General