Reframing equality

A new push is underway to reframe equity in higher education, making it more relevant, more responsive to local situations and more accountable to both taxpayers and students.

Beginning this week, a series of roundtables will be held in nine capital cities and regional centres to start a national discussion about developing a long-term vision for student equity in Australian HE.

At the core of the roundtables will be a discussion paper Student Equity 2030 written by Nadine Zacharias from Curtin University and Matt Brett from La Trobe University, both former equity fellows with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.

Tired and flabby

Brett argues that equity practice and reporting has got a bit “tired and flabby” in recent years and is overdue for a robust rethink. Much of the passion has gone out of equity endeavours in recent years, with many universities simply employing a tick-the-box mentality and resorting to tired justifications that don’t challenge their own activities.

“There is a feeling that a lot of universities are just going through the motions instead of asking critically what is the role that they play as an institution when it comes to the equity needs of HE,” Brett says.

He also argues that equity is “hard-wired into the fabric of the system” because of the Commonwealth Grants Scheme and HECS, but people tended to focus only on the small supplementary programs such as Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program and indigenous support.

“By not focusing on the big picture stuff we are not enabling the system to really achieve an objective around equity because that is  hidden in the design of the system,” Brett says.

“We are quibbling over the crumbs and not really taking a step back and asking what it is that we are really trying to do here.”

Thinking about categories

Manifestations of that are which disadvantaged groups are prioritised, the way people think about equity and how much money is spent (there tends to be a gross underestimation by practitioners because they overlook the CGS and HECS).

Equity group categories, which include low socio-economic background, indigenous and rural and regional, were developed in the early 1980s, even before the Dawkins reforms were introduced in 1989. However, there are now questions being asked over whether at least two of these categories – women in non-traditional disciplines and students from non-English speaking backgrounds – are still relevant today. We might also need to rethink the relative importance of other categories and whether new categories need to be introduced.

Since the introduction from 2010 onwards of the Bradley reforms, which specified a target of 20% of students from low socio-economic backgrounds participating in HE by 2020 (the target was dumped by the Coalition government in 2014), advances in equity have been patchy. While there have been notable and welcome improvements in indigenous enrolments, there has been very little shift in the proportion of students from rural and regional areas.

Brett notes that part of the issue is that each equity category is seen as distinct, while in fact a large number of equity students tend to have multiple equity characteristics. There are also some lazy assumptions around which universities are more likely to enrol students from equity groups over others.

In an interesting exercise for a paper published in June and based on his work as an NCSEHE fellow, Brett analysed the proportion of students at each university who came from one of the six defined equity categories.

He notes that while the Group of Eight universities are usually accused of not pulling their weight in terms of equity (along the same lines as Oxbridge in the UK), he found that in fact some of the Go8 universities radically outperformed some institutions which have plugged their equity credentials for years and which, confusingly, receive large amounts of equity specific funding without apparently doing the hard yards.

For example, Australian Catholic University – a mass-scale educator of mainly teaching and nursing students – was shown to have the third lowest proportion of equity students (31.6%) yet it received 1% of its total funding from equity revenues. Meanwhile, the University of Western Australia had 47.2% of its students from equity groups, but received just 0.2% of its funding from equity programs.

Brett notes this proves there is much activity in the equity space that goes on as a result of institutional commitment and which is self-funded. The point is there is little transparency about programs, progress, funding and outcomes, all of which are reported in an inconsistent manner.

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The vibe

“For me, this is part of the failure of the performance accountability system in that we have just let everyone move forward with the castle mentality,” says Brett.

“It’s not about being really precise about what institutions are doing or why: what their goals are, do they have targets, are they tracking performance?”

He notes that only one of Australia’s 40 universities – Griffith – articulates in its annual report a very precise target around equity and tracks its performance against its own targets and benchmarks.

The 2030 discussion paper and upcoming roundtables will hopefully begin to address this.

“We need a broader consensus around what we want in equity in HE as the critical first step. We need the maturity to look at this in a multi-tiered way so we have broad system design, that includes HECS and income support and recognises these are quality measures in their own right. We must assess performance on a quarterly basis, have national priority groups and accept that national priorities don’t always pick up on the nuances of particular local areas.

“We need to recognise different dimensions to equity rather than just focus on one aspect. We need to see it at a system level.”

While there has been a healthy appetite for the roundtable, Brett accepts that it could be tricky because it will challenge the “status quo and the way some are benefitting from the current policy environment”.

As to whether there is any hope of a much-needed equity refresh, Brett notes the Opposition has agreed to do a full review of tertiary education should it win the next election.

“Equity is a core objective on why we spend money on HE and it is enshrined in the Higher Education Support Act and is one of the HE Standards.

“But equity policy has all got a little bit tired and flabby and old.”

Additional data visualisation by David Kernohan.

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