Uncertain future for equity students

In February, the Accord’s Final Report was lauded for making underrepresented students the enrolment priority for the future of Australian tertiary education.

Four our of every five Australians in a job would have a TAFE qualification or a degree by 2050, leading to around an extra one million students enrolled in post-school education.

The question then – and even more so now – is how the government would transform access and fund new places.

The Federal Government’s proposal on Managed Growth Funding, released Friday, contains a detailed manifesto for a new, simplified funding system and outlines how equity students will be financed.

The proposal seeks to:

  • Provide sufficient funding for the Accord’s proposed enrolment growth
  • Reduces complexity
  • Effectively prevent institutions from enrolling domestic students above their Government-controlled cap.

The concept of a new bureaucracy effectively and efficiently allocating caps tests credulity, and the elimination of capacity to over-enrol raises numerous issues; but when the paper turns to funding equity students, the plan appears to head even deeper into troubled territory.

Part of the problem here is a really basic failure to shape a system through the needs of potential students and instead plump for a top-down command and control approach, believing that disadvantaged students will hungrily snap up places allocated to them, wherever those places are, and ATEC knows what is best for them.

It’s a system designed by people who are not trying to work out how they will pay to fill the car up or unable to conceive of paying to rent student accommodation while their family are struggling to stay afloat.

The paper outlines how the Government proposes to manage funding for each institution by setting a hard enrolment cap, preventing them from over-enrolling. 

There will be ongoing funding for Indigenous students enrolling in any Bachelor degree, which will spark even greater competition between institutions to grow their Indigenous cohorts, as they can grow Indigenous student numbers above the hard student number cap.

However, the other underrepresented, or equity groups identified by the Accord – low SES, rural and regional and students with disability – do not get demand-driven funding and therefore are simply included in the institution’s new cap.

Given the increased costs of recruiting and supporting students from equity backgrounds, there would be no incentive for institutions to recruit increasing numbers of equity students.

Equity students would only be allocated a place if successful in meeting entrance standards for their preferred institutions and otherwise would be allocated a place in another university in their area. However, if all institutions have exhausted their cap allocations, they then need to go back to ATEC and hope that more places might be doled out.

There are many cases where this simply isn’t going to work. A student with a disability who can only easily access a nearby campus. A student in a far-flung regional area who can only afford a bus to the university. A stratification between high status universities that can fill their caps without equity students and low status universities that will have higher costs and lower completion rates because they are forced to fill up with equity students. More work will be required if the Accord’s vision is to have a chance of success.



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