This week, the federal government released a discussion paper for a Universities Accord, which it hopes will make a 30-year plan for the sector.
One of the key priorities of the upcoming accord is equal access to university. The discussion paper specifically asks:
“what is needed to increase the number of people from under-represented groups applying to higher education?”
Our new book, based on ten years of research, aims to look beyond narrow definitions around equity and access to university.
We argue these ignore more subtle inequalities that shape access to higher education, particularly those that play out at a local level.
Equity targets in higher education
Thirty years ago, the Hawke government set national targets to increase university participation for First Nations Australians, people from low socio-economic backgrounds, people from regional and remote areas, people with disabilities and people from non-English-speaking backgrounds.
The goal was to make sure university students reflected Australian society and ensure Australians from all backgrounds could participate successfully in higher education.
As of 2021, there was a lower proportion of students from these groups enrolled in higher education compared with the proportion in the general population (with the exception of students with a disability). The discussion paper notes 17% of university students were from a low socioeconomic background, 2.4% were First Nations Australians, 21% were from regional or remote areas, and 9% were students with a disability.
As Education Minister Jason Clare told ABC Radio on Wednesday, when it comes to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, “we failed”.
Our new book: Community Matters
Since 2012, we have conducted one of the largest studies to date of how young Australians form their ideas about their education and what they want to do after school. We gathered 10,000 survey responses and did 700 interviews with students in Years 3 to 12, as well as surveys and interviews with parents/carers, teachers and community members.
We published our findings in a new book, Community Matters, released this week.
The book examines seven communities and their relationships with higher education (the names of interviewees and their communities have been changed). These include a metropolitan suburb with a large culturally and linguistically diverse community, a small coastal town, a remote community and a regional centre.
Our aim is to shift the focus away from impersonal “equity target groups” to diverse suburbs, towns and areas across Australia. This shows how equitable access to higher education is shaped by the communities where young people grow up, live and develop a sense of their place in the world.
Aspirations are high
Significantly, in all of the communities we looked at, young people want to go to university.
When we asked them about their aspirations for education, going to university was always the most popular choice among students as young as eight and as old as 18. This proportion ranged from 30% to 78% of students in the various communities.
These findings challenge the view that young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds have “low” aspirations for their futures. What is important, however, is the broader context in which these aspirations play out.
Local labour markets matter
In historically working-class communities and those in rural areas, we found local employment options matter. For some young people, the realities of their local area impacts on their ideas about their futures.
Kathleen is a teacher in Ironbark, a regional agricultural community currently experiencing relative prosperity associated with the wine industry:
“My brother was offered a school-based traineeship as an electrician […] Now he’s earning more money than me […] Why would you go to uni when you can study here at TAFE, earn big money, especially during vintage season?”
Community norms have an impact
Many young people do not have any exposure to university study in their families or even more broadly in communities. Mel, a Year 6 student in Excelsa, a working-class urban community, told us:
“Nobody I know in my family has gone to university or TAFE. My Aunty might have because she does computer work and she gets paid lots of money. Yeah, so she must have, like, studied it at university or something.”
Zoey, a Year 7 student at a local high school in Excelsa, also told us how the aspirations of her peers at school are shaped by gendered norms within the community:
“Probably most girls would probably be stay-at-home mums or might just work at KFC or McDonalds. And the boys might be working in surf shops.”
The broader context matters
We also found factors like drought, technology and globalisation had an impact of young people’s choices in some rural areas. Interviewees spoke about farms being sold and the local school dwindling in size.
These devastating effects translated into an awareness among young people of barriers they would face in even attempting to get to university. Year 12 student Lora is a young Indigenous woman living in the remote township of Olearia:
“I used to say I’d want to go to uni, when I was younger. But, as I got older […] everything changed, and it just got too hard.”
As Catherine, a parent, further explained:
“Not many go through to Year 12, see? […] To do any of the bigger, better stuff you’ve got to have a lot of willpower because you don’t really get a teacher with it […] If you wanted to go on to university you sit there and do your own work, because you’re not with the other kids that are just doing Year 11 and 12.”
Infrastructure often lags behind
In communities where pursuing higher education is not the norm, we also found significant problems with infrastructure.
In one case, a satellite university campus had been established in a community but there was no viable way to get there on public transport. As Adam, a local community member, told us:
“It’s as simple as in the absence of having a decent transport system that is more than a bus every two hours […] it’s really hard if you don’t have a car. […] Talent is everywhere, but opportunity isn’t.”
Where to next with equity policy?
Jason Clare has stated numerous times that he wants to improve access to university in Australia:
“where you live, how much your parents earn, whether you are Indigenous or not, is still a major factor in whether you are a student or a graduate of an Australian university.”
There is now a specific opportunity to focus on this in the upcoming Universities Accord, which talks about “widening opportunities” and “removing barriers”.
What our research shows, however, is that “removing barriers” is not about imploring more young people to choose university, nor is it about rectifying a lack of aspiration or ambition.
Our findings highlight the urgent need for policymakers to consider how universities can better meet the needs of diverse and changing communities. This includes much broader consideration of the role of university in society and how access can be better supported through alignment with local industries, improved infrastructure, and working directly with community members to understand their challenges and concerns.
The Australian higher education sector is now at a crucial juncture. If institutions are not going to better align themselves with their communities, the question might indeed become: why would you go to uni?
You can find out more about our research on young people’s education aspirations here.