Inequality Persists in Higher Education in Australia

A new paper by academics from the University of Canberra shows that a disproportionately large share of university undergraduates is still drawn from higher socio-economic backgrounds. It concludes that “the benefits of the expansion of higher education appear to have been enjoyed predominantly by women and men from higher socio-economic backgrounds.”

Although the total number of domestic undergraduate students more than trebled over the 36 years from 1974 to 2010, the proportion of people from the bottom socio-economic quartile who participate in higher education has remained at 14 to 15 per cent since 1989. This is despite the removal of up-front tuition fees and the introduction of means-tested living allowances for students.

The paper shows that men with a university-educated father are almost three times more likely to graduate from university than other men and women with a university-educated father are almost four times more likely to have graduate than other women.

This difference is largely attributed to the lower levels of educational attainment by secondary school students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Students from low socio-economic backgrounds remain much less likely to graduate from secondary school than those from high socio-economic backgrounds.

The Year 12 completion rate for students from low socio-economic backgrounds has remained at around 20 percentage points lower than that of students from high socio-economic backgrounds since at least 1985 even though completion rates have increased for both groups (these and the following figures are updated from those presented in the paper). The completion rate for low socio-economic students in 1985 was 39 per cent compared to 58 per cent for high socio-economic students. In 2011, the respective rates were 62 and 80 per cent.

The authors note recent government initiatives to support its target for universities to enrol 20 per cent of their students from low socio-economic backgrounds by 2020, but comment that the programs are of relatively short duration (four years). They conclude in the light of the evidence presented in the paper that the task of changing institutional behaviour in a way that effectively addresses persistent inequality in higher education will probably require a more long-term policy and funding commitment.

Trevor Cobbold

Jenny Chesters & Louise Watson 2013. Understanding the Persistence of Inequality in Higher Education: Evidence from Australia, Journal of Education Policy, 28 (2): 198-215.

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