Students with low ATARs from wealthier families first to gain from Pyne’s reforms

By Trevor Gale

We are being misled about a key plank of Christopher Pyne’s higher education reforms and, until now, the issue has received little public attention. The idea to allow private providers of higher education, including TAFEs, to access commonwealth supported places was sold to us as a way to give more low SES students access to higher education.

The logic goes like this: low SES students are over represented in vocational education institutions and so they are the most likely group to benefit from these institutions offering higher education (i.e. sub-degrees and bachelor degrees) and pathways to higher education; if TAFEs and private providers are given access to higher education funding through commonwealth supported places (CSPs) there will be more access to higher education for low SES students.

Recent research shows this logic is faulty. A 2014 research project funded by the now defunct National VET Equity Advisory Council (NVEAC) shows non-university degrees, including associate and bachelor degrees, offered by private providers and TAFEs, are not, as might be assumed, dominated by low SES students. In fact, they are dominated by high SES students.

It’s not that low SES students would like to get into these degrees but can’t, out-muscled by their high ATAR, high SES peers. Instead, if low SES students want a sub-degree or a bachelor degree, they prefer to get it from a university.

Recent research commissioned by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) shows students from high SES backgrounds dominate student preferences for TAFE degrees. It also shows these high SES students have low Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranks (ATARs), at levels on a par with and sometimes below the ATARs of low SES students enrolled in universities, about which the media and the sector seem to be in a panic.

Which brings me to last year’s Kemp-Norton report Review of the Demand Driven Funding System. One of its many findings is that “Low socio-economic status students would benefit from increased access to sub-bachelor courses”.  However I can’t find the evidence base for this finding anywhere in the review, and it appears neither can Andrew Norton, one of the review’s authors.  See our recent exchange on Twitter

At best, then, to say that low SES students will benefit from being channelled into sub-degree programs offered by TAFEs and private providers is conjecture, a ‘leap of faith’. And in a context where politicians and education leaders bleat about the need for policy to be informed by evidence, by which they mean statistical or ‘hard’ data, the Kemp-Norton ‘finding’ in the absence of such evidence looks more like politics than good research.

The politics of making commonwealth supported places available to TAFEs and private providers of higher education can go two ways, both with more apparent benefit for high SES students:-

In the short term, it is high SES students currently dominating enrolments in TAFE and private provider sub-degrees and bachelor degrees who will benefit from these institutions accessing CSP funding.

And in the longer term, when TAFEs become the government’s ‘preferred’ provider of higher education for low SES students, as Further Education Colleges are in the UK, high SES students will benefit from the increased status of a higher education gained at a university, particularly high SES students with low ATARs.

And while this is going on, commonwealth support place funding for higher education will be redirected from universities to private providers listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.


Trevor GaleTrevor Gale is Professor of Education Policy and Social Justice at Deakin University, and a past president of the Australian Association for Research in Education. From 2008 to 2011 he was the founding director of Australia’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. He is chief investigator on two current Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grants, one researching the social justice dispositions of secondary teachers in advantaged and disadvantaged Melbourne and Brisbane schools, and the other researching the aspirations of secondary school students in Melbourne’s western suburbs.