While in recent decades there has been a focus on improving equitable access to higher education, inequalities cannot be overcome by simply exhorting more young people to go to university. Policies must also address the disparities between students that affect their capacity to ‘choose’ higher education.
Australia has seen substantial growth in university enrolments since the 1960s, as the sector has moved from ‘elite’ education to one that has been described as ‘university for the masses’. More recently, policies designed to ‘widen participation’ have aimed to increase representation of groups who have not traditionally enrolled in higher education in large numbers, particularly Indigenous Australians, those from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, and Australians living in regional and remote areas.
However, widening participation has not led to a fair or socially just university system. Not only do students from socially disadvantaged groups remain less likely to go to university than their more advantaged peers but, if they do go to university, they are more likely to enrol in less prestigious institutions and degrees.
Equitable access is often seen as overcoming ‘crude’ barriers such as money, distance, and achievement. But it is much more complicated than that.
In recent years, market-based reforms to the higher education sector have cast prospective university students as ‘customers’ who are empowered to shop around for the ‘right’ institution and the ‘right’ course. And while outreach initiatives have been implemented by universities to reach under-represented groups, it is the less prestigious universities that are frequently promoted to these students and, if students do not take them up, they are judged as being ‘not aspirational enough’ and in need of fixing.
But what leads young people to make different kinds of higher education ‘choices’?
Our research draws on data collected as part of a four-year project (2012-2015) involving students in Years 3 to 12 (aged 8 to 18) enrolled in 64 NSW government schools, with a focus on the formation of their post-school educational and occupational aspirations.
From that data, we made a comparative study of two schools, a metropolitan high school ‘Harbour View’ (pseudonym) where students are more ‘traditional’ entrants to higher education, and a regional central school ‘Mountainside’ (pseudonym), where students are often seen to be the targets of widening participation initiatives.
In Harbour View, the median income is twice the state average and half of adults hold a university degree. In Mountainside, the median income is half the state average and one in 15 adults hold a university degree.
Our research showed that students of Harbour View, a wealthy suburb in the state’s capital, see no choice but to go to university; it is a long-term expectation that they take for granted and not to go to university is inconceivable. They have at least one parent and many relatives and friends who have been to university, and these people provide students with important first-hand information and stories. The decision to go to university is well-established, so much so that students’ talk of their aspirations centres on where to go, rather than if they should go to university, which often includes prestigious institutions where family members have gone, and even overseas universities. These students also have access to international travel opportunities and take part in high-status cultural activities which they can ‘trade in’ when competing for entry into high-status institutions.
For the students of Mountainside, in a regional area with a history of mining and logging, their talk about university is based around language of hesitation and doubt; they will ‘wait and see’ what the future brings and believe that university is ‘not for everyone’. Financial concerns are prevalent when they speak about higher education; for instance, one student said they would go only if they got a scholarship. Some said the ‘real world’ is one of work, not study, and they had already excluded the very idea of higher education from a young age. Most do not have a parent or relative with a degree and have not visited a university campus; their information about higher education therefore comes from school. While these students rarely mentioned a specific institution to attend, Mountainside is an hour’s drive from a metropolitan university, and that university was perceived as the best choice for those who might go because of proximity to family, cost, and perceived ‘fit’.
Through our analysis, we argue that the idea of equitable choice in accessing higher education is an illusion. While the widening participation agenda aims to open up higher education to the masses, it is unlikely the young people in our two case studies will end up at the same university, or even the same kind of institution.
Despite its social justice motives, widening participation has an unintended consequence – it is entwined with social sorting. Those who are already privileged tend to amass the benefits that come with attending prestigious universities. For their less advantaged peers, simply ‘having a degree’ is often not enough to compete in the competitive graduate marketplace.
Our research shows that the capacity to ‘choose’ university is vastly different for young Australians. If equity in the contemporary higher education sector is to be addressed in any depth, fair access inside the system – not just to the system – must be part of the policy agenda.
It is clear that widening participation initiatives must be implemented early, long before senior secondary school, and must expose students to a range of institutions and degrees.
And individual institutions must rethink their approach; allocating places for students from under-represented groups in prestigious degrees, offering targeted early entry schemes which do not rely solely on academic measures, and providing financial support through scholarships and fellowships for disadvantaged students.
Sally Patfield is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle, with over 15 years’ experience working in various educational contexts, including as a primary teacher in NSW public schools and across professional and academic roles in higher education. Sally’s doctoral research investigated school students who would be the first in their families to enter higher education. Her thesis was awarded the prestigious Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education by the Australian Association for Research in Education (2019). Sally’s research focuses on the sociology of higher education, social inequalities, widening participation, and educational transitions.