higher education policy

There are direct actions we can take now to make university access fair

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.

Our university workforce has become a fragmented, casualised ‘gig economy’. The problems we face

The quality and integrity of higher education in Australia is dependent on the quality of the academics who staff our universities. The supply pipeline of the academic workforce needs careful planning if it is to continue to be effectively renewed by fully rounded academics who are engaged in research and can contribute to sustaining the quality of Australian higher education.

Unfortunately, the higher education sector response to this challenge has been reactive and haphazard. We believe the problems in the sector are wide ranging and can be profoundly destructive to the future of all Australians unless we co-operatively address them and get government and policy action to change what is happening.

Problems facing the future of academic work

Growth demands

For more than a decade demographers and researchers have drawn attention to the impending need to renew the academic workforce in Australia. The Group of Eight (Go8) coalition of Australian universities estimated  that by 2030 an additional 26,600 full-time teaching staff would be needed to meet growth demands, on top of the 16,400 to replace retirements. There is little evidence of policies or support from governments to address this problem.

Changes to the nature of our work in an increasingly competitive environment

Substantial changes in the nature and context of academic work have emerged in the slipstream of commodified higher education. There is now mass participation by students in higher education, with diverse needs, interests and abilities and they are engaged in multiple modes of course delivery.  Academics today need to be agile in learning new technologies and delivery platforms, while they work in loosely co-ordinated teams often with out-of-area teaching allocations.

At the same time, universities have become intensely competitive, with global league tables promoting a hierarchy of institutions, and, in an effort to support high quality teaching and research, increased competition for declining resources. University administrations have sought to reduce the risks of continuing academic staff positions by resorting to sessional, short-term contracts and teaching-only positions. 

Casualised and fragmented workforce under high levels of stress

During the last two decades the conceptualisation, organisation, and nature of academic work has been disrupted, re-designed and transformed, resulting in an increasingly stratified, segmented, and fragmented workforce. A number of major studies have established the Australian academic workforce is experiencing excessive workload demands, intrusive managerialism and bureaucratic reporting requirements, widespread work dissatisfaction, work-related stress and burnout, at higher levels in Australia than elsewhere.

It is also highly casualised, and reliant on sessional academic staff at the lowest appointment levels to undertake face-to-face and online teaching and marking at the undergraduate level.  Concurrently, the on-going academic workforce is disproportionately skewed toward the older end of the age distribution. Impending retirement among the “baby boomer” generation will intensify the gap between on-going senior academic appointments and those occupying insecure, precariously funded positions founded on “soft” money from research grants and tenders.

Struggles of working in the ‘gig economy’

Short-term policy responses to meet staffing demands over the last decade or more have left a climate of career uncertainty and insecurity, lessening the attractiveness of the academic career. In meeting their on-going operational and educational demands in an unpredictable and volatile funding environment created by successive governments, universities have generated a new class of highly flexible and agile academic workers employed on insecure short-term, casual contracts.

They are subject to somewhat arbitrary rules of hiring and firing, income insecurity, and are distinguishable by their job and employment insecurity, lack of negotiating power about working conditions, and lack of career prospects and planning.

These are “the precariat” who find themselves in the “gig” economy. A significant proportion of these people have completed their PhD and then find there are few opportunities for ongoing employment. They piece together teaching and marking contracts at one or more universities without necessarily building the foundations of a career.

The growth of teaching-only positions undermining our future workforce

Early career academics (defined as 5 years post PhD) constitute the future workforce of the academy; yet, many are employed on sessional teaching contracts, concentrated in the lowest appointment levels and teaching-only positions. The percentage of “teaching only” staff rose by 360%, and specialised research roles by 96% in the period from 2001-2014. Casual staff, estimated between 40-60%, experience greater job insecurity, lowered access to support structures, juggle multiple demands and piecemeal contracts, suffer occupational, financial and personal stress, all of which stunt the development of expertise, undermine persistence, and fracture academic career motivations and ambitions.

Workload and burnout

Pressures have intensified with frequent reviews and restructures, standardisation and external regulation, performance measures (of teaching, research, impact, and engagement), unmanageable workloads, and the abandonment of tenure in some universities. Research has suggested that almost 40% of Australian academics aged under 30 were not committed to an academic career, or were planning to pursue other careers within 5-10 years, and 13-18% had immediate plans for departure. In the intervening period the prospects of a career in academia have not got better.

It seems inevitable that universities will not be able to meet the key performance indicators set by government and that academic staff will continue to experience job burnout at high rates.

Struggling with how to help

We need to know more about how early career academics cope with the competing demands of the job and what personal and work-related resources help to sustain healthy and committed academics. Conversely, we need to understand what job-related demands undermine the personal career motivations and goals, reduce work commitment and result in poor personal health and well-being outcomes. These are not trivial questions.

Massive growth of non academic staff in universities and related tensions

Alongside casual academic staff, new types of professional staff appointments have grown exponentially and found secure positions within universities as student advisers, HR managers, teaching and learning advisers, technical staff to manage digital technologies, academic advisers or facilitators to administer teaching programs in “flexible” modes, including technology mediated on-line teacher-less classrooms, and most recently, the emergence of practice professionals who teach but are not expected to contribute to the research endeavour.

There are irrevocable tensions that will continue to build in the university higher education workforce, between academic and professional staff who are appointed to ongoing positions with a career path and prospects, versus the short-term, contracted, sessional academic appointments who are not offered a career path, creating a sense of existential precariousness with few future prospects.

Funding uncertainty

Funding uncertainty and poor long-term planning for higher education more generally and, for universities in particular, is undermining the capacity and contribution of a skilled and committed academic workforce, making hollow the promise of Australia’s future economic productivity, innovation, growth and social stability.

Without due care and attention to the systematic renewal of the academic workforce, we believe Australia’s enviable reputation for high quality university-level education cannot be sustained.

Paul Richardson is Professor of Education at Monash University. Paul’s research interests focus on the career choice motivations of beginning teachers and the career paths, health and wellbeing of mid-career teachers. His interest in the career choice motivations, goals, health and wellbeing of academics, especially early career academics, is a development from his earlier empirical work on teachers and observations made during his time as Associate Dean Research for the Faculty of Education at Monash University.Paul is on Twitter @academiccentral

Dr Amanda Heffernan is a lecturer in Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Amanda’s key research interests include educational leadership, social justice, and policy enactment. Amanda also has research interests in the lives and experiences of academics, including researching into the changing nature of academic work. She can be found on Twitter @chalkhands

Paul Richardson (paul.richardson@monash.edu) and Amanda Heffernan (amanda.heffernan@monash.edu)  are beginning a pilot study examining the career motivations and coping strategies among Early Career Academics (within 5 years of PhD) working in Australian Universities. If you would be willing to contribute your experiences to this study, we would be pleased to hear from you.

What is happening with higher education in this election? (Yes you should be worried)

You might share my concerns about what is looming for higher education in the coming election. A returned conservative government would continue with its agenda to significantly cut funding to universities. It appears likely to continue with its plan to deregulate fees, albeit at a slower pace than previously proposed.

However the alternative that Labor seems to be proposing for higher education is based on a flawed assumption.

Pyne’s “dumped” package is still in play

Two years ago, the then federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, proposed a radical set of changes for higher education funding including, among other things, a 20% cut to university base funding and full fee deregulation. While the latter received support from some institutions and Vice-Chancellors, there were very few supporters of the whole package.

Among those who did not support it were the ‘cross-benchers’, the independent and minor party members of the Parliament of Australia who have held the balance of power since elected in 2014. So, thankfully, the proposals were not passed.

The Turnbull government has since introduced Senate voting reforms which means the minor parties will not be able to swap preferences in order to secure Senate seats as they have done in the past, and there is less likelihood of a future cross bench like the current one. This is a shame for higher education, in my view, as these folk actually listened to the sector and public and responded accordingly.

Mr Pyne has now moved onto other responsibilities. I will remind you just before he moved on he told us he was “the fixer”.

The new and current Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has released a discussion paper in lieu of budget measures.

However, a former senior Education bureaucrat, Mark Warburton, has pointed out in a piece in The Mandarin that Birmingham’s discussion paper includes some assumptions that were contained in Christopher Pyne’s 2014 budget, and abandons others. But is not completely clear what is in and what is out.

As Warburton says, it appears certain that the 20% cut to student subsidies under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) remains in the budget and that the government has also made it clear that it remains committed to Pyne’s reforms.

He adds that the government has clearly announced two additions to the higher education package. The first is that there would be an additional one-year delay to the start date, until the beginning of 2018. The second is removing the full deregulation of fees.

But Warburton points out that the additional proposals in the minister’s discussion paper are not included or mentioned in the official budget papers. They are simply options in a discussion paper. And one of these options is the incremental introduction of fee deregulation. This is indeed not Christopher Pyne’s proposed one-step approach, however it is very much an introduction of higher education fee deregulation.

To sum up my concerns about the Turnbull Government’s plans for higher education

I’m worried about the potential impact of a 20% funding cut to the ability of some regional and other smaller universities to operate. The opportunities for regional, rural and remote students to access university education would surely be affected.

Fee deregulation, no matter how it is undertaken, will lead to fee increases. My concern is this will set up yet another hurdle for various non-traditional student cohorts, because of actual costs or the perception that university education is too expensive.

Labor’s intentions for higher education is based on a flawed assumption

But I’m also worried about Labor’s intentions around higher education. Kim Carr has indicated that Labor will fund universities differently in the future, pointing to the importance of students completing programs of study that they start. The logical follow-through is that universities will be funded for completions, and the get-paid-as-you-enrol-students-each-year arrangement will no longer apply.
The assumption behind this sort of initiative is that universities need to stop letting students drop out. As if we do let students drop out. In fact, universities employ a wide range of strategies to keep students.

The strategies we use include the following: pre-enrolment advising; enabling and preparatory programs; concurrent academic support; counselling services; options to change enrolment internally with credit should a student’s original choice not be suitable; scholarships and bursaries; equipment loan schemes; financial assistance with study related costs; student-friendly approaches to administration and interaction; monitoring and responding to at-risk sub-cohorts; proactive advice provision; mentoring from experienced senior students; transition programs; staff coordinators; strategic directions from Councils; senior appointments charged with improving retention. Significant funding is directed at all of these efforts.

We do our best, improving our efforts every single semester, following every piece of research and other robust evidence that guides our efforts. At my university we trial new ways to put in place preventions and interventions, and we closely monitor the effects of these.

Having tried as hard as we can to keep them, we ask students who finally do decide to leave why they are leaving and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to drive continuous improvement. We ask students who stay what helped them to stay and succeed and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to recognise and reward efforts that work. Many other universities do the same.

But when students drop out, it is often because of demographic and/or personal factors, rather than because universities have stood by and let them fall away. Demographic factors that can contribute to the likelihood of drop out include being: part-time; mature-age; online; first year; an articulator from VET; the first in family to attend tertiary study; from a low socioeconomic status background; Indigenous; and/or a student with a disability. There are increasing numbers and proportions of these students in a massified university system.

Personal factors include challenges related to students’ physical and mental health, their finances, their family responsibilities, their paid employment commitments, relationship issues they might experience and/or accidents or misadventure. And when these personal challenges intersect with demographic characteristics, the impact can be profoundly negative for the student and their study success, despite every effort by a university to assist and to encourage them to stay in study.

Punishing universities for enabling students who have the characteristics above to get a higher education seems perverse. The exclusive universities will do well and the elite will prosper. Is this really what Labor wants?

We need an effective higher education package that will benefit all Australians

I’m worried that cuts to funding, fee hikes, funding formula changes and the absence of a cross bench who will not do deals with major parties will leave students, their families, their communities, the professions, the economy and society worse off.

As I see it the policies on offer so far will mean that many Australians will be turned away from higher education and the benefits it brings both personally and to the nation as a whole.

Marcia Feb 2016Professor Marcia Devlin is a Professor of Learning Enhancement and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. @MarciaDevlin