Higher education's dirty little secret


The Bradley Review of Higher Education had prosacic terms of reference. But it had one one matter of principle to address. The Rudd Government's brief included a focus on social inclusion, specifically on supporting and widening access to higher education, including participation by students from a wide range of backgrounds.

The resulting Bradley Report is caught between discontent with the inequities of the system and fatalism about what prevents Australian universities from doing better for students from marginalised backgrounds.

It sets a bold target of 20 per cent of students coming from a low socio-economic background by 2020. Yet the specific recommendations regarding social inclusion equivocate between bucking and merely tweaking the elements of a system which, the Report itself admits, has not worked.

The Report airs the dirty little secret that changes to Australian higher education over recent decades have done little to change the profile of those who participate. Neither the abolition of tertiary fees nor, conversely, the introduction of the HECS scheme has made a significant impact.

Yet despite its own critique, the Bradley Report focuses on issues such as adjustment of the existing failed income support systems. Although programs such as Austudy and Abstudy have certainly become less and less effective, the recommendations will only restore a system unable, even at its earliest or best, to change the profile of Australian student populations.

This failure, if it is fair to call it that, might lie in what the Report and its terms of reference did not ask: whether our crowded and under-resourced campuses are themselves really capable of achieving social inclusion, or whether they have become mechanisms for the Darwinian triumph of the already-privileged.

Although the Australian universities of the past were elite institutions, they were also places where students might be formed through inspiration, challenge and the building of relationships with mentors and peers. They were small enough, or at least sufficiently well-resourced, for such relationships to be possible. Their most shining moments, inside and outside classrooms, happened when knowledge was catalysed by community.

If the reality of the university as a community of scholars was once taken for granted, it was left behind in a rush to expansion we must now view ambivalently. Growth in university places theoretically gave access to a larger, and hence more diverse, group of students. But what they had access to has itself changed more than the profile of those who have come.

As a result we have all the university places we need for relatively privileged students who can survive in the mega-university. But the under-privileged find their own exclusion has gone unscathed or even been reinforced. Once desirable but exclusive venues now risk being theoretically accessible but uninspiring places. Though they impart knowledge and skills competently, they ultimately confirm existing capacities without creating new ones.

A bleak and bland consensus about the social vocation of higher education has been common to both sides of politics for a long time. Although the Howard Government's recent neglect of university funding may have been a bad example, it was not unique.

The Dawkins reforms are sometimes too simplistically condemned without acknowledgment of their genuinely mixed legacy. But they, like the more active and quite gratuitous VSU agenda of late, undermined the capacity of Australian universities to be places where students could acquire something more profound than vocational skills and have outstanding rather than merely acceptable experiences.

To address the wide funding shortfall, which Bradley recommends and which Minister for Education Julia Gillard must address, will only take us to the point where we must ask more profound questions about inclusion. The Report raises few of these questions. Its one genuinely revolutionary possibility may lie in its recommendation that funding should follow students to whichever public or private institution attracts them.

This prospect may leave some aghast, and others predicting further rationalization and economies of scale. Yet in a more diverse educational economy, someone may ask again how a university education could be both inclusive and transformative.

A renewed emphasis on community and pedagogy would be expensive, would certainly have to involve private as well as public funding, and would not be the desired or necessary path for every Australian tertiary student. Yet with greater room for differentiation and choice, some institutions might construct new and different forms of educational experience to engage and support highly capable students from more diverse backgrounds, equipping them for Australia's and the world's challenging future.

Recovering the possibility that university education will be transformative, and that community may be a means to this end, would be the most revolutionary thing this reform could bring.

Trevor Gale raises equity fears as Bradley recommendations could concentrate disadvantage (The Australian)

Andrew McGowanAndrew McGowan is Warden of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne and teaches in the United Faculty of Theology.


Topic tags: Bradley Review of Higher Education, over-crowded campuses, tertiary education, social inclusion



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Existing comments

'It sets a bold target of 20 per cent of students coming from a low socio-economic background by 2020'.

(1) Are these people who succeed, or are they people who commence the course? Why would we want to let people into a course who are not going to succeeed?

(2) Why does it cost any money at all to go to university? For $2 we could have a CD containing the whole of classical Greek literature.
richard | 17 February 2009

Just what is meant by the lower socio-economic group ? Fees do not have to be paid up front by any australian citizen. Entry is meant to be on merit judged by results of Year 12 examinations or other suitable assessment.Are we to have entry standards lowered based on where one lives or because a person is a supporting single parent even though he/she might live rent free in Vaucluse ? If a father works hard to support a non working spouse and four children and pays off his mortgage with nothing left out of a good income, is his child to suffer by losing a place to a kept woman living in Vausluse's son ?

Entry should be based purely on the results of a common entrance examination or other suitable test.
BYGONE | 17 February 2009

It is national scandal that regional students in Australia are almost four times less likely to go on to tertiary education in comparison to their metropolitan counterparts.

This is a statistic that has not changed in research conducted over the past 30 years in Australia. Regional students are also twice as likely to defer their course of study. The reason for this is the cost of having to move in order to gain a tertiary education. All of this has been well documented in numerous Senate and House of Reps Inquiries over the past 3 decades. However, nothing has been done to address regional student participation.

The tertiary opportunities of these students have been overlooked once again in the Bradley report.
Vince | 17 February 2009

Poor rural secondary student - don't aspire to uni because your family can't afford it.
Peter Quin | 17 February 2009

You haven't tried being a distance tutor, have you Richard?

The package of readings, introductory notes, and learning exercises provided aren't enough to ensure that students understand anything.

Imagine if they were only sent the primary sources!?
Sandie Cornish | 17 February 2009


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