Admit it, we have got it wrong!

On 3 May 2016 the Federal Education Minister Senator Simon Birmingham released a 24 page paper titled ‘Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Australian Higher Education’, the discussion paper effectively laid out the facts around higher education in Australia and also announced that the government would be appointing an ‘expert advisory panel to provide advice on the content and implementation of the final package’. Hang on I thought Mr Pyne fixed it?


Unsurprisingly, the phrase ‘fee deregulation’ was noticeably absent from the report, instead it was all about, you guessed it ‘innovation’, ‘business’ and ‘Australia’s successful economic transition’. Because hey university is all about getting a job and has absolutely nothing to do with expanding knowledge and skills. Mr Birmingham, this is really starting to grind my gears!


The discussion paper nonetheless raises an interesting question that tends to be lost in this whole higher education debate and that is whether Australian university system, particularly admissions process, is fit for purpose.  Is there another way forward when it comes to who gets in to uni? Let’s take a look.


The Facts


Before we go all policy wonk on this issue, let’s have a look at the facts. Currently the debt held under our Higher Education Contribution Scheme or HECS is just over $40 billion, with an annual expense of $2.6 billion. While that may seem scary, to put that figure into context, Bill Gates on his current ‘net worth prediction’ could pay off all of our outstanding HECS debt and still have $50 Billion left over – so you know, don’t freak out too much.

It is worth noting however that since the introduction of the demand driven funding system in 2008, which uncapped the allocation of university places, taxpayer funding for domestic university students has increased by 59 per cent. Okay, little freak out.

Since the introduction of the HECS scheme, the annual number of domestic students enrolled in an Australian university has grown by 144 per cent – that’s about 1 million students. While some say Yay! Others are less than enthusiastic about what this means for the public purse.

According to the discussion paper, more than a third of people aged 25 to 34 now hold a bachelor or higher qualification. The influx of student enrolments in universities has seen government expenditure rise from around $6.5 billion in 1989 to $15.4 billion in 2014. To some that may seem like a lot, but in comparison to other OECD countries we’re as low as Flo Rida and T-Pain when it comes to public investment in our higher education system – coming in at second last behind countries like Argentina, Estonia, Mexico and New Zealand.

So we are well behind on public investment, we are spending a lot on HECS and more students are enrolling into university. As a means of ensuring that all students have the opportunity to access higher education while also ensuring that students are not incurring substantial HECS debts, is it time to rethink the way in which students are admitted to their courses and whether such systems are fair?


A way forward for Australian university admissions

 Australian universities tend to follow a black and white admissions process. That is, you either get the grade for your respective course or you don’t. While that approach may seem ‘equitable’ it’s not necessarily fair.

students from low socio-economic backgrounds are at a substantial disadvantaged compared to students from high SES backgrounds.

In a study completed by the University of Sydney, the relationship between socio economic status and educational outcomes was examined extensively. The study, in reference to other research on this topic, identified that children form low SES families are less likely to attend university in comparison to children from high SES families. In examining the factors contributing to this issue, and others, the study sought to examine the factors that may influence educational outcomes within particular SES groups. The study identified how sex, unexplained absences, ethnicity, parental education attainment, housing type and student age as reflected by school level were all ‘statistically significant variables and predictors of academic performance’.  So how do we cater for these students while also maintaining the appropriate academic rigour of our university courses? Maybe we need to look abroad.


Our friends in the United States have a more ‘holistic’ approach to their admissions process which is worthy of consideration. Generally each university will consider a prospective student’s academic performance as demonstrated by their performance on various standardised test – nothing too controversial. But, they also acknowledge that academics are not everything. In conjunction with their school grades and results, universities in the U.S. also allow students to submit information about their extracurricular activities to show that they are ready for university. They further allow students to include an essay or personal statement to further make their case for admission and demonstrate their suitability for university. Think Elle Woods when she applies for Harvard Law.

This model accepts that academic performance, while important, is not the only factor to succeed at university. Similarly, students in the U.K. are also required to make submissions to a prospective university outlining their skills and the reasons as to why they want to study that particular subject area. They also have a process called “clearing” which allows students who don’t meet the required grades for a course to directly contact the university to plead their case for places that have yet to be filled.

Though these models are not perfect, they provide a more rounded approach to university admission than simply whether you got a particular ATAR or OP. In the interest of university reform its time to move away from a model that resembles something more like a scene from Lord of the Rings where Balrog confronts Gandalf on the bridge of Khazad-dum.

These models adopted by the U.S and U.K assist in giving students who may fall short of a particular cut off putting their case to the university that they are suitable for admission. These models require students to really think about whether university is the most appropriate thing for them. University is not for everyone and we should not discourage any one from studying. Equally, we should avoid engaging in the unhelpful rhetoric that permeates through our society that the only way to succeed is by going to university.


Australian universities are some of the best in the world and we should never forget that. Despite their relatively low public investment they are kicking a lot of goals. But they can always be improved. It’s time that we have a system that is accessible but academically rigorous. Despite the commentary from some within the Federal Government, this debate isn’t just about money. It’s about how can we make our universities inclusive, intellectually challenging and relevant.



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