Australia’s new access targets ‘require robust study’

Analysts say it is a matter for careful consideration, including whether targets set as part of Australia’s higher education review should exist at all.

According to Andrew Norton, professor of higher education policy at the Australian National University, targets “can look good as a reasonable improvement on the status quo” without being properly informed about their feasibility or demand. “We need a flexible system that responds to changes in the labor market. [such as] Need-based funding.”

“I don’t like targets, but targets should be based on the most rigorous analysis you can have.”

The review’s terms of reference, called the “Australian Universities Compact”, include recommendations for new targets to meet the country’s knowledge and skills needs and increase the participation of underrepresented students.

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The latest major review of Australia’s higher education, led by Denis Bradley, set two targets to achieve by 2020: 40 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds meet degree-level qualifications, and for those with higher qualifications. The disadvantaged fourth population comprises 20 percent of undergraduate enrollments. The government accepted both, but extended the achievement target to 2025.

However, the Liberal-National administration scrapped the targets after winning power in 2013 – raising questions about the targets’ political viability.

Professor Norton said the new equity targets would require “very rigorous research” into whether people who meet the equity criteria and have a realistic chance of succeeding at university “are not going at the moment”.

“Otherwise, you’re creating targets for universities that are completely unattainable, or you’re encouraging them to put too much pressure on people who might not be doing very well. You’ll get one.” [loan] But debt has no degree.

Professor Norton said any target for Aboriginal participation would need evidence of a “missing out” group of Indigenous Australians in university despite their academic ability to succeed.

“Universities have been trying too hard in this area for a long time, to an alarming degree of guilt towards Indigenous students. In some cases there is a fine line between fairness and exploitation, because if they don’t use them, you’re not doing them any favors.”

Gwillim Crutcher, senior lecturer in higher education policy and management at the University of Melbourne, said targets risked “making the perfect the enemy of the good”.

“If we create interventions to measure and address rather than the underlying issue we’re trying to address, then it’s not going to have the results we’re hoping it will,” he said.

Another problem with targets is that they can hide meaningful progress. For example, Bradley Equity’s target has been widely dismissed as a failure. According to Department of Education data, the number of low socioeconomic status (SES) students increased by just 2 percentage points between 2009, the year Professor Bradley published his report, and 2020. But this increase occurred against the backdrop of rapid enrollment growth. The number of low SES university students increased by 57 percent, while the number of students in the country as a whole increased by 39 percent.

“We have made great strides in improving equity in higher education,” said Dr. Crutcher. “This is probably because people are focused. Goals should never be dismissed, as they can be a very useful tool to focus action and start important conversations. [but] The most important thing, of course, is continuous, constant strong theft.

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