Dangers in push for university education equality

Jul 8, 2013 by

DOES every secondary student, regardless of ability, motivation or intelligence, have the right to go to university, and does increased participation, especially from disadvantaged students, compromise standards?

kevin-donnellyDr Kevin Donnelly – Newly appointed Higher Education Minister Kim Carr appears to say “no” to the first part of the question and “yes” to the second. In a recent interview Carr is quoted as saying that the dramatic increase in enrolments since the ALP government introduced a demand-driven system may have compromised quality.

Carr states, “given the strength of growth in demand, it is appropriate to (think about) quality and excellence” and “we need to consider refocusing government investment to get the best possible use of public money”.

Carr’s reservations are in striking contrast to Julia Gillard’s belief, when education minister, that millions must be spent increasing the proportion of disadvantaged students entering university from 16 per cent to 20 per cent by 2020, and that increased enrolments would not lead to falling standards.

In a March 2009 speech in response to the Bradley review of higher education, Gillard argues that equity is an important moral issue and that the “hoary old conservative argument that equity and standards are incompatible is nothing but a myth”.

In addition to establishing a National Centre for Student Equity and offering universities additional funding linked to enrolling greater numbers of disadvantaged students, Gillard argued in favour of positive discrimination for university selection.

Gillard is wrong. However unpopular it might seem, not all students have the ability or intelligence to cope with or benefit from a university education.

As US academic Charles Murray argues in Real Education, “academic achievement is tied to academic ability” and not all students have the same level of ability.

Take the subject of English. As someone who taught in Victorian secondary schools for 18 years, marked Year 12 papers and was a member of the Panel of Examiners, the reality is that students’ language ability ranges from very poor to excellent as measured on a scale of 1 to 10.

Those students at the lower end of the scale find it impossible to cope with the demands of a university course as proven by the number of universities around Australia that now have bridging courses and remedial classes in areas like essay writing.

And concerns about falling standards are nothing new. A 2002 study titled Changes in Academic Work, involving interviewing academics at 12 universities, concludes that “almost one out of two of our respondents thought that the intellectual quality of incoming students had declined, and that this was a change for the worse”.

The federal Labor government’s decision to impose quotas for disadvantaged students only compounds the problem. As noted by the Group of Eight’s Policy Note No 3, February 2012, the push for improved equity has led to a dramatic increase in the number of students with Australian Tertiary Admission Rank scores of 50 or less entering university.

Between 2008-11, offers to students with ATARs less than 50 doubled, representing “nearly 20 per cent of all growth in offers to school leavers”. As a result, in teacher training courses, for example, it’s not unusual for students with ATARs as low as 50 to be accepted.

Gillard’s argument that all students are entitled to a university education, in addition to compromising standards, is guilty of privileging academic studies over vocational education and training.

ALP governments and the cultural Left, since the late 60s and early 70s when technical schools were closed around Australia, have long argued that a university education is the preferred option.

Ignored is that an apprenticeship or trade can be a valued, rewarding and challenging career. Also ignored is that the fact a working class student might prefer a trade to a degree does not prove the education system is elitist and inequitable.

The fact that trade and skills courses have been treated so poorly in terms of prestige and funding explains why, compared to many other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, Australia has such a low level of participation.

Based on 2010 figures the percentage of population aged 25-64 with vocational qualifications in Australia is just under 20 per cent compared with Finland, one of the top performers in international mathematics and science tests, where the figure is closer to 40 per cent.

While attractive to those on the cultural Left whose mantra is equity and equality of outcomes, the argument that universities should be open to all belies a levelling down, egalitarian philosophy that is counterproductive.

Far better is an education system based on meritocracy where only those considered capable are allowed entry. The alternative, as argued by the author and philosopher Iris Murdoch, is to promote a non-selective system, one that makes “the teaching of accuracy and truthfulness harder at all levels” and that will “produce people who imagine they are educated when they are not”.

Dr Kevin Donnelly
Education Standards Institute
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