RMIT University is on track to significantly boost the portion of enrolments from students with low socio-economic status backgrounds.
The university aims to achieve 20 per cent low SES enrolments by 2020, after changes to higher education were fully implemented in 2012.
Following the 2008 Bradley Review the Federal Rudd Government set out a bold agenda to reform Australian higher education. The “transformation” of Australia’s higher education system was designed to create a “stronger”, “fairer” country, prepared to deal with challenges ahead. A big part of the vision was to see low socio-economic status (SES) students make up 20 per cent of undergraduate enrolments by 2020.
Between 2009 and 2012 a suite of legislative changes saw the uncapping of university places, targeted funding and changes to welfare arrangements to encourage and support low SES students to attend university. Five years on RMIT has seen a steady rise in the number of low SES students enrolling. However, due to an overall increase in students, the proportion of low SES enrolments hasn’t risen above the 2008 level of 16 per cent.
Despite modest gains in participation the Grattan Institute’s Higher Education Program Director, Andrew Norton, thinks the changes are working.
“We know from school results that low SES background people tend to get lower ATAR scores,” Mr Norton told Catalyst.
“In the old system universities had to ration places by prior academic performance and that means that if you have a strict cap on numbers, lower SES students are disproportionately disadvantaged by that system.
“What the new system has done has allowed universities to take more of these students, and take more pathway students … so I am pretty confident it is having a positive effect.”
While participation is trending upwards, whether low SES students have seen an “enhanced learning experience” is less certain. RMIT University Student Union (RUSU) President, James Michelmore, has seen an increase in demand for union services over the past five years.
“More and more students [are] indicating they are struggling to make ends meet, skipping meals, and living in poverty,” he said.
Although more students may be struggling out of the classroom, quality indicators such as student satisfaction have been largely positive.
“The only real issue we identified was that … completion rates for the lower ATAR students are only 50/50.”
So, what’s your postcode?
Despite four per cent of teaching and learning grants now being attached to low SES enrolments, the measure for SES is deeply flawed.
Senior research officer at the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Patrick Lim, investigated the measurement of SES in a 2011 report for the Commonwealth Government. He said generally SES is understood as “a fairly complex measure that attempts to define the population in terms of access to economic resources, social participation or cultural resources”.
The measurement currently used by RMIT to access SES is based solely on postcodes, as ranked by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas, or SEIFA. This means students’ SES is based solely on their place of residence, and can often be inaccurate – particularly when you consider how many people relocate to attend university. As part of the 2009 higher education reforms the government said it would develop a better measure of low SES based on “the circumstances of individual students and their families”.
Catalyst made numerous unsuccessful attempts to get in touch with the Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne to get an update on the progress of implementing a new SES measure. While unable to confirm this information with the Education Minister, Catalyst believes a new measure may consider Centrelink data, as well as parental education and occupation, on top of the current SEIFA index.
Although “crude”, Mr Norton said the current SES measure isn’t without merit. “I don’t think it should be used to assess any particular individual, but we are pretty confident it is picking up the broader trends.”
Hoa Julia Vo Tran has lived in Braybrook her whole life. Growing up in the working class suburb, located near Sunshine in Melbourne’s west, was “scary” at times.
Braybrook is the 11th most disadvantaged area in Victoria, according to the ABS’ 2011 SEIFA Index of Relative Socio-economic Disadvantage.
“Especially at night because you hear stories about gangs and stuff, and people getting stabbed,” Ms Tran said laughing nervously. “During the day it is fine. It’s not like you always see scary people.”
While Ms Tran considers herself academic, when asked if she enjoyed high school she hesitates.
“Kind of,” she said. “I think I enjoyed it most in year 12 because I knew we were all going to leave soon.”
Graduating in 2011 from Caroline Chisholm Catholic College with an ATAR in the 90s, uncapped places didn’t help Julia get into a media degree at RMIT, but changes to welfare helped her stay.
“When I was studying full time I felt like getting a job was, it was just too much,” she said. With church commitments, university group work and an hour’s commute by bus and train from her home to RMIT’s city campus, fortnightly youth allowance payments allowed her to focus her on university.
The 2008 Bradley Review, which inspired the higher education reforms, found that prior to the Rudd Government’s changes, youth allowance did “not adequately support the participation of students from low socio economic backgrounds”. Often benefits were not going to the neediest students.
From January 2010 the Parental Income Test for students was increased from $32,800 to $42,559 per annum. The age of independence was gradually reduced from 25 to 22, and the criteria for financial independence was tightened so young people were required to work for a minimum of 30hrs a week for 18 months to qualify. But once eligible for an allowance, students could earn $400 a fortnight before their payment was reduced; up from $236 previously.
Julia Tran felt a lot of pressure to do well in high school, but it wasn’t necessarily coming from her teachers.
“I always tried to aim for the highest score,” Ms Tran said. “My parents were quite strict then about grades and stuff.”
A seamstress by trade, Ms Tran’s mum took a backseat when it came to her and her two sisters’ education. Her dad, on the other hand, was firmly behind the wheel. With a job as a radiographer in Melbourne, Ms Tran’s father is “very smart” and always asking questions about Julia’s studies. When she was considering a diploma, Julia’s dad spoke to her about the benefits of a bachelor degree.
According to the Federal Education Minister, “over their lifetime, graduates may earn around $1 million more than if they had not gone to university”. While this statistic may have been accepting by the Commonwealth Government, it is knowledge many low SES students aren’t aware of.
Julia Tran estimates around half her high school peers applied for university, and of them many dropped out within half a year. “I know some of my friends have failed their subjects,” she said. “They probably don’t see the value [in a tertiary education].”
Snap – do you belong?
A poor understanding of university deters many low SES students from enrolling, says Kathryn Moloney, Senior Coordinator of RMIT’s Schools Network Access Program (SNAP).
Even with her dad’s support to attend university, Ms Tran said she would have benefited from more information about tertiary education earlier. Filling out her preference form was “really hard”, particularly when she discovered she couldn’t apply for many media degrees without a portfolio.
In her work with SNAP Ms Moloney finds Julia Tran’s experience isn’t unique.
SNAP is RMIT’s school partnership program. They currently work with over 100 schools in low SES areas to provide students with priority access to RMIT. Caroline Chisholm Catholic College is one of them.
Alongside other components of RMIT’s access and equity division, SNAP is key to RMIT’s strategy to increase low SES participation to 20 per cent by 2020. The SNAP program sees students from selected schools get an ATAR re-rank, or boost, when applying at RMIT. Since 2011 SNAP students have also participated in a program called ‘I belong’ which encourages them to “grow tertiary aspirations” while still at high school.
Funded as part of the 2009 reforms ‘I belong’ sees SNAP students coming to RMIT for on campus learning opportunities that can range anywhere from half a day to a week in length.
“One of the barriers was around limited understanding of the tertiary space and lack of occupational modeling within low SES communities,” Ms Moloney told Catalyst.
By getting students familiar with the city, RMIT’s campus and the different programs on offer, SNAP is giving students a realistic idea of what it is like to attend university.
Perhaps more importantly it is showing them they too “belong” in the tertiary sector.
Graduating in 2011 Julia Tran missed out on RMIT’s SNAP program. She thinks it would have been valuable. Approaching the end of her media degree, Ms Tran is now considering further study to achieve her dream of working in Asian cinema.
“Yeah, I was actually considering doing a masters,” Ms Tran laughs. “Because some people who do masters actually end up somewhere in the film industry.”
While still in its infancy, Ms Moloney says the SNAP program is already seeing positive results.
“In 2001 we had seven schools, 34 applications and 17 enrollments,” she said. “Now there are over 100 schools.
“For 2014 we had over 4000 applications from SNAP schools, and 1415 enrollments.”
With students who started ‘I belong’ in their middle years expected to graduate from high school this year, Ms Moloney hopes demand from low SES students will continue to grow.
While university is not for everyone, Julia Tran is glad she took her father’s advice and did an undergraduate degree. It opened her eyes to new possibilities and helped Ms Tran find her passion.
“I’ve always been interested in Japanese culture in general,” Ms Tran said. “I don’t think I really thought about entering [the Asian] film industry until this course because there was Asian Cinema Studies.
“We watched some Japanese movies and I just fell in love with Asian cinema.
“I think that’s why I want to break into Asian Cinema.”
While the ultimate success of the 2009 Higher Education reforms can’t be judged yet, at RMIT the initial indicators are positive. There is no doubt low SES enrollments are on the rise, however high dropout rates suggest the quality and support for these students still needs some work.
As the dust settles, RUSU President James Michelmore sees the potential for the 2009 higher education reforms to help shape Australia’s future.
“The uncapping of university places opened up the possibility of tertiary education to thousands of young Australians who previously may not have had such a life changing opportunity,” Mr Michelmore said.
“University education benefits not just the individual … but society as a whole.”
Students in need of assistance can visit the Compass Drop-In Centre, where they can receive advice on issues including homelessness, Centrelink, rent and employment.
By Matilda Marozzi