Some students from disadvantaged backgrounds are being overlooked by policies put in place to support them getting into universities and completing their degree, according to education experts who have called for the system to be reformed.

They say changes are needed to enhance inclusion, social justice and diversity at higher education institutions, and that the equity policy in the Australian education sector has ongoing flaws and inconsistencies. 

Andrew Norton, a professor in higher education policy at the Australian National University, said the “flawed” approach was overly focused on niche equity programs organised by universities and delivered to specific equity groups. 

“Our definitions of equity groups are only rough guides to disadvantages,” Norton told Central News, “people who don’t need help are eligible for it, while people who need it are not.

“Generally, student income support gets little attention – even though it is far bigger than other equity programs and directly targets financial disadvantage.

There were inherent (socio-economic) challenges of being raised in a single-parent family. I never had any prospects of getting to UTS at all.

“Encouraging people from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to university is not going to change outcomes unless the number of student places in the system is sufficient to meet them.”

The University of Sydney (USYD) recently rolled out hundreds of new scholarships, each worth up to $55,000, for students from underprivileged backgrounds.

However, Dr Anthony Welch, Professor of Education at USYD School of Education and Social Work, said such appearances could be “deceptive”.

“While the provision of extra scholarships focused on regional participation is welcome,” Dr Welch told Central News, “might it come at the expense of regional universities, which have traditionally worked harder and done better at lifting regional participation levels, if not always matched by completion rates.”

He also questioned if the additional scholarships would be a matter of shifting the deckchairs, which may make USYD’s equity profile look better, rather than adding to the stock of such scholarships.

Kurt Cheng, the newly elected representative for undergraduate students at the University of Technology Sydney’s top strategic body, the UTS Council, said the university could build upon its policies of equal access, diversity, inclusion and social justice.

Kurt Cheng, the new member for undergraduate students in UTS Council.

Kurt Cheng, the new member for undergraduate students in UTS Council. Photo: Kurt Cheng.

A fourth-year law and social-political science student, Cheng, 21, is a second-generation Chinese Australian raised by a single-parent immigrant family from Hong Kong. He has never met his father and grew up with his mother, sister and grandparents.

“I’ve had the experience of coming in as a diverse student from an equity background; I’ve received countless opportunities, experiences, and mentors to shape who I am today. And, I’m the product of what has happened in the last four years,” Cheng told Central News.

Before entering university and student politics, Cheng had been regarded as an equity student from a household struggling with finance and housing, and dependent on Centrelink low-income funds for living. 

“I don’t even remember how many times we moved around,” he said.

Living apart from his mother, with his grandparents, Cheng spent most of his high school years struggling with grades and supplies until he opened up to a teacher about it. Then the school stepped in to offer a range of support, including supplying things like textbooks his family couldn’t afford for his study.

He said growing up he saw no hope of ever going to university and getting a degree.

“I’ve been raised with a really good set of Australian values, but also the culture of my heritage,” he said, “but there were inherent (socio-economic) challenges of being raised in a single-parent family. I never had any prospects of getting to UTS at all.”

The university is continuously looking at ways to increase low SES participation.

However, with support in place that changed, and Cheng entered university via an equity pathway suggested by his school.

Prof Norton claimed the main focus of equity policy in Australia was to increase the number of students who are Indigenous, from low socioeconomic backgrounds or regional areas.

“In some ways, the system has been quite successful,” he said. “The rates of Year 12 students applying for university are almost the same regardless of socioeconomic background once ATAR is taken into account.

“The HELP loan scheme has removed one financial barrier to going to university.”

Dr Welch added that HECS had “helped to widen access” to disadvantaged students, but while some universities took equity as part of their core mission, the Group of Eight (Go8) institutions were more focused on research and rankings.

Sonal Singh, executive manager for Student Equity at UTS Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion, told Central News the university was committed to driving positive social change in the world beyond the UTS campus. 

“The university is continuously looking at ways to increase low SES participation and has set a participation target of 16.8 per cent by 2023,” she said. 

Support at university remains critical for enrolled students from disadvantaged background. Alumni Green, UTS. Photo: Rex Siu

The current participation rate of low SES students at UTS is 14.2 per cent, with a success rate of 91.4 per cent which is well above the national average of 82.9 per cent, according to the Centre. The national low SES participation rate is 17 per cent.

ANU’s Centre for Social Research and Methods recently conducted two research reports on equity policy in the country, outlining ongoing issues and measurements with statistics.

“Looking at the data, the clearest problem that we can do something about is course completion rates, which are lower for equity groups even after we have adjusted for other factors known to influence completion,” Prof Norton said.

“Dropping out of university is not always a bad idea, all things considered, but reforms to student income support and rethinking teaching methods can help more students finish.

“Many of the problems equity students face at university around academic preparation, and teaching methods are experienced by students generally and best dealt with at scale by the university, not in special programs for equity students.”

Cheng said he found successful admission to university, however, wasn’t the only challenge he faced. 

“Coming to university presented a brand new hurdle, that the effects of long-term domestic challenges, mental health challenges, financial challenges, and the long term impacts of discrimination that I experienced during high school has meant a lot of social anxiety,” he said.

“There’s a lot of social anxiety when it came from a cultural insecurity perspective, where I was quite insecure being in a degree where it’s not necessarily always very diverse.”

Later on, a fellow graduating student became his mentor and got him to “embrace university life a bit more” by encouraging him to meet more new people in the university community.

“[Then] I believed many of those anxieties were just my anxieties in my own mind,” he said.  

“No one’s actively going out to exclude you; no one actively goes out of their way to bully you at university. It’s not like high school.

“The best thing that I learned from older students who mentored me was the most valuable thing you can give being an older student or whom someone looks up to is to give them your time – and I really appreciate the time I spend with younger students because you don’t realise the impact you have on them when you’re just meeting up with them for one hour of coffee.

“I could only hope that more students receive the same opportunity (that I have had) in that regard.”

Main image by Rex Siu.