Disadvantaged and low-SES students are disproportionately affected by cost-of-living pressures, writes University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence in The Australian.
Over the past few years there has been a great deal of public discussion about the accessibility of our higher education system.
Beginning with the heated debate over Christopher Pyne’s ill-fated attempt to deregulate course fees, commentators have been quick to argue that it is the cost of acquiring a degree that excludes disadvantaged and poorer students from attending university.
This is an erroneous argument, and the more it is espoused, the less attention is devoted to the real culprit behind low socioeconomic attendance: the exorbitantly high cost of living in our capital cities.
Indeed, while our world-leading HECS system ensures that students pay no course fees upfront, thereby removing degree cost as a barrier to entry, the general living costs incurred by moving to cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane or Perth for full-time study are prohibitive.
This matters. Because while some maintain that being a poor student is an inevitable part of the university experience, the reality is that disadvantaged and low-SES students are disproportionately affected by cost-of-living pressures.
The facts and figures bear this out: low-SES students attending metropolitan universities face higher expenditure than their more privileged counterparts (partly due to the fact that many low-SES students come from rural and remote areas and must pay for relocation costs). They are also more likely to lack external support, more likely to miss class due to employment commitments, more likely to be their family’s sole financial provider, and more likely to regularly forgo food and other necessities in order to pay for housing/accommodation.
It is therefore of little surprise that many from disadvantaged backgrounds assess the above difficulties in attending university and decide that although they may want to enrol, and that they may have the requisite grades for admission, they simply cannot afford to sustain themselves through three to five years of full-time study.
What can be done to rectify this problem? In an ideal world I would suggest a system of student income support where each Australian above the legal age of independence has access to financial assistance at a level that is sufficient to enable their full participation in higher education, without the need for income supplementation from other sources.
Yet the sad truth is that the contemporary fiscal and political environment means public funding is unlikely to be made available for this purpose. The government must therefore assist universities in creating targeted income-support packages for low-SES students.
One of the reasons that as vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney I lent my support to the 2014 deregulation package was that it would have delivered us the requisite funds to provide unprecedented financial support to underprivileged students. In fact, under a deregulated system the University of Sydney would have been able to provide financial assistance to approximately one-third of all undergraduates.
Although deregulation is dead and buried, there are other steps the government can take to improve the capacity of universities to provide income support packages.
First, the 20 per cent cuts to higher education funding (originally announced in 2014) must come off the agenda. That these cuts are still in the forward estimates is deeply concerning for anyone invested in the future of our higher education system.
Second, there needs to be a frank discussion about how we alleviate the causes of pressure that threaten the long-term sustainability of the system.
The inability of successive governments to increase public funding proportionate to the surge in the number of enrolments means that university resources are spread more thinly. If the system were tweaked to free up more resources that could potentially be spent on scholarship schemes, the cost-of-living relief provided to low-SES students would be greatly improved.
Finally, funding for the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program — which provides funding to assist universities in undertaking activities and implementing strategies that improve access to undergraduate courses for low-SES students — needs to be maintained, to ensure the continued success of outreach programs and strategic engagement with issues of inclusion and exclusion.
Our higher education sector is a crown jewel of Australian society, and our universities are among the world’s best. It is imperative that we work together to ensure that obtaining a world-class degree is not restricted to only the privileged. A public dialogue on ways in which we can ensure access to those from low-SES backgrounds is a vital step towards creating a sustainable higher education system that allows universities to adequately address the cost-of-living pressures that too often keep future leaders from achieving their true potential.