Monday, November 05, 2007


As part of What’s Fair in Anti Poverty Week, a forum was held at RMIT called “What’s Fair in Education?” (October 17th 2007) The presenters were:

Dr. Helen Kimberly (Executive Director of the Equity Research Centre),

Professor Richard James (Director the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education) and

Ms. Maree Bovell (Manager for Employment and Training Services at the Brotherhood of St Laurence).

The forum was hosted by the wonderful and witty Father Bob Maguire (JJJ radio presenter).

When we talk about fairness and equity in higher education we need to start with a definition of equity. Richard James from the University of Melbourne came up with a useful one; higher education populations should reflect the general population (except for age). This is a good starting point but is it true? No it isn’t, anyway you look at it, universities are filled with more students from higher socially economic backgrounds than from lower socially economic backgrounds. The higher education sector is split between Universities and the VET (Vocational Education Training) sectors. Within the VET system there are a number of groups; Tafes, ACE (Adult Community Education) RTO (Registered Training Organisations) and Enterprise training (Training programs created by large corporations).

The latest OECD report on education shows that the Australian government does not spend enough money on education at all levels from kindergarten right through to higher education.

“Most revealing was what Education at a Glance 2007 showed in relation to how much Australia invests in education, both public and private, across all levels: pre-primary, primary, secondary, tertiary and post-secondary, non-tertiary education.

Our public investment in education at every level has declined to the point where we are investing less than most other developed countries. As a proportion of GDP, public expenditure on all levels of education in Australia is 4.3 per cent, compared to an OECD average of 5 per cent. This places Australia behind countries such as the US, Britain, Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, Poland, Norway and New Zealand. Only six out of 30 OECD countries had less public investment in education.

The OECD notes: "Differences in spending on educational institutions are most striking at the pre-primary level of education. Here, spending ranges from 0.1 per cent of GDP in Australia and South Korea to 0.8 per cent or more in Denmark and Hungary." As a proportion of GDP, our investment in pre-primary education is just 0.1 per cent compared to an OECD average of 0.5 per cent.” (Source The Australian Sep 24 2007)

Australia has seen a drop in detention rates in secondary schools in recent year, money spent on tertiary education fall as a percentage of GDP and a greater reliance on fees from international students.

When we look at accessibility for all students, there has been a tendency in the past to put all students labelled ‘disadvantaged’ in the one group. We have recently seen a move away from this model to a more complex model which considers the wide range of factors which impact students attending higher education.

Despite record levels of economic growth in Australia in the last decade, many Australians are still missing out on education. So who is missing out? Students from lower socially economic backgrounds (SOSE), rural students and indigenous people consistently miss out on educational opportunities. Rural students make up a third of the secondary student population yet they only contribute 17% to those in tertiary education. Students from a high or medium socially economic background are twice as likely to attend University.

Professor Tony Vinson for Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia wrote a report in April 2007 titled “Dropping off the edge, the distribution of Disadvantage in Australia” which raises a number of pertinent questions:

· Is equity built in or bolted on the education model? He asks the question “why are the disadvantaged on the edges of the system?”

· Is equity an issue of human rights or ethics?

“The report highlights the particularly strong link between intergenerational poverty and low educational attainment. By detaching individuals, families and whole communities from the modern economy in this way, the report argues that disadvantage is holding back the nation's economic potential. Concentrated disadvantage of the kind demonstrated in the report, robs the nation of needed skilled workers, adds to labour shortages and, by inflating welfare expenditure, reduces government expenditure than would otherwise be necessary.” (Source

The second part of the forum was three focus groups who each looked at providing recommendations for assisting people to get to education, staying in education and then beyond education. The recommendations are below:

1. Recommendations from the Getting There Facilitation Group

· More welfare agencies should move away from a welfare model towards more of an education model

· Young people hoping to access tertiary education should have access to mentoring partnerships during their secondary school years

· Properly resource and support individuals so they are able to make their own decisions about higher education; irrespective of parents post code etc

Careers teachers should have improved access to students before they reach year ten.

2. Recommendations from the Staying There Facilitation Group

· Identify and offer support to first generation higher education students

· Revamp university processes for applying for support

· Improve eligibility conditions for income support

· Work on integration during critical first two weeks

· Improve housing support

· Cost of text book/computers/ material costs too high (investigate subsidising these costs)

· Fix curriculum so students can integrate work

Build better campus communities.

3. Recommendations from the Beyond Facilitation Group

· Strong support for building course connectedness with world of work and for course related work experience

· Strong support for increased provision of on-campus careers counselling

· Tighter regulation of the promotion of universities and future career prospects of graduates

· The level of expenditure on student recruitment should not exceed the level spent on student welfare and employment support.

4. Father Bob’s Recommendations

· All prisons should provide tertiary education

· People working with street people require accredited training (develop a system similar to “Doctor’s without Borders” in the education system).

The main aim of this forum was to develop a network of people interested in the issues of access, equity and poverty within education. At the forum we were lucky enough to have a number of interested people join however we would love to add more names to this list!

If interested in joining this network please send an email to with your name and a contact phone number. We will then contact you with further details. Your confidential contact details will only be used by the Justice and International Mission Unit for the purpose of informing you about our social justice campaigns (particularly education) and won’t be given to a third party without your consent.