New education minister calls for step change in HE equity

Peak bodies for universities have welcomed plans by the new Minister for Education, Jason Clare, to make an investment in improving equity and diversity in higher education, and have committed themselves to working with the government to help achieve them.

Clare, who was sworn in on 22 June after the Labor Party secured an election victory in May this year, announced earlier this month that his government would be allocating AU$20.5 million (US$13.8 million) over the next four years to expand the work of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education based at Curtin University.

In a speech, titled ‘Reset, Rebuild and Reform’, delivered to the Universities Australia Gala Dinner on 6 July, in which he sought to highlight the opportunities for change that accompanied a new government, Clare said: “The centre has been around for a while. And it does good research. But I want to see a step change. I want to see real results. That means trialling, evaluating, implementing and monitoring the sorts of things that will really shift the dial.”

Missed targets

Clare’s funding announcement followed an admission that attempts to “shift the dial” when it came to improving enrolment from low socio-economic groupings, indigenous and rural communities had largely been inadequate and had failed to meet targets proposed in a review by higher education expert Denise Bradley at the request of then federal education minister Julia Gillard.

“In 2008 when the Bradley Report was published, 29% of 25- to 34-year-olds had a bachelor degree. Professor Bradley set us the target to reach 40% by 2020. And we did. It’s now more than 43%. But she also set us another target: that by 2020, 20% of enrolments should be students from low socio-economic backgrounds. At the time, it was about 15%. And it has barely moved,” he told his audience.

Of further concern was the fact that, while more than 48% of 25- to 34-year-olds in cities have degrees, in regional areas that proportion drops to just over 20% and is even lower – 16% – for remote areas.

“And it’s even worse than that for our indigenous brothers and sisters,” he said. “That figure is less than 10%.

“Where you live, how much your parents earn, whether you are indigenous or not, is still a major factor in whether you are a student or a graduate of an Australian university,” he said.

Clare, who revealed that he was the first in his family to go to university, said: “I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on your postcode, your parents or the colour of your skin.”

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