Widening of the gulf between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, rapid technological change, the convergence of information and communication technologies and a globalised economy all contribute to an uncertain and unpredictable future. While much is unclear it does seem there is widespread agreement that education will be a critical determinant of the future success not just of individuals but of nations. However, in every country, no matter how prosperous, there are still marked differences in individual and group access to education. Differential access is particularly marked in higher education—the site for the education of the symbolic analysts or knowledge workers of the future. The leaders of the next century are emerging from an educational process in every country, which, despite the increase in numbers participating, remains largely closed to people from the least socially privileged groups.
Participation rates vary greatly between developing and developed countries, but even in the latter there are inequalities. For example, in Australia, one in every four 20 year olds was enrolled in higher education in 1996, but participation across social groups was not uniform. Three groups are worthy of particular mention – Indigenous people, poor people and those from remote areas.
While the participation rate of Australia’s Indigenous people in higher education (1.5% of commencing students from 1.7% of the Australian population) has increased steadily during the last decade, success and retention remain a major concern. People from lower socio-economic backgrounds have a participation rate of only slightly over half their population share (14.5% participation from a population of 25%). People from rural and isolated backgrounds have actually lost ground this decade, and the very low participation rate of people from remote areas, in particular, is alarming. This uneven representation across social groups is occurring in a climate in which, a recent study has found, one in six young Australians aged 15-19 is at risk of not making a successful move from education to work, and one in five 20-24 year olds is experiencing major difficulty in finding stable full-time work. If the Australian trends are similar to those in other countries, then an increase in the numbers participating in higher education does not automatically open doors for the socially and economically disadvantaged.
An open system?
Higher education in all countries has traditionally been open to only a minority of the population. Despite the rhetoric of equality of opportunity, there has always been a close connection between the wealth or social status of individuals and their chances of entering a university. Scholarships, deferred payment schemes, student loans and public funding of universities have more or less helped to soften this harsh reality in some wealthier countries in the last thirty or forty years. However, the direct costs of higher education where fees are charged, and the indirect costs when income is forgone while studying, are significant barriers for the poor and socially disadvantaged, even in wealthier countries. Nevertheless governments are retreating from public commitments to financing the costs of higher education for individuals as the numbers participating grow.
In 1983 there were 348,577 undergraduate and postgraduate students in Australian higher education. By 1998, this figure had nearly doubled to 671,853. Figures released release in 1999 by the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, based on the Australian Government’s own statistics, show that in the same period, expenditure on education did not keep step. Universities are receiving less funding per student, an increasing part of the cost of higher education is being borne by the student (HECS contributions per student increased 7.5 fold between 1989 and 1999), and total government outlays on higher education, net of student contributions, have declined by nearly 13%.
It appears that governments in a number of developed countries have found the cost of expanding the higher education system too much to bear. In Australia, cost containment has been implemented just when it seemed possible to provide to those social groups previously excluded greater assistance and support to enter and succeed. The notion of education as a public good rather than an individual benefit has moved from centre stage to the wings. This is despite public rhetoric by successive Australian governments about the importance of a well educated community to social and economic development.
Allowing more equal opportunities
In less developed countries resourcing higher education is difficult; for wealthier countries it is political problems which dominate. In Australia, as participation has grown, government outlays on higher education as a percentage of GDP have actually fallen, from 1.06% in 1983-4 to 0.92% in 1994-5. In 1983 government provided 90% of university funding but by 1995 it provided
57.2%. Apparently the significant under-representation of certain groups in their communities is not of concern to our governments. As demand for places driven by changes in the labour market rises, governments respond neither immediately nor generously. Instead, they are content to allow the considerable benefits of higher education to flow disproportionately to those whose social and economic position give them advantaged access to these benefits.
It seems government becomes reluctant to provide the supports which commonsense tells us will make participation more inclusive. Socially and economically disadvantaged people need access to free education, financial support while studying and special entry and assistance to enable them to succeed in higher education, when schooling systems have been unable to provide them with adequate preparation. Yet, as participation has increased, the Australian government has continued to shift the costs of higher education to students and to provide only marginal funds for special programs for the educationally disadvantaged. In 1998 the government's total operating grants to universities, excluding research, capital funds and some special grants, was just over A$5 billion (A$5,064 million). Only A$5.46 million (0.1%) of this amount was specifically allocated to the Higher Education Equity Programme to assist people from disadvantaged backgrounds, while A$22.2 million (0.4%) was targeted for special support programs for Indigenous people.
As successive United Nations Human Development Reports make clear, ‘the link between economic prosperity and human development is neither automatic nor obvious’. Many wealthier countries achieve a lower Human Development Index rating than many poorer countries; that is, they fail to transform high GDP growth into benefits for their people. Expenditure on social capital is, indeed, not simply a question of a country’s wealth, but of its political will.
Rising numbers? Lower standards?
As participation increases, and provision moves from offerings for a small proportion of the population only, concerns about the quality of what is on offer escalate. The expansion of student numbers in developed countries and the growth in numbers of accredited institutions and courses have led to public concerns about quality. Governments in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Australia, as they move from almost total financial responsibility for higher education to being only one source of funds, have become very concerned about quality. Paradoxically, as they remove themselves from majority financial responsibility they increase their demands for data on performance and assert their right to tie any funds they do provide to quality assurance mechanisms which are themselves often a further drain on the resources available for higher education. More (UK) to less expensive and intrusive (Australia) mechanisms for assuring quality have been implemented in the last decade. These are themselves something of a contradiction for governments which place great faith, in all other areas of endeavour, in the market as the determinant of quality.
While much of what is happening can be justified in public policy terms, some aspects of the quality debate in the developed countries have worrying undertones. Many people imply that high quality higher education and equal opportunity are in conflict, that broader participation means lower quality. It requires only one further step to begin blaming those least able to access higher education because of their social, economic and geographic circumstances, for their educational disadvantage.
Educating tomorrow’s leaders
However, for some universities another issue is assuming prominence. In a number of places, university leaders are concerned that it is often university educated people who are responsible as politicians, officials or intellectuals for political and resourcing measures that fail to provide educational opportunities to the socially disadvantaged. Where there is recognition of this, then the universities are looking again at their curriculum. The intention is to reassess the curriculum to ensure we can be more confident that those individuals who gain access to the benefits of higher education are conscious of their responsibilities to the wider society and, themselves, represent the full range of society’s diversity.
This article is an edited extract from a paper she presented at the 5th UNESCO ACEID International Conference 'Reforming Curriculum and Pedagogy: Innovative Visions for the New Century', in Bangkok, Thailand on 14 December 1999.