Universities are in the Federal Government's sights. Not for their "cappuccino courses", left-leaning students or governance failings, but for their role in the urgent tasks of economic renewal and social reform. Political rhetoric and policy directions have shifted. In the wake of the Bradley Review new government targets capture the challenge: 20 per cent of university students to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and two in five Australians aged 25-34 to have a degree.
But who are the tens of thousands of additional future graduates who will contribute to this goal? As Assistant Treasurer, Chris Bowen has recently said, "it is the pool of poor and middle-class students who present the best opportunity", those for whom going to university is a bridge too far, whether because of a lack of resources, their experiences of school or family expectations.
Universities have changed. Since the Dawkins reforms the size of the student body has greatly expanded, yet it is still the case that the share of students from poor, regional and remote areas and especially from Aboriginal communities is much smaller than their share of the general population. A poorer child today is less than half as likely to go to university as a child from a well-off family. A 2007 study led by Richard James at the University of Melbourne declared it "amazing" that despite the great expansion in the number of students there has been virtually no change in the imbalance between socio-economic groups in universities.
But are we really surprised? Who can fail to appreciate the impact of wealth and privilege in opening up avenues to a university education? The “good” school, the broadening experience of travel, tutoring, professional parents, books and computers at home, acquired aspirations. All these weight the UAI competition in favour of the socially advantaged.
The shameful reality is that, despite decades of effort, the words of Gough Whitlam when opening the University of Western Sydney's Commerce building are as apt today as they were when he spoke them 15 years ago: "The socioeconomic maldistribution in our university population ... represents not only a major social injustice and an enormous waste of talent for society but also a deviation from the pursuit of excellence by universities who as a result have less than the best students."
Granted there has been some progress. The University of Western Sydney like every other university has stories of astonishing achievement arising from adversity: the young mother of four primary-aged children who fulfilled her dream to become an intensive care nurse; the single father who worked nights to support his children and studied to become a primary school teacher; the Sudanese refugee who graduated a month ago with a degree in peace and conflict studies; the student now working in a large law firm who climbed onto the roof of his house to study in peace when he wasn't helping his struggling mother and siblings. And the stories go on.
Few would disagree that a nation with a better educated workforce is more productive, more resilient in times of crisis and better able to compete globally. University graduates gain access to jobs which are more challenging, highly skilled, cleaner, safer and pay more. On average someone with a degree earns $1.5 million or 70 per cent more in their lifetime than someone without one. Individual wealth, health and community security in turn are all closely linked and amplify national prosperity.
There is an unwelcome irony in the fact that rising unemployment, collapsing businesses and immense pressures on the national ledger present an unusual chance to expand and revitalise tertiary education, and with it the nation. There is both a need and an opportunity to open up pathways to university study for a new generation of school leavers, the unemployed and newly under-employed. Widening access to higher education needs to be seen as one of Treasurer Wayne Swan's "necessary investments for the future" to position the nation for re-invention and growth when the world's economies recover.
How many of those whose formal education stops with school are capable of university study, given the right chances? The UAI is an efficient sorting mechanism in its way, but it is not the only arbiter of broad intelligence and the ability to study for a degree. The best predictor of capacity to succeed at university is success at university. Getting there is half the battle. The challenge for universities is to assess the promise of those who didn't finish school or struggled with mass exams and to bring them in from almost any direction and at almost any stage in their lives, regardless of their backgrounds.
Previous attempts to broaden participation have always attracted sceptical comment, along the lines that the country is going to the dogs because universities let in almost anyone these days. For those who went to university in the 50s and 60s, there is a certain amnesia about a past when only a select sliver of the populace went to university; when most other people left school after just three years of secondary education; when universities were unashamedly elitist, intellectually complacent, monocultural, mainly male, and cut off from the realities of the communities they were meant to serve.
Widening participation is not about lowering standards; it is about bringing in more of the best students. The pursuit of excellence as a nation means nurturing talent wherever it is found (or buried) and calling the soft bigotry that lurks behind warnings of mediocrity for what it is.
But universities cannot afford to wait until the students walk through the gates. Educational aspirations form early in life and are shaped by example and experience. Under the University of Western Sydney's schools partnership program thousands of primary and high school students come each year to campus to have a first hand experience of, among other things, a mock court case, learning a new language, having a limb plastered by medical students, fondling a reptile, doing intriguing lab experiments, or joining an astronomy workshop at the observatory. These kinds of experiences stick. They can ignite that spark of interest which later becomes a flame of enthusiasm for lifelong learning. The three A's - awareness, aspiration, access - should pervade the coming generations' school experiences in the same way as the three R's pervaded preceding generations'.
Here, now, as jobs dry up, is a generational chance not only to nurture the talents of our future workers but to right a societal wrong by setting disendowed young and mature workers on a path to more secure and rewarding lives. Tertiary education offers both a current solution and a future social insurance policy. If we can't get this right now we may never do so.