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Monday, 22 June 2009
Page: 6825

Ms GEORGE (8:40 PM) —My contribution to the grievance debate tonight mirrors an issue I raised in the very early days following my election to the federal parliament—namely, the underrepresentation of children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in higher education. Back in 2003, I argued that, despite the fact that greater numbers of young people were completing year 12, in my view:

… there are systemic problems which continue to deny students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds the chance of obtaining a university education.

I pointed out that the younger generation in the electorate of Throsby did not ‘appear to be getting significantly better opportunities and outcomes than their parents did’.

I looked just recently at the 2006 census data, and I want to rely on some of that data to make my point this evening. The data shows that, in my electorate, 2,113 persons were attending university either as full-time or part-time students, but they in fact were a mere 2.2 per cent of people aged 15 and above in the electorate. Another 3,144 were enrolled at TAFE, but in that cohort they were overwhelmingly enrolled as part-time students. When you look at the composition of people in Throsby with a university qualification, there are some 5,120 people who have a bachelor’s degree, or 5.3 per cent of constituents, and overall 7.8 per cent of constituents over the age of 21 have a university qualification at either bachelor or a higher level—some 6,706 people.

When looking at higher education participation rates of persons aged 17 to 22, the census data revealed some interesting statistics. The rate of participation in my electorate was 14.8 per cent. In fact, the electorate of Throsby, when we looked at the rankings of all electorates, ranked 133rd out of the 150 federal electorates. If the rate of participation in university education in Throsby is around 15 per cent, let us look at how that compares with the high-participation seats. In the seat of Curtin it is 49 per cent. So, in 2006, 49 per cent of all people aged 17 to 22 in the Curtin electorate were participating in higher education. In Kooyong, it was 48.8 per cent; Bradfield, 47½ per cent; Higgins, 47½ per cent; Ryan, 45½ per cent; North Sydney, 44.9 per cent; and Wentworth, the seat of the Leader of the Opposition, 41.7 per cent. I think those figures speak very clearly for themselves and point to the huge inequity in regard to the life chances of people and their options to participate in university.

Back in 2005, on figures supplied in reply to a question on notice I asked, it was estimated that 16 per cent of domestic students at our local university, the University of Wollongong, were from a low SES postcode. In fact, only around 12 per cent of all the undergraduate students enrolled at our local university were resident in my electorate.

I was heartened recently to read some of the data produced by the Bradley review of higher education. I am pleased that the Bradley review investigated in some detail this issue of inequity in higher education participation and concluded—and I quote from the report:

Australia has not provided equal access to all groups in our society.

Definitely the findings confirmed the concerns that I have always held and about which I have had the opportunity to speak in this House.

The Bradley review pointed to the underrepresentation of not just people from lower SES backgrounds but also young people from regional and remote Australia and, very obviously, the low participation rates among Indigenous Australians compared to the general population. The Bradley report showed that the participation rate for low SES students overall in Australia was 15 per cent—pretty close to the figures that I referred to earlier from the University of Wollongong. That was much lower than the overall 25 per cent representation of people in the general population. The Bradley report argued that a student from a high socioeconomic background is about three times more likely to attend university than a student from a low SES background. It went on to show that the participation rates have remained relatively unchanged since 2002.

What I found interesting among the data was that, once at university, it appears that a student’s background does not negatively affect their chances of completing the course they undertake. Quite distinct differences exist in low SES participation by type of institution or university, by the courses undertaken and by the field of study. Not surprisingly, low SES students are poorly represented in the Group of Eight universities, poorly represented in the fields of architecture and law, and grossly underrepresented in the fields of medicine, dentistry and economics. I found this general situation applied also in the data and figures I obtained in response to inquiries about which faculties the students from Throsby ended up in. That general finding applied there as well.

Not surprisingly for all of us, the statistics also confirmed that Indigenous people are vastly underrepresented. While access rates for Indigenous people remain well below the levels required to achieve equitable representation, an equally important issue for Indigenous students is that of success and retention once enrolled. The Bradley review concluded that:

… social inclusion must be a core responsibility for all institutions that accept public funding, irrespective of history and circumstances.

I agree.

Very importantly, our Minister for Education, the Deputy Prime Minister, has made the issue of equity in higher education a key concern in the reform process that she has commenced in the tertiary sector. The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that she will vigorously pursue the ambition that by 2020 20 per cent of all higher education enrolments should be people from low SES backgrounds. That would require some 55,000 additional student enrolments on top of the current 92,000 students from low SES backgrounds to meet the goal. So it will require a quantum leap in the number of students if that ambition of the Deputy Prime Minister is to be fulfilled.

Evidence from the Bradley report suggests that patterns of social and educational disadvantage are experienced well before people reach the point of considering whether university is possible and relevant for them. It follows therefore that programs focused solely on the higher education sector can only partially influence the problem and come up with the solutions. We know that endemic educational disadvantage begins in the earliest years of schooling and is often reinforced by low achievement and parental influences. We need improved efforts to increase school retention and student achievement and to raise aspirations in regard to the chances of people going on to higher education. We need more outreach programs and pathways that circumvent competitive entry based on academic achievement alone, such as teacher recommendations or other forms of interview that I know apply in some of our tertiary institutions. Certainly more scholarships and other financial incentives for students from rural communities and for Indigenous students will also be required.

I end my grievance on a positive note. I am delighted that the concerns I have raised since being elected to this parliament have now been taken seriously by the Rudd Labor government. I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on her committed stand on this important national issue.