Every generation seeks to rise above the circumstances of its birth. This week, the Australian Labor Government has given thousands of disadvantaged young people the opportunity to do so by prising open the doors of the country’s universities.
Julia Gillard, the Deputy Prime Minister, has handed down what is arguably the most comprehensive reform package for higher education equality since Whitlam. In the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program Guidelines
(HEPPP) published Wednesday, universities have been given a $500 million sweetener to join the good ship equity and there’s already a queue at the candy shop.
The Guidelines are a regulatory revolution unto themselves, navigating universities through the wreckage of three decades in which some of the best minds in Australian higher education equity policy: John Dawkins, Denise Bradley and Lin Martin, have attempted to raise the national participation of low socio-economic (low SES) students in universities without success. But there’s nothing like practice to get a bite at perfection and when Bradley and Martin joined up again in 2008 to work on the Review of Australian Higher Education
, they set the scene for the HEPPP. After decades in waiting, they tabled a target that 20% of students participating in higher education should be from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Gillard championed the cause against some powerful detractors to make it national policy.
The Labor Government has decided against the traditional Left-liberal approach of affirmative action quotas to reach the target and, in a surprise turn, looked to a foundational law of market capitalism, supply and demand, to create social justice. Then they dabbled in some market manipulation to create the demand by putting a $1500 offer on the head of low SES students (subject to enrolments across the sector). When universities enrol them, they get the money. It’s a paradox at high noon from a DPM who’s partial to a duel.
In contrast to the Building the Education Revolution in schools, where some shoddy policy implementation blew out strategy, the HEPPP Guidelines include comprehensive direction for universities on how to reach low SES targets. The primary instrument of policy optimisation is university partnerships with disadvantaged schools. The partnership rules are loose enough to create space for innovation and tight enough to cut out any pretenders.
In its third year of an education revolution that’s more often framed in quotation marks than believed, the Australian Government has published an impressive treatise to higher education equity. What it offers could be revolutionary for tens of thousands of Australian citizens who traditionally have been locked out of universities; an opportunity to realise potential that ascends the circumstances of birth.
Will they make good on our belief that they can?