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In the grand scheme of things

There’s a problem with the University’s E12 scheme, writes Mary Ward.

Photography by Merryjack via Flickr.
Photography by Merryjack via Flickr.
Photography by Merryjack via Flickr.

Our Lady of Mercy College (OLMC) in Parramatta had an outstanding year in 2013. The independent school – which charges annual fees just shy of $11,000 per senior student – ranked 93rd on the Sydney Morning Herald’s Top 100 Schools list, and fielded teams in four of the six grand finals of the state-wide Catholic Schools Debating Association competition. The 125-year-old college has produced distinguished alumni such as businesswoman Helena Carr and federal MP for Greenway Michelle Rowland. Every student has a laptop. OLMC’s students play Saturday sport in the Independent Girls’ School Sporting Association competition.

OLMC is, by all accounts, a top-achieving and well-resourced private school. It is also one of the schools eligible for the University of Sydney’s E12 scheme, an access scholarship system for disadvantaged students.

The E12 scheme was established in 2012 as an early entry scheme for low socioeconomic school leavers. With their principal’s endorsement, Year 12 students enrolled in NSW schools can apply on the basis of individual financial disadvantage, or on the basis of attending a school on the list of Educational Access Scheme (EAS) schools during Year 11 and 12.

Scholarship winners are notified in October, before the HSC exams begin. Their scholarship is conditional upon meeting the scheme’s reduced ATAR cutoff for their chosen course (this is often a significant reduction: the ATAR cutoff for Physiotherapy is reduced from 98.85 to 85). Upon acceptance of the scholarship, students receive an iPad and $5,000.

The University Admissions Centre (UAC) compile the list of EAS schools using data from the federal and NSW governments, as well as the NSW Catholic Education Commission. This year, the University of Sydney made 201 formal offers of E12 scholarships. A comparison of UAC’s January Offers list and the Board of Studies Distinguished Achievers list reveals that members of the OLMC Class of 2013. Based on the number of scholarships awarded by OLMC each year, it is unlikely that all of these students were receiving financial assistance while at the college. A University of Sydney spokesperson told Honi Soit that school principals are asked to only provide recommendations for applicants who are financially disadvantaged. OLMC declined to comment on their involvement with the E12 program.

Cerdon Merrylands, another high-achieving Catholic school, ranked 90th in the SMH’s Top 100 Schools list and had similarly high rates of acceptance. Students from Cerdon accepted 14 E12 offers for 2014 entry. Students from the two schools received ten per cent of the E12 entry places available. Like OLMC, Cerdon was placed on the EAS list due to a recommendation from the NSW Catholic Education Commission. Both schools’ communities are described as having above average socio-educational advantage on the federal government’s MySchool website.

A NSW Catholic Education Commission spokesperson stressed that socio-educational disadvantage is distinct from socio-economic disadvantage, which forms the basis of their recommendations to UAC. “The Catholic sector applies principles similar to those used by the NSW Department of Education,” he says.

“NSW Catholic schools in the lowest SES quartile are identified using Commonwealth Government methodology and student-level information, based on ABS census data and therefore revised every five years.”

The University of Sydney spokesperson said that approximately 70 per cent of the E12 intake came from EAS schools last year. It is unclear how many of these students attended fee-paying schools recommended by the NSW Catholic Education Commission.

E12 scholarship recipient Alessandra Bianco, of Mount Vernon in Sydney’s southwest, doesn’t think her attendance at a school in what she terms a “so-called disadvantaged area” had any impact on her HSC results. The 2013 dux of Freeman Catholic College in Bonnyrigg Heights achieved an ATAR of 99.8 – a mark that would have guaranteed her place in Sydney’s Combined Law program even without the bonus points the E12 scheme provides.

“[E12] is just a way of classifying disadvantaged schools and their areas, which seems like a totally subjective thing,” she said. “Where Freeman is situated, they take in people from Mount Vernon, Cecil Hills, Abbotsbury; all of the, I guess, higher socio-economic suburbs. But then they are also taking in people from Smithfield and Fairfield, where it is more of a lower socio-economic status area.”

She says the paperwork required for applying to the E12 scheme on the basis of individual need seemed too complicated. “The process of having to go through UAC and submit all of the forms sort of turned [us] off,” she says.

It was only when Freeman was added to the list of EAS schools midway through 2013 that she decided to apply. Bianco had always wanted to go to university like her mother, and saw the E12 scheme as “relieving stress” before her HSC exams, rather than providing her access to a tertiary institution she otherwise would not have attended.

UAC equity manager Gordon Clutterham acknowledged that identifying schools in low SES areas doesn’t “perfectly” address the underrepresentation of low SES students at university. However, he said that even wealthier students are placed in a position of disadvantage by attending a school with a predominantly low SES enrolment. “The aspirations of those schools are generally lower,” he said.

“Those schools are less attractive to experienced teachers, so there is an argument that – even though you may not be individually disadvantaged socio-economically – if you are attending a school that is predominantly low SES, that in itself represents a form of disadvantage,” he said.

A change in the funding model for NSW government schools will see revisions to the EAS list this year. It appears unlikely that the methodology behind filling up the university’s ‘access’ scholarship quota with high-achieving, private school students from the Catholic sector will be reviewed.