Group of Eight Unis lag on low-SES enrolment, USyd worst in NSW

NSW’s major universities are still failing on equal access to higher education.

Less than 10 per cent of domestic undergraduate enrolments at the University of Sydney come from a low socio-economic status background, according to a report on the state’s universities commissioned by the NSW Auditor-General last year. This makes USyd’s low SES enrolment rate, standing at just 9 per cent, the worst in NSW, closely followed by Macquarie University and UNSW. 

USyd’s lack of low SES students has been a persistent problem, with rates of enrolment failing to exceed 10 per cent since 2006. Indeed, in 2016, low SES students constituted a mere six per cent of the undergraduate population. To contextualise this, low-SES students represent the lowest income quartile (25 per cent) of the general population.

This figure means that USyd has failed to meet the target for low SES enrolments set by the Rudd Government in 2010, which stipulates that low SES students should constitute 20 per cent of all undergraduate enrolments.

In response to the report, a University spokesperson noted that there had been “significant improvements” to its E12 scholarship scheme and outreach initiatives, they acknowledged that there is “more work to do” to improve the University’s accessibility to low SES students.

According to data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE), universities within the Group of Eight (Go8) saw some of the lowest proportions of low SES enrolments. More than half of Go8 universities have also not surpassed the 10 per cent mark since 2006, including the Australian National University (ANU), the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Australia (UWA) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW). 

While the University of Queensland (UQ), Monash and Adelaide all achieved higher numbers, they remain below the target set by Rudd, with low SES enrolment rates barely reaching 13 per cent in some years. 

In stark contrast to metropolitan universities, many regional-based campuses exceeded Rudd’s target. Only two metropolitan institutions in NSW – Newcastle University and Western Sydney University – cleared the 20 per cent target. At 30 per cent, Western Sydney University achieved the highest rate of low SES enrolment in NSW and second nationally, consistently outranking every other institution in the state since 2016. 

For ANU Professor of the Practice of Higher Education Andrew Norton, one factor behind the dismal numbers at Australia’s most prestigious universities is its postcode. Major universities are often surrounded by wealthier suburbs, especially in the nation’s capital, Canberra where no region within the Australian Capital Territory is classified as low SES. 

Australian students also often stay in close proximity to their home to reduce costs, unlike their British and American counterparts. 

“Although Group of Eight universities often offer scholarships of various kinds and there is student income support with rent assistance, they [students] are pushing against strong social, financial and cultural reasons for not moving to study,” said Norton. 

Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Equity Performance Data (2020). Data visualisation by Honi Soit.

Further exacerbating the problem are intangible barriers to entering Go8 institutions, including higher fail rates for low SES students. Norton attributes this to potentially harsher marking regimes that disfavour students who enrolled with lower ATARs.

What do these numbers tell us about privilege in Australia’s university sector? 

The figures confirm that Sydney University, and its counterparts in the Go8, continue to fail low SES students by upholding a culture of exclusivity. Australia’s most renowned, research-intensive universities are, by and large, united in their elitism. 

Pinpointing the reasons for this persistent failure is a task as multi-faceted as the systems of privilege that feed into it. However, it is clear that Australia’s elite universities are not serious about breaking down class barriers any time soon. Indeed, they trade on snobbery. 

In 2012, the Go8 opposed lifting the cap on places in higher education, claiming that doing so would reduce student performance. Despite ATAR being a poor predictor of many students’ performance at university, the Go8 maintained that reducing barriers for students with ATARs below 70 to enter university would threaten educational standards. Uncapping enrolment limits ultimately led to 36,720 additional low SES enrolments between 2009 and 2014.

A real commitment to addressing educational inequality would require an accompanying commitment to accepting and supporting students whose marks were affected by educational disadvantage in high school. Cherrypicking only the very highest performing low SES students does not constitute a meaningful dedication to challenging exclusion. 

This partly explains why the scholarship programs aimed towards low SES students at Go8 universities have not successfully alleviated inequality. Where universities cultivate an image of elite performance and resist universal access to higher education, they remain inhospitable places for many disadvantaged students.

Last year, Claire Ollivain reported that USyd’s private school intake reached 32 per cent, making Sydney equally as exclusive as Cambridge. This exemplifies USyd’s status as an institution geared predominantly around the interests of wealthy students, where languishing support systems and disproportionate living costs make the Sydney student experience an inaccessible one.

SRC Education Officer Lia Perkins told Honi: “USyd’s low enrolment numbers of low SES students is unsurprising given the culture of elitism that USyd favours. 

“As an institution, it prioritises its reputation, rankings and status among other elite institutions instead of focusing on what should be at the core of universities: teaching and research. The University has thus become unwelcoming and unachievable for students without existing privilege.”

A culture of elitism can be self-perpetuating. A 2012 study found that working class students were less socially integrated at university, being less likely to participate in clubs and societies and less likely to feel a sense of belonging at university. The difficulty of participating in university life at elite institutions may lock low SES students out of social support and opportunities to form networks.

Despite Australians often claiming to espouse egalitarianism, that ethos is not particularly evident in the class hierarchies of our education system, where sandstone universities resemble the iniquities of Oxbridge or the Ivy Leagues more than we would like to admit. 

Kevin Rudd’s 20 per cent target represented an aspiration — albeit incremental — to universal higher education. Yet as enrolment rates of low SES students fail to rise at Australia’s most elite institutions over a decade later, that aspiration remains regrettably out of reach.