Pathway to success the yardstick for unis
Rhonda Hawkins, Acting Vice-Chancellor, University of Western Sydney
As universities tread their first steps along a newly opened pathway of uncapped student numbers, it has never been more important for them to discover whether they are meeting the expectations of the communities they serve.
Many have described this policy as a bold move, one that drastically changes the orientation and status of the nation's higher education sector. Others have seen it as a threat to academic standards and scholarly rigour, their catchcry being: open the doors and quality will suffer.
What most commentators overlook, however, is that wider participation is not a radical policy setting, nor is it a new political objective.
The principles of open access to universities and of opportunity based on merit, not status, have been key objectives of successive federal governments, both Coalition and Labor, since the post-war period. While the practical expression of this shared commitment has ebbed and flowed, this rare ideological accord reflects longstanding expectations that Australia's universities should be the nation's pre-eminent agents of socioeconomic change.
Government policy and community expectations converge in the belief that attending university is, and should always be, a life-changing experience.
But no objective commentator could argue that a comparison of the performance of a student at an elite and well-resourced private school and one from a public school in a disadvantaged area reflects only their relative academic ability. Nor is it possible to claim that other social, family and economic factors do not affect academic performance or preparation for study at university. Students learn within a system of education in which they are the recipients of what is available. They are also vulnerable to the influences and strictures in their own lives. There is no better measure of the quality of a university than its performance in assisting all students to succeed to graduation irrespective of the level of preparation they have enjoyed.
This year more than 63 per cent of the University of Western Sydney's incoming student cohort are the first in their immediate family to attend university. Of the total first semester intake, over 23 per cent are classed as being of low socioeconomic status. The Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranking score of these commencing students is diverse, as are their cultural background, social circumstances, political views, life experiences, work commitments and family composition.
At the heart of the debate about widening participation is the reality that, while not all students will have had equal preparation, family support or financial security, each one deserves and should expect that universities provide the best chance for them to succeed.
This is the right that politicians from both major parties have sought to enshrine in our higher education system over the past 65 years.
Importantly, we are enabling countless young Australians to test themselves against their own expectations. This is the measure towards which universities must direct their focus. Australians expect no less.
26 July 2012
This article was originally published in The Australian's Higher Education Section