The Bradley challenge: A sea change for Australian universities?
Thomas Putnam and Judith Gill
University of South Australia
This paper begins with a focus on the problematic nature of one key term in the Bradley Report. Socioeconomic status, or SES as commonly used, lacks clear definition leading to ongoing debates about its measurement. A working consensus on SES and its measurement is necessary for the report's recommendations to proceed effectively. Next we analyse research on university culture and practice relating to non-traditional students in order to develop the case for cultural transformation at the same time as broader recruitment if the new enrolment strategies are to deliver real change. We conclude with comments on the likely success of the Bradley recommendations in terms of the future of Australian universities and the broader culture.
Over the last one hundred years, not only has Australian higher education participation significantly increased, but it now consists of a more diverse student population (Bradley et al, 2008, p. xii). Women, once a minority among the privileged, now form the majority of students, although their enrolments are not evenly spread throughout course and award offerings. Other increases involve higher participation rates of mature-age students, international students and students with disabilities (Bradley et al, 2008). However, despite these developments, the higher education sector still remains inequitable in terms of socioeconomic background. Research consistently shows significantly lower proportions of low SES students attend university as compared with their higher SES peers (Considine & Zappala, 2002; Ramsay, Tranter, Charlton & Sumner, 1998). Moreover, universities are not equal institutions: the older ones maintain their establishment status in terms of capital city location, quality of students at entry (as measured by TER scores) and a curriculum more closely tied to traditional disciplines. The Bradley report's recommendations would appear to apply to all universities and thus would likely require more significant change in older established institutions compared with more recent ones.
In 1990, researchers identified six disadvantaged groups in terms of access to higher education, namely: people from low socioeconomic backgrounds; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; women in non-traditional areas; people from non-English speaking backgrounds; people with disabilities; and people from rural and isolated areas (DEET, 1990). This classification enabled researchers to address the problem in terms of specific features of inequity, a development leading to the determinations of the Bradley report. Recent years have seen significant improvements in tertiary access for women in non-traditional areas, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, and people with a disability, however 'the participation rate of people from rural, isolated, and low SES backgrounds had in fact decreased slightly over the time period being considered' (DETYA, 1999, p. vii, cited in Young, 2004, pp. 429-430). The low representation of students from low SES groups had remained 'virtually unchanged for the past decade despite the expansion in the total number of domestic students in higher education' (James, 2008, p. 23). Hence the low SES group was proving a more intransigent problem than the other equity groups.
Nor is the problem limited to Australian universities. A British study showed around 80% of higher education entrants came from the most affluent areas compared to just 3% from the most disadvantaged areas (Forsyth & Furlong, 2001, p. 205). In Australia high SES accounts for 37% (with a population reference of 25%) of the higher education population, compared to 46% (50%) of medium SES, and 16% (25%) for the low SES category (James, 2008, p. 23). Thus the low SES are significantly under-represented within the higher education system.
Furthermore the under-representation of low SES students is most marked in particular courses and universities, specifically in the established 'Group of Eight' (Go8) universities and in high status courses such as medicine, dentistry and economics (Bradley et al, 2008, p. 30). This feature, the differential enrolment patterns of certain groups, is particularly striking in an analysis of the benefits of tertiary education and its equitable processes. Gender differences in course enrolment provide another indication of this internal stratification. Women, now a majority of first year tertiary enrolments, are clustered in two very traditional areas, nursing and teaching (Carrington & Pratt, 2003). While women do comprise roughly 50% of entering students in the traditionally prestigious faculties of Law and Medicine, these areas are the least likely to have a significant enrolment from any of the equity groups. The question becomes one of inter-sectionality with middle class women benefitting from the increased access to higher education, while low SES women and men are largely invisible in these high status fields. This profile of tertiary course and student SES is a striking example of the ways in which educational systems can be seen to reproduce and maintain social divisions, a key theoretical insight from Bourdieu (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). Moreover the choice of course is governed by TER achieved in senior school, a competition in which the non-government fee paying schools dominate, further establishing the relation between high SES and high status educational attainment.
The Bradley report sets out a strong business case for widening participation, casting its pitch in terms of the knowledge economy and the global competition for skills:
Work by Access Economics predicts that from 2010 the supply of people with undergraduate qualifications will not keep up with demand. To increase the numbers participating we must also look to members of groups currently under-represented within the system, that is, those disadvantaged by the circumstances of their birth: Indigenous people, people with low socio-economic status, and those from regional and remote areas (Bradley et al, 2008, p. xi).Consequently the report recommends a higher education target level of 40% of 25 to 34 year olds attaining at least a bachelor level qualification by 2020 (currently 29%). Furthermore, by 2020, it stipulates that 20% of undergraduate enrolments in higher education should be students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (currently 15%) (Bradley et al, 2008, p. xiv). While the solution proffered here appears admirably neat, concerns about the implementation remain.
Even though widening participation appears to be an effective way of 'closing the gap', some universities will likely be resistant to altering their practices. Not surprisingly the response from the elite Group of Eight universities advises caution, citing the need for a clearer definition of the problem (Gallagher, 2010). For some universities, widening participation may threaten prestige built up over generations of patronage by the social and professional elite. For other newer universities, widening participation may represent a lifeline for their continuance, given that regional universities often already exceed the government's target of twenty per cent of enrolments coming from lower socioeconomic status students (Withers, 2009). However the further danger of creating a two tier higher education system must also be recognised. Bourdieu, commenting on a similar situation in France, notes 'after an extended school career, which often entails considerable sacrifice, the most culturally disadvantaged run the risk of ending up with a devalued degree' (Bourdieu, 1999, p. 423). It would appear most important to strive to maintain parity in graduate quality and esteem - concepts not immediately evident in the report - at the same time as a broader social mix of tertiary students. But first, the discussion turns to the complexities of defining socioeconomic status or, more commonly, SES.
'Socioeconomic status is a complex and relative concept' (DEEWR, 2009, p. ii). The ABS acknowledges that the measure is not perfect, and emphasises that disadvantage is subjective (Pink, 2008a, p. 2). But disadvantage is not merely subjective - there are clear indicators of lack of material goods, whereby some are significantly worse off than others - a difference that does not reduce to being describable as 'subjective'.
In Australia the current geographic (postcode) measurement of SES is a broad measurement as it bundles people together based upon a geographic area and does not account for individual circumstances (DEEWR, 2009). Hence it is not 'an appropriate way to identify individual socioeconomic status or educational disadvantage' (James, 2007, p. 12). While some proposals urge a smaller geographic unit as a potentially more accurate reflection of the people who live there, the debate continues. Other suggestions propose parental educational levels and occupation as being better indicators of SES than address. James claims that parental educational levels constitute 'the best predictor of the likelihood of higher education participation' (James, 2008, p. 7).
In mainstream sociology the standard approach for determining SES has been by occupation and to the degree that occupation subsumes an educational level this seems a useful approach (McMillan, Beavis, & Jones, 2009). The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) prefers a 'multi-dimensional measure' combining individual circumstances with area, in order to account for the range of factors involved (Gale & Sellar, 2010). And, as an individual measure, the NCSEHE favours the use of occupation as 'the best single indicator of socioeconomic status' (Gale & Sellar, 2010, p. 1), a view supported by Marks, McMillan and Hillman (2001). But the problem remains for tertiary student classification. Occupational ranking may be a good indicator for established households and families, but the situation of students, who are often mobile, usually engage in part time work in low level occupations for low wages remains very complex. Are they to be measured in terms of their parents' occupation or their own? Under the current student assistance scheme they can achieve 'independence' if they have been in paid work for 18 months, but is this independence classifiable in terms of SES? More research is needed about the situation of current students if these questions are to be answered.
At a recent Sydney symposium on the development of new indicators for the socioeconomic status of higher education students, presenters cited the 'inadequacy of using area-based measures in isolation, and the need for more precise individual data' (Sellar & MacMullin, 2010). Although no decision emerged, the most likely outcome appears to be a combination of indicators. But with all such combinations there remains the problem of weighting - how much does parental occupation/education account for SES and how much is explained by geography? At the time of writing it seems that there is no easy solution to this issue. It may be that the most practicable solution will arise from modelling different weightings and looking at the results in terms of reasonable approximations.
As SES is currently measured by geographic location based upon census data, the percentage of low, medium, and high SES may change if SES was reclassified to parents' level of education or occupation. There is some suggestion that the use of the postcode index 'under-estimates the social stratification in Australian higher education' (James, 2007, p. 13). Given that all the current estimates show the higher education area to be highly stratified by SES, this comment signals the possibility of an even greater problem than is currently seen.
These perceptions resonate with Bourdieu's concept of people being, through class location, drawn to 'refusing what they are already refused' (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 471), by which he means the idea of deciding not to apply develops from an inbuilt sense (Bourdieu's concept of habitus) that such things are 'not for the likes of us'. The sense of a group ethic around tertiary entrance has much potential for explaining the persistence of low SES student participation. Some programs that have addressed the issue have been built around individual success and are thus unlikely to change the systemic condition except for a few meritorious cases. The Bradley report proposes a group solution and therefore must involve group strategies.
Such perceptions have led to the setting up of projects involving education about post school possibilities, including higher education in low SES schools in the hope of lifting student aspirations and transforming the social divisions linked to educational outcomes. It is too early to comment on the success of these projects. The matter is a cause for educational concern in terms of maximising student potential as well as building a just and democratic society. Access to higher education is important for all socioeconomic groups because of the personal benefits it can offer, the marginalisation that can occur without qualifications, and the advantages it brings to the Australian economy.
The Bradley report put forward its argument on two fronts: firstly that the need for more highly skilled people to help grow the Australian economy; and secondly the acknowledgement of the demands of social justice and student equity to be derived from any publicly funded education. Having shown that SES as currently measured and, presumably, with the ongoing refinement of its measures, functions as a key indicator of social inequality in terms of entry to tertiary education, we now turn to issues within the university. The question concerns the degree to which current universities are prepared to take more non-traditional students.
Firstly, the recommendations will involve increasingly higher proportions of first generation university students, people whose parents have not achieved this level of education. As early as 2001, the Federal Department of Education recognised that these students present particular issues which the universities need to address in their teaching.
Universities have found that first generation university students are often educationally disadvantaged and are at greater risk of attrition due to factors such as their distance from family and community support systems, financial hardship, or academic under-preparedness and, therefore, need additional support (DEST, 2001).Research in the US identifies a number of factors associated with being a first generation higher education student. For example, first generation students are more likely to be enrolled part time, be older, have lower incomes, be married, and have dependents (Nunez, Cuccaro-Alamin, & Carroll, 1998).
To date there has been little research into first generation students at Australian universities (despite the current inclusion of this category in the forthcoming DEEWR statistics). And yet the significant expansion of the sector would seem to indicate there have been increasing numbers of first generation students for nearly three decades. American research had shown that first generation students require extra support in order to raise academic persistence and rate of success. But US research also revealed that once first generation students successfully completed university 'they earned comparable salaries and were employed in similar occupations as their non-first generation peers' (Nunez et al, 1998, p. iv). Some Australian work (Dobson & Skuja, 2005; Win & Miller, 2005) indicated that although low SES special entry students may get lower grades in their first year studies, by the end of the course there was little difference.
It appears that low SES participation in Australian higher education is an issue of access rather than success once enrolled. At aggregate level, socioeconomic status appears to explain little of the variation in higher education success and retention rates. Once enrolled, low SES people do almost as well as medium SES and high SES in terms of retention, success and completion (James, 2008, p. 4).This conclusion stresses access to university as a key dimension for widening participation. Further research is needed to determine if students themselves see the issue of access of prime importance in achieving university entry.
While condoning the idea of outreach programs, the Bradley report is not conclusive. While it sees such programs as appearing to make 'the most significant difference to participation of under-represented groups' (Bradley et al, 2008, p. 42), it insists that higher education must involve other education providers and community organisations to assist with the task (Bradley et al, 2008). However the details are left unspecified in the report, a significant gap given the huge implications for the entire sector and the broader society.
Non-traditional students are more costly to attract to university and require more academic support and other forms of support once enrolled. But this is what is required if serious inroads are to be made into the present participation imbalances (James, 2007, p. 14).At the same time these resources are not enough in themselves to produce significant changes in the student body (Gorard, Adnett, May, Slack, Smith & Thomas, 2007). Some UK commentators encourage the use of monitoring devices whereby universities can be seen to achieve their targets and propose a reward system for evidence of widening participation.
When allocating funds for expansion, priority should be given to HEIs [higher education institutions] which can demonstrate a commitment to WP [widening participation]; have in place a particular strategy, a mechanism for monitoring progress, and provision for reviewing achievement by the governing body (HEFCE, 2006, p. 13).At the system level it is clear that the implications of the Bradley report are going to require financial support for effectively widening the participation of low SES groups. Such financial support must be widely advertised and the programs clearly understood so that students realise that university costs will not constitute an impossible burden. As Tranter's study showed, low SES students in senior school are very disinclined to get into debt and are not well informed about possible support (Tranter, 2010).
Firstly, the student experiences institutional 'controls' through, for example, the 'regulated communications' of the lecture, the essay and the examination, and the rewards and punishments of the grading system. Secondly, the student is constrained by her or his own 'knowledge' of what it is to be a 'good' student, a knowledge which has been constructed through socially dominant discourses, including those produced and maintained by the university itself. Such 'knowledges' and practices are legitimated by their 'naturalisation': they come to be seen as the only or 'natural' way of thinking or acting (Read, Archer & Leathwood, 2003, p. 269).Undoubtedly some students will experience a greater challenge in becoming accustomed to university practices than others. For those students coming from middle class schools, some of which advertise their programs as involving 'tertiary literacy', the change to university study patterns will be less than for others whose schools have not been oriented towards university learning.
However the cultural change resulting from the proposed reforms is not restricted to the new-style students and they are not the only ones to undergo cultural change. The massification of the higher education sector has had considerable consequences for academics, particularly for those within non-elite (and generally newer) institutions, which have a greater population of non-traditional students. Academics have reported 'increased pressure on resources, and greater demands from student 'consumers' for improvements in teaching quality' (McInnis & Anderson, 2005, cited in Hardy, 2010, p. 2). Furthermore, Brew (2010) suggests that with this change of dynamics within the higher education system, academics and students may become further distanced from each other.
In contrast, Reay, Crozier and Clayton (2009) studied the attitudes of low SES students within an elite university. This UK study found that working class students in elite universities felt they were treading in unfamiliar territory, which often resulted in 'disquiet, ambivalence, insecurity and uncertainty' about their studies (Reay et al, 2009, p. 1105). These researchers reported that working class students have to master the ability to operate within two differing cultures, and in many cases are torn between keeping ties to their social background while also trying to adapt to the middle class institution (Reay et al, 2009). For these students success involves developing 'almost superhuman levels of motivation, resilience and determination' (Reay et al, 2009, p. 1115). This study shows the complexity of the situation in which the success of non-traditional students is impeded.
According to UK researcher Archer, the challenge is to get students 'to feel that they 'belong' in any institution, but this will not happen until the elite universities are no longer the preserve of 'traditional' students' (Archer et al, 2003, p. 197). Furthermore British researchers write of the importance of challenging institutional cultures which legitimate traditional exclusionary practices (Archer et al, 2003). Hussey and Smith (2010) argue that if higher education really wants to change then it will not only have to alter the academic structure but also the timetabling to be more flexible. Archer, Hutchings and Ross go even further with this idea and suggest a dismantling of 'a fixed university site' (2003, p. 200) and instead propose that universities go out to communities.
While UK researchers appear fairly dubious about the possibility of change, the situation in Australia may hold more potential. Certainly some aspects of university culture have changed in recent decades from the formal routines that used to be in place in classrooms and tutorial groups to a rather more relaxed and friendly environment, but this varies between universities and between disciplines. 'Belonging' implies feeling comfortable, knowing the ropes, so detailed induction programs and clear communication systems are essential.
Researchers agree on the need to build a more inclusive student culture, a difficult challenge at a time when students are less likely to be identified with their place of learning. International comparisons reveal that Australian students have amongst the highest rates of paid work accompanying their studies (Withers, 2009). The high involvement in part time work also means less time for engaging in wider university culture. With the PC taking on the traditional function of the library, student life can be reduced to minimal social involvement. With the demise of compulsory union fees in 2005, there are fewer dedicated spaces on campus for student interests. No longer are there union funded clubs and societies and so the opportunities for mixing and mingling are limited. In these conditions students are thrown back on their own networks which tend to be classed, raced and gendered. Some disciplines operate with a set curriculum that takes most of student time on campus. While these groups, typically professional courses such as medicine, engineering and others, may afford greater degree of student identification and sense of belonging, this is less true for those doing less structured courses where currently many of the low SES students are found, such as in enabling courses (Bradley et al, 2008, p. 30). It seems there is a need for universities to develop new ways of getting students to work together in order to develop a sense of themselves as part of an inclusive group within the institution.
Particular features of student life in and around Australian universities may render them less likely to provide the experience of a 'total institution' (Goffman, 1961) that governs their days and nights than their US or UK counterparts. While most Australian students attend their local university, far fewer 'go away' to university when compared with students in the UK or the US. Thus they tend to be grounded in their local backgrounds which may vary in providing support for student life. The widely accepted practice of students undertaking part time work (McInnis, 2002) means that many only come for the set hours of classes. Consequently for today's students there is little campus life when compared with the experience of former generations. The sense of belonging to the institution becomes increasingly elusive.
Some tertiary faculties may be understandably resistant to curriculum change. For example, the professional fields, such as engineering, medicine and law, have certain agreed commonalities set in consultation with professional bodies about what every graduate must know in order to become the 'safe practitioner'. But there needs to be consideration for different starting points, for which there must be well designed diagnostic instruments geared to a broader range of student entry, which would identify any knowledge gaps and include short courses designed to overcome them. Only with such a system in place can universities claim to be the democratic inclusive institutions of the Bradley vision.
University teachers are generally appointed based upon their research and knowledge of a particular field, which has distinct advantages for developing new research, generating funding and elevating the status of a department as well as the university. However, the actual 'teaching' component of the university teacher is often missing or underdeveloped. While there have been encouraging developments in the tertiary sector to advance the focus on teaching and learning at this level (eg, Carrick Grants initially and then the Australian Learning and Teaching Council), the drivers for this work have been largely in terms of 'efficient throughput' and developments in ICT applications for university teaching. Our argument here is that the interests of widening participation call for a specific focus on curriculum reform for entering non-traditional students. Nor are we the first to make this point.
Equity policies and programs are closely related to choices about the curriculum and approaches to teaching and learning, though this is rarely recognised ... So the widening of participation, especially in the Go8 universities, invites a re-conceptualisation of first year curricula to accommodate students from different backgrounds with different types of preparedness (James, 2007, p. 14).The changes urged in the Bradley report necessarily entail developments within the university culture and curriculum structure along with increased resourcing for the sector if they are to be implemented effectively. Rather than seeking to make the students adapt to their traditional ways, the universities must engage with real change if they are to accommodate a wider group of students.
The focus of this paper has been on the barriers to inclusivity within higher education institutions. Like Bradley we believe that higher education should be readily accessible to those who have the academic potential and interest, regardless of their socioeconomic status. In this spirit we concur with UK scholars who write, 'the creation of 'meaningful' education will require appropriate levels of resourcing and a commitment to ensuring a system that challenges, rather than reinforces, classed, raced and gendered inequalities' (Archer et al, 2003, p. 201). Ultimately our position is that tertiary education, in ways similar to primary and secondary education, must come to be seen and to understand itself as a public good, most obviously in the ways it works to produce a democratic participatory society. While we do not dispute that university graduates are more likely than non-graduates to end up in more fulfilling better paid jobs, the social benefits of a more inclusive tertiary system stand as the most compelling drivers for the Bradley report recommendations.
This paper has described the problems associated with the current indicators of SES, and has emphasised the need to establish a more satisfactory measure. The issue of cultural change within the universities calls for significant resourcing and ongoing monitoring. It is envisaged that some higher education institutions will welcome this change, while others may fight to maintain traditional ways of operating. For the latter, the transition from elite to mass education may be viewed as relinquishing their position of power. However, until these issues are addressed, the Bradley report's recommendations and targets will not be achieved and higher education will continue to be stratified, favouring the traditional student and reproducing class inequalities.
Whether the adoption of the Bradley recommendations will involve the end of the traditional university system in Australia is still a moot point. Certainly the exclusiveness which the system has long enjoyed will have to undergo fundamental change. Bourdieu's theorisation of education as a systematic contributor to class division would seem to be less appropriate in the new style institutions prefigured in the Bradley report. However, his concerns about a multi-tier education structure constitute a real warning to current developments in Australia and should necessarily be a constant issue in future developments. Only time will tell if the nexus between education and class can be broken or at least rendered less determined.
In conclusion, while we welcome the recommendations of the Bradley report, our analysis signals the need for significant change in the culture and practices of Australian universities. In this paper we have identified a range of issues that warrant further work if the recommendations are to be implemented successfully. First, the work must be shared across the entire sector and not just left for some universities to accommodate the broader social mix of students and all that it entails. Second, there must be agreement throughout the sector as to what constitutes the most appropriate way to measure SES so that the requirements are met on a comparable basis throughout. Third, research into the experience of non-traditional students along with careful monitoring of outreach programs would ideally be accompanied by professional development for faculty and increased resourcing of learning and teaching advisers. Bradley gave a deadline date of 2020 for some specific demonstrable change to have occurred. It looks like being a busy decade around the campuses.
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|Authors: Thomas Putnam is a PhD Candidate within the School of Education at the University of South Australia. His research focuses on gender and class in higher education.|
Judith Gill is an Associate Professor within the School of Education at the University of South Australia. Her research and publications have long focused on issues of equity in educational provision and practice, in particular those concerned with gender. Most recently she has been investigating questions of citizenship education seen in recent work such as Knowing our place, ACER Press 2009 and Globalisation, the nation state and the citizen, Routledge 2010.
Please cite as: Putnam, T. & Gill, J. (2011). The Bradley challenge: A sea change for Australian universities? Issues In Educational Research, 21(2), 176-191. http://www.iier.org.au/iier21/putnam.html