Professor Caroline McMillen, Vice-Chancellor and President, The University of Newcastle

30 October 2017

Caroline McMillenOver the past months there has been a concerted focus by universities across Australia to highlight the potential of the Government’s higher education package to derail Australia’s productivity and economic growth agenda. Perhaps understandably, attention has focused on how the double-whammy of efficiency dividends and performance-contingent funding will affect the capacity of universities to develop next generation education programs for the future workforce.

However, one issue quietly slipped under the collective radar: the plan to shake-up enabling programs.

Enabling programs prepare over 22,000 Australian students each year for university study. The majority of these students are from disadvantaged backgrounds and may have been out of formal education for extended periods. While undergraduate places have expanded under the demand-driven system, enabling places have remained capped and are currently funded by the Commonwealth via an enabling loading paid to universities in lieu of student contributions.

The Government’s plan was to keep the cap on the number of enabling places and redistribute them via a competitive tendering system. The Government also proposed to abolish the enabling loading and introduce for the first time a fee of $3,271 for each enabling full-time student.

While the future of the Government’s higher education package remains uncertain without key crossbench support, here’s why this measure alone would have targeted the most vulnerable students.

The pathways of enabling students into and through higher education can be fraught with challenges, whether they are young people whose education has been interrupted by family trauma, mums and dads seeking a step up in the workforce to support their family, or regional students who are the first in their family to consider university.

Evidence from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education shows that students enrolled in enabling programs are more likely to be a member of a recognised equity group than any other sub-bachelor pathway. Furthermore, even with the deferral of an up-front payment through the HELP scheme, a ‘fee’ of over $3,200 has to be considered against the financial pressures of work, family and study facing many of these students. These are the very students, however, for whom a university credential will have the most transformative impact.

At University of Newcastle (UON), we have a track record of success in delivering enabling education programs that spans more than 40 years. Around 13 per cent of the country’s total Commonwealth-funded enabling students currently study at UON, and 85 per cent of those completing UON enabling programs enrol in higher education.

Universities such as UON also have plenty of ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to enabling programs. In line with our equity mission, UON has always offered our enabling programs free to anyone who wishes to access them, regardless of their prior educational experience or financial background. Each year, 20 per cent of UON’s undergraduate commencing students come to university via an enabling pathway. This proportion is even higher at regional locations such as the Central Coast in NSW, where around 25 per cent of students at UON in 2016 were supported to enter university through an enabling program.

Enabling pathways are not a ‘back door’ into university or a second-class option. At UON we are committed to both equity and excellence – our expectation is that students who enter university through many different pathways, including enabling programs, will each achieve at the level expected at any world-class university.

For those who might argue (and there are some) that students without a recent secondary education are unlikely to benefit from a first-rate university education, the outcomes tell a different story. Students who enter through our enabling programs graduate as doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, nurses and as other professionals, and have won prestigious scholarships to study at institutions such as Harvard and Cambridge.

Time and time again, these students have told us how the absence of a fee for their enabling program made it possible to take their first steps to university study, and that success in their enabling program was critical to their future confidence at university.

In proposing to expand the demand-driven system to sub-bachelor places, the Government has taken steps toward recognising the need for alternative pathways into university. We welcome ths intention but know that these programs will not meet the needs of all students, particularly those whose academic confidence has dwindled in the period after secondary education as they worked hard to get a foothold in the workforce, raise a family and focus on paying their mortgage and all the other family related expenses. An enabling program acknowledges that academic confidence needs to be built, rather than assumed.

The measure of any world-class university is the positive difference it makes to intergenerational mobility through the impact of education, and to future jobs and productivity through research and innovation. Enabling programs ensure that bright Australians – no matter their background – will not be sidelined in the wake of the economic transition facing our suburbs and regions.

That would be a quiet catastrophe and one, for now, we hope Australia has averted.