Less than 10% of national undergraduate enrollment at the University of Sydney comes from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, according to a report on state universities commissioned by NSW’s Auditor General last year. This makes USyd’s low SES enrollment rate of just 9% the worst in NSW, closely followed by Macquarie University and UNSW.
The lack of low SES students at USyd is an ongoing problem, with enrollment rates not exceeding 10% since 2006. Indeed, in 2016, low SES students made up only 6% of the undergraduate population. To contextualize this, low SES students represent the lowest income quartile (25%) of the general population.
This figure means that USyd has not met the low SES enrollment target set by the Rudd government in 2010, which states that low SES students should constitute 20% of all undergraduate enrolment.
In response to the report, a University spokesperson noted that there had been “significant improvements” to its E12 scholarship program and outreach initiatives, they acknowledged that there were “more work to be done” to improve the accessibility of the University to low SES students.
According to data from the Department for Education, Skills and Employment (DESE), universities in the Group of Eight (Go8) had some of the lowest proportions of low SES enrolments. Over half of Go8 universities have also failed to break the 10% mark since 2006, including the Australian National University (ANU), University of Melbourne, University of Western Australia (UWA) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW).
While the University of Queensland (UQ), Monash and Adelaide have all achieved higher numbers, they still fall short of the target set by Rudd, with low SES enrollment rates as low as 13% in some years .
Unlike metropolitan universities, many regional campuses exceeded Rudd’s goal. Only two metropolitan institutions in NSW – Newcastle University and Western Sydney University – have reached the 20% target. At 30%, Western Sydney University has achieved the highest low SES enrollment rate in New South Wales and second highest nationally, consistently outperforming all other institutions in the state since 2016.
For Andrew Norton, ANU professor of higher education practice, one of the factors behind the dismal numbers at Australia’s top universities is its postcode. Larger universities are often surrounded by more affluent suburbs, particularly in the nation’s capital, Canberra, where no area of the Australian Capital Territory is categorized as low SES.
Australian students also often stay close to home to save costs, unlike their British and American counterparts.
“Although Group of Eight universities often offer scholarships of all kinds and there is income support for students with rental assistance, they [students] are lobbying for strong social, financial and cultural reasons not to travel to study,” Norton said.
Source: Department for Education, Skills and Jobs, Equity Performance Data (2020). Visualization of data by Honi Let.
Intangible barriers to entry into Go8 institutions, including higher failure rates for low SES students, further compound the problem. Norton attributes this to potentially tougher tagging regimes which disadvantage students who enrolled with lower ATARs.
What do these figures tell us about privilege in the Australian university sector?
The figures confirm that the University of Sydney and its Go8 counterparts continue to fail low SES students by maintaining a culture of exclusivity. Australia’s most renowned and research-intensive universities are, on the whole, united in their elitism.
Identifying the reasons for this persistent failure is as multifaceted a task as the privilege systems that fuel it. However, it is clear that Australia’s elite universities are not serious about breaking down class barriers anytime soon. Indeed, they trade in snobbery.
In 2012, the Go8 opposed lifting the cap on higher education places, saying it would reduce student performance. Although the ATAR is a poor predictor of university performance for many students, the Go8 argued that reducing barriers for students with ATARs below 70 to enter university would threaten education standards. Uncapping enrollment limits ultimately led to an additional 36,720 low-SES enrollments between 2009 and 2014.
A true commitment to addressing inequalities in education would require an accompanying commitment to accepting and supporting students whose grades were affected by academic disadvantage in high school. Selecting only high-performing low-SES students does not constitute a meaningful dedication to the fight against exclusion.
This partly explains why scholarship programs for low SES students at Go8 universities have failed to reduce 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 admission rate had reached 32%, making Sydney as exclusive as Cambridge. This illustrates USyd’s status as an institution focused primarily on the interests of wealthy students, where languid support systems and disproportionate cost of living make the Sydney student experience inaccessible.
SRC education manager Lia Perkins said Honi“The low enrollment at USyd of low-SES students is not surprising given the culture of elitism that USyd fosters.
“As an institution, it prioritizes its reputation, ranking and status among other elite institutions instead of focusing on what should be at the heart of universities: teaching and research. The University thus became unwelcoming and impractical for students without existing privilege.
A culture of elitism can sustain itself. A 2012 study found that working-class students were less socially integrated in college, being less likely to participate in clubs and societies and less likely to feel a sense of belonging in college. The difficulty of participating in university life in elite institutions can exclude low SES students from social support and opportunities to network.
Although Australians often claim to espouse egalitarianism, this philosophy is not particularly evident in the class hierarchies of our education system, where sandstone universities resemble the inequities of Oxbridge or the Ivy Leagues more than we would like to see them. ‘admit.
Kevin Rudd’s 20% goal represented an aspiration—albeit incremental—to universal higher education. Yet, while enrollment rates for low-SES students are not rising at Australia’s most elite institutions more than a decade later, that aspiration sadly remains out of reach.