Should only 'bright' students gain entry to university?

Who should go to university: Only the select few or all who want to?

This is the question that ran through a Universities Australia conference last month. It is also the question lurking behind the contentious funding and fees debate that has wracked higher education for the past year – and is the issue that will determine how well higher education supports Australia’s future.

Speaking at the conference, a former Australian Productivity Commissioner, Professor Gary Banks, best illustrated the question. He revealed the ambivalence between the economist in him and the romantic academic.

The economist argues human capital theory – the importance of each individual developing their education and skills to the optimum to apply in future work and life. The academic worries about the flood of people on campus, too many of whom do not meet the test of bright minds in pursuit of knowledge.

Banks went further to target one key to the problem: the education achievement of school leavers. If school leavers have the knowledge and skills expected from study through to year 12, then the arguments for open access to university make sense.

If they do not, then the instinctive desire of higher education protectionists has a stronger foundation. They can cloak their exclusionary preference in the garb of applicants’ insufficient education development. The same challenge applies to the large number of non-school leaver applicants.

Protectionist versus open entry

The Opposition Labor Party’s higher education spokesman, Senator Kim Carr, has rarely hidden his support for the protectionist argument. Labor is now at the point of walking away from one of the few unchallenged policies of the former Rudd-Gillard governments and from the essence of earlier Labor government achievements in doubling school retention and expanding universities.

It is the Gillard changes that have seen sustained growth in the number of science and technology students, and slowed growth in law students, despite Carr’s contrary assertion. Student demand is more attuned to employment potential and apparent future demand than the previous allocation system.

Carr’s proposal to create incentives for universities to ensure all those they enrol gain the education they need, neither falling by the wayside nor emerging essentially unskilled, is a useful idea: the initial Gillard package included performance funding measures to do precisely that.

Honing in on the low year 12 scores of university applicants and casting 50 as some sort of pass mark, is not. Professor Peter Shergold, chair of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, rightly focuses on the outcomes that graduates have, not what they knew at entry.

Rose Steele, President of the National Union of Students, highlighted the issue, perhaps inadvertently but instinctively. In expressing her opposition to deregulating fees and allowing universities to charge whatever they liked, she argued that university had to remain open to all ‘bright’ people.

But ‘bright’ is a judgment, although the sense is clear: that school leavers with middle to low [school scores] are not ‘bright’.

All should have university access

The essence of the expansion of universities set in train by former Labor Education Minister John Dawkins in 1989 and followed through by the Bradley report’s demand-driven funding system is that higher education is one additional part of the education pathway all people should have access to.

The judgment of suitability is the gain the individual will get, not whether they are more or less capable than someone else. So let’s think about the schools as Banks argued. During the 1980s, school retention rates to year 12 doubled, from being for the minority 35% of the age cohort in 1980, to being the majority at 77% in 1992, with small fluctuations since.

This doubled the base group of university-eligible students, extending it across all regions. Every concern expressed about widening university access applies to this change in school completion rates.

If twice as many were completing school then surely standards had to fall, schools would struggle to deal with students with a wide range of academic capability and interest, school leavers would be overeducated for the jobs they took, and worst of all more and more people would think they were eligible for university.

Few people now question the value of high levels of year 12 retention and completion. We expect the schools to cope with the wide range of students. We blame them, not the students, for weaknesses in education standards.

School retention rates

The high school retention rates affect the final results. With more than 70% of the school leaver cohort completing year 12, it means that those students are spread by definition across the results scoring range from 99 to less than 30. To determine that 50 is a pass point for university entry is to exclude more than a quarter of year 12 graduates automatically from university.

This system has sense if it is used to determine who, from those suitable, can access a particular course if places are limited – if you accept that priority should go to those initially more capable.

But it has no sensible role in determining who is suitable to go to university. For that you need to consider the skills of the applicant against those deemed needed for the course. School systems have that information, but universities to date largely ignore it.

The regional evidence undermines the argument that university must be selective because some of those year 12 completers are simply not ready for university. There are regions where 90% of the school age cohort completes year 12 and over 60% go on to university; conversely in other areas completion is lower around 60% with 20% to 30% going on to university. I have not seen anyone show that there is that level of difference in academic capability between regions.

Protectionists fight in defence

At heart the protectionists are fighting a rear-guard action to defend universities against the expectation that they be a place of education for all, not just for the bright and the socially well-off. It is a strange argument that says that very high achievers can advance their knowledge only when surrounded by the few others like themselves with exclusive access to the most learned staff. It has never been true of Australian universities.

It is why I disagree that the funding and fee proposals by federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne are “the most radical in decades”. University financing options consume a lot of time, they generate lots of acrimony but ultimately they are about underpinning what the university does. Australia’s HECS system, now called HELP, is a major mechanism to remove financial barriers – but it is a tool not the objective.

The significant change kicked off by former Prime Minister Bob Menzies, intensified by Gough Whitlam and John Dawkins, expanded by Gillard and now open for completion, is to say that higher education is for all – bright, lumbering, rich and poor.

It is what you will gain that matters, not whether you are better or worse than someone else.

Conor King is executive director of the Australian Innovative Research Universities group.


Money should never be a limiting factor in obtaining an eduction. Also only the brightest should be allowed entry to university. If you failed at school, then do a certificate or diploma at TAFE to prove you are now worthy.

Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page

A differentiated education system will allow all citizens to get an education appropriate for their abilities. Not everyone needs a university education but everyone needs some post school education or training.

Penny Orton on the University World News Facebook page