Equity in Australian universities: ATAR is the elephant in the room

There are very few things for current and future university students to look forward to following the 2014 budget announcement. It has become quite apparent that university fees are likely to see a sharp rise, and leading economists like HELP system architect Prof. Bruce Chapman have expressed grave concerns about how much debt students look to be saddled with. Furthermore, there has been a lot of concern about how the uncapping of university fees may impact upon the ability of lower SES students to attend university – in particular the Group of Eight universities which are likely to see marked fee hikes.

University attendance in Australia is already heavily skewed toward the upper two SES quartiles, and at the elite Group of Eight universities this situation is at its worst. If you would like to see some data on this, I would encourage you to visit the website of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education; their reports are both highly revealing and deeply troubling.

The existence of the HELP system makes assessing the impact on lower SES students complex. On the one hand, HELP shields students from an upfront cost and thus reduces the entry barrier regardless of fee increases (for those interested in the technicalities look into the economic principle of ‘future discounting’). On the other hand, there are those who feel that debt aversion among those from families with low incomes will see them deciding against attending higher education institutions.

While these arguments are of importance, if we want to be serious about addressing equity issues in Australian universities we really need to talk about the elephant in the room: the ATAR entry system.

The simple truth is that the ATAR system, like almost any exam-based tertiary entrance ranking system, is systematically biased against those from lower SES backgrounds. In fact, one can state fairly confidently that ATAR scores are more informative about the SES background of a student than their academic ability. The figure below is from a couple of years before the introduction of ATAR, but I am fairly confident that the story it tells is still very much true. The relationship between higher SES background and higher tertiary entrance rankings is nothing short of alarming.



Teese, R., Lamb, S., & Duru-Bellat, M. (2007). Structural inequality in Australian education: vertical and lateral stratification of opportunity. In International Studies in Educational Inequality, Theory and Policy. v.2: Inequality in Education Systems. (Vol. 2, pp. 39-61). Netherlands: Springer.

So why do we see this? Well the low-hanging fruit is to do with schools – id est the children of wealthier families can be sent to better resourced schools – but this is not the whole answer. I am actually fairly skeptical of just how much ‘better’ the education provided at expensive private schools is – at least with regard to the scholarly aspect of schooling (you may ask what other aspects there are – look into the sociologist Bourdieu and what he calls the ‘hidden curriculum’). While better resources or smaller class sizes might indeed make a difference, there are plenty of other reasons that a higher SES background might bias one’s tertiary entrance rank upward. Social research has found again and again that the home environment has very important effects on educational outcomes.

So what do children of higher SES families have at home that those of lower SES backgrounds do not? To begin with, children from higher SES backgrounds are more likely to have one or more parents with a university education themselves. This means that there is a higher chance that valuable academic experience and advice is available on-tap in the home. Getting a little more into the sociology of things, there is also a higher chance that university attendance is considered a standard part of the life-path of higher SES families. This means that university attendance is considered absolutely normal or even necessary as a part of the family’s definition of success – one should never underestimate the power of the familial habitus in such things. This is, of course, not to say that lower SES families do not value higher education – this couldn’t be further from the truth – it is simply more likely that they will find a life-path that does not include it more acceptable.

There are also more practical differences between higher and lower SES families that are of relevance to student outcomes. Children from higher SES families are more likely to have access to their own computer, or tablet, or both, and are also likely to have their own internet connection on these. Children from higher SES families are also more likely to have access to a dedicated study space. Should children from higher SES backgrounds find particular subjects difficult, it is more likely that their parents will be able to both locate (via networks of other wealthy and well-educated friends or family) and afford private tutoring services. Importantly, teens from lower SES backgrounds are much more likely to hold down casual or part-time work during their secondary studies which necessarily impacts upon the amount of time they can spend studying.

This overview is by no means exhaustive. The cards are clearly not stacked in favour of students from lower SES backgrounds when it comes to secondary schooling and therefore ATAR performance.

The importance of the above is especially telling when one hears about lower SES students attending expensive private schools, or more wealthy students attending public schools. Katherine Wilson’s recent piece in The Age does a very nice job highlighting just how important SES background is in being successful in private secondary schooling. I will contribute something from my own experience here also. I attended a public secondary school in Western Australia, but came from a family that was of above average income. My father is university educated – as are most of his extended family – and I did not have to work when I was in secondary school, unlike the majority of my friends. I do not feel that it is an accident that I am one of the only one of my peers to have received an extensive university education at quality institutions. I feel that the benefits I experienced at home made a good portion of the difference here.

Getting back to equity in university attendance and worries about increasing difficulty of lower SES students gaining access, it is quite clear that access is already very limited by virtue of the fact that the primary mode of university entry so heavily favours those from wealthy backgrounds. Among the Group of Eight universities where the ATAR bar is set particularly high for entry, it is therefore unsurprising that the portion of lower SES students is frighteningly low. If we really want to address this, we need to focus on fixing the entry system. Or better yet, we need to focus on improving equity in Australian society generally rather than letting the likes of Abbott and Hockey set the socio-economic gradient to grow steeper. Throwing scholarships at lower SES students who make it into university will not solve this problem, as the scholarships do nothing to address the systematic ATAR bias against lower SES students getting in to begin with.

Solutions to this problem will not come easily, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from attempting to find them. After all, isn’t egalitarianism what Australians supposedly value most? The current system clearly reproduces social inequalities, as such addressing it should be something of a priority on the current higher education reformation agenda (yes, I’m looking at you Pyne). There are plenty of alternatives. The ‘Texas Top 10%’ system offers something promising in making sure that university entrance chances are scaled in accordance with the distribution of scores for a given school, therefore effectively buffering against SES differences among schools. Several Australian universities are also offering Associate Degree entry pathways which allow serious students who did not perform a well as they would have liked on the ATAR a chance at entering their chosen high-performance institution on something of a sink-or-swim basis (with some extra support of course – and having taught such courses they usually don’t sink). There are sure to be many other tenable ideas out there also.

Let’s not be complacent on this issue. I think it’s time for a serious public conversation on the lack of equity in Australian universities and its real primary cause.


Why as a researcher in medical science I oppose Hockey’s billions for medical research

We have all heard the mantra: prevention is the best cure.

When it comes to medicine and medical research this is very much true. And it is not perplexing why.

Regular exercise, while admittedly unpleasant for someone as physically indolent as myself, is cheaper and easier to do than develop a new and improved antihypertensive pharmaceutical, and have people take it, and deal with side effects, and so forth. Likewise, eating well is also much more straight forward than developing new treatments for insulin resistance. Any person living in a modern country who has a television can no doubt think of plenty of other examples. Moreover, when it comes to infectious diseases, we can all understand that not catching something in the first place is far superior a choice to catching it and then trying to treat it. Agreed? Okay. I’m not expecting much contest on this. I’m also not expecting much contest on the idea that GPs are an important source of information and advice on how to avoid preventable illnesses by adopting a healthy lifestyle.

So what of those illnesses that we have little if any control over? The cancers, the neurological disorders, and autoimmune disorders for example, that strike when we least expect it and might have relatively little to do with our lifestyle? The best and most cost effective treatment for these is early invervention. By a good old country mile.

The budget launched by smokin’ Joe Hockey tonight included a number of changes to just how much of one’s medical expenses Medicare will cover. Where in the past it was possible to see a bulk-billing doctor for free (admittedly they weren’t always easy to find), all visitors to the doctor will need to make a co-payment of $7. Furthermore, a co-payment of the same amount will also be required for blood tests and the like, which also used to be free. Add to this a hike in pharmaceutical payments, and it is beginning to look less and less likely that old Mrs. Jones, or down-on-his-luck Mr. Smith who was made redundant, will visit the doctor as soon as they feel that something might be amiss. After all, living on a limited income is tough – especially when one has to care for others – and when asked to choose between paying bills that might already be late, and seeing a doctor over what may or may not be a problem, one can understand why they might choose to deal with the more immediately pressing of the issues. Given the circumstances, it is an utterly forgivable choice.

Here’s where things get grim. What if that niggling pain in one’s gut is the beginning of a serious, though treatable if caught early, gastrointestinal condition? What if that dull lower back pain isn’t from lifting up the kids, but is the first sign of a malignancy? What if that odd bout of numbness was a transient ischaemic attack and a more severe stroke is just waiting to happen? What if old Mrs. Jones I mentioned before is taking warfarin and needs regular blood tests to regulate her dosage? Is she likely to keep all of these appointments if she has little spare money? These are all very worrying questions. These are also all situations where early intervention and consistent monitoring is the best option.

With the changes the government has proposed, it is very likely that people with low incomes will wait longer before seeing doctors and those who need regular care will be less likely to comply with treatment plans. People with limited incomes will also be far less likely than those of more ample means to see a doctor for advice on lifestyle changes, like weight loss or quitting smoking. This creates a situation that not only endangers their lives, but can generate more costs. Take the example of the transient ischaemic attack above – some routine tests and an affordable prescription for an anticoagulant may save this person from ever having the stroke. By far this is cheaper than treating a devastating large-scale stroke in hospital. It doesn’t take a team of medical scientists to make this plain.

In something of an attempt to make up for this, or to guilt the Australian public into accepting the changes being made, the government has also offered up billions in medical research funds. Hockey touted these funds as a potential source of cures for illnesses. Any person who has worked in health in Australia (I have worked in community pharmacy for years) knows that those who are most likely to suffer from treatable illnesses in Australia are those with the least monetary means – namely the elderly, the disabled and those trapped by poverty. I think you can see where I am going with this. Again, prevention and early intervention are always better than cures. They have made a crucial error in judgement on this and have given (comparatively little) with the one hand while taking (comparatively much) with the other.

This is why, even though I am a PhD scholar who does all of his research in a medical research facility and likely will build a career in such places, I cannot in good conscience approve of Medicare co-payments being funneled into a medical research fund. If I am serious about the health and well being of human beings, I cannot ignore the clear benefits of a responsible, affordable, accessible and effective preventative healthcare system. Despite the potential benefits to myself, I cannot muster the cognitive dissonance to do this. Now, I am not saying that medical research does not need money – not at all. Medical research and the finding of cures and new treatments is of course a very valuable and worthwhile activity in its correct context. It is also an activity that really does need government funding, as much important research in Australia focuses on illnesses that are unattractive to the bottom-line-oriented mentality of large pharmaceutical companies. Doing it at the cost of sound prevention, early intervention and ongoing treatment practices, however, is just not a sustainable or ethical strategy.


Hindering prevention and early detection with the one hand while helping ‘cure’ oriented research with the other seems a puzzling way to better the health of Australians.