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Nelson's higher education changes act to block the path out of poverty

By Andrew McCallum - posted Wednesday, 4 June 2003

For those Australians from poor backgrounds who can get into higher education, having a university degree is an almost guaranteed way of escaping poverty.

But unfortunately, the government's recently announced higher education package is likely to close the door on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The benefits of a university education are that it significantly improves the employment and earnings prospects of graduates. For example:

  • Unemployment is four times higher among people who have not completed secondary school compared to those with a bachelor degree.
  • Tertiary qualifications boost earnings by around 40 per cent while completing Year 12 or a TAFE qualification raises earnings by around 10 per cent.

The problem is that young people from low-income families as well as many from rural families are much less likely to aspire to a university education and obtain the benefits it provides.

Recent studies show Australians from low-income families are 50 per cent less likely to participate in higher education and rural Australians are 40 per cent less likely to go on to higher education.
Barriers to poorer students attending university are most apparent at some of the more elite universities.

The average level of enrolment of low-income students is 15 per cent across all universities, yet at ANU it is only 3.9 per cent, at the University of Sydney it is 6.3 per cent, and at the University of Melbourne it is 7.3 per cent.

Students from low-income families and also those from rural backgrounds perceive a broad range of barriers: costs of attendance, university fees, academic attainment, parental support, greater relevance of TAFE courses.

They also often have a desire to earn an income on leaving school to support themselves and their families.


Many of their families have a culture of debt-aversion - in contrast to the relatively comfortable attitude that middle and high-income families have to taking on large mortgages and loans.

While there has been little change in the under-representation of students from low-income and rural backgrounds in the past ten years, the situation is very likely to worsen under the government's proposals for a number of reasons.

With two forms of university entry - one through merit selection and the other through full-fees - we are likely to see a lower proportion of low-income students, especially at the elite universities.

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About the Author

Andrew McCallum is president of the Australian Council of Social Services.

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