28 SES 11 A, Widening Participation in Higher Education?
Informed by CW Mills’ ‘sociological imagination’ (1959), this paper provides a comparative study of English and Australian higher education student fees. We ask: Given their histories of mutual policy borrowing (Lingard 2010), what are the points of similarity and difference between the English and Australian higher education systems with respect to student fees? Over time, how has Australia balanced competing accounts of higher education fees as a ‘public issue’ or a ‘private trouble’? How does this compare with the balance in England, particularly given recent Labor Party policy on student fees?
University student fees and loans are significant issues in England, particularly given efforts to widen participation among students from under-represented groups. With the trebling of fees in 2012 and the erosion of maintenance grants, English students are graduating with unprecedented levels of debt, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds accruing more than their more privileged peers (Cullinane & Montacute 2017). Although the evidence that higher fees discourages attendance at university is mixed (e.g. Callender & Mason 2017), there is a strong sense of injustice that the cost burden for higher education has become so individualised. This is now keenly felt given that annual tuition fees have risen to £9,250, compounded by maintenance (living allowance) loans, making them “three times higher than the next highest in Europe” (Cullinane & Montacute 2017: 3). In Australia, where the conventional wisdom is that “it is the income-contingent repayment [of university tuition fees] … that protects the access of the relatively poor” (Chapman & Ryan 2005: 507), participation rates among disadvantaged students remain more or less stable and yet at the expense of the non-participation of the lowest 10% of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. These students from disadvantaged backgrounds also accrue higher levels of debt than their more privileged peers making this an issue of social justice and equity as much as it is one of student finance (Gale & Parker 2018). Australia has had a history of broadly equitable income contingent loans that followed a period of free HE. However, as with England, in recent years there has been an increasing emphasis on HE as a private good and a concomitant increase in the fees payable by graduates (Gale & Parker, 2018).
In this paper we provide a sociology of widening participation in Australian higher education (HE) explored through the prism of student fees, particularly from 1974 when fees were abolished but more substantially from 1989 when they were re-introduced. Of specific interest is the impact of student fees on the equity of access to HE (i.e. the proportional representation of ‘equity’ groups; Martin, 1994), particularly for students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds. We draw attention to the absence of a sociological imagination in much Australian Government policy, which falsely separates the personal troubles of individuals (e.g. in financing access to HE) from the public issues of societies (e.g. in universalising HE), with a tendency to ascribe responsibility for student fees to the former over the latter. In these terms, we characterise responsibility for widening participation in Australian HE – specifically the role that student fees have played in this – as fluctuating from personal trouble to public issue and back again.
The paper draws on a range of historical and contemporary government and institutional policy documents as its main source of analysis. Data are generated through content and discourse analysis (Fairclough 2003). Particular attention is paid to those documents that emphasise the rationale for changes in arrangements in student finance that place greater or lesser importance on the financial contributions of both students and government. These documents are also analysed in terms of equity and social justice – for example, do changes in policy benefit some groups in society over others? – and the implications for widening participation.
The paper provides a sociological account of the contours of student fees in Australian and England in terms of ‘public issues’ and ‘private troubles’, drawing CW Mills’ account of these terms. This account includes a mapping of the shifting balance between public and private, arguing that the absence of a sociological imagination among policy makers results in a skewing in favour of the private to the benefit of some and the disadvantage of others, and the implications for widening participation policies. The paper provides points of comparison and contrast between Australia and England as both countries seek to impose increased fees and shift responsibility for higher education on students.
Callender, C., & Mason, G. (2017). Does Student Loan Debt Deter Higher Education Participation? New Evidence from England. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 671(1), 20-48. Chapman, B., & Ryan, C. (2005). The access implications of income-contingent charges for higher education: Lessons from Australia. Economics of Education Review, 24(5), 491–512. Cullinane, C., & Montacute, R. (2017). Fairer Fees: Reforming student finance to increase fairness and widen access. London: Sutton Trust. Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. New York: Routledge. Gale, T., & Parker, S. (2018). Student Tuition Fees in Australian Higher Education: a litany of public issues and personal troubles. In S. Riddell, E. Weedon, S. Minty & S. Whittaker (Eds.), Higher Education, Access and Funding: The UK in International Perspective. Emerald. Lingard, B. (2010). Policy borrowing, policy learning: testing times in Australian schooling. Critical Studies in Education, 51(2), 129-147. Martin, L. (1994). Equity and general performance indicators in higher education. Canberra, Australia: Australian Government Publishing Service. Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
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