University of Newcastle Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), Professor Andrew Parfitt, today reaffirmed Newcastle’s support for the nation to reach the target of 20 per cent of university undergraduate enrolments to be students from a low SES background by 2020.

Professor Parfitt’s comments follow recent calls for the target to be dropped on the basis that universities are ‘out of touch’ with the needs and aspirations of potential students.

“Institutions, such as the University of Newcastle, that combine the pursuit of excellence with equitable access to education as a core part of their mission are making a significant difference in participation rates,” said Professor Parfitt.

“Access and performance are linked to opportunity – not social and economic status. At Newcastle our experience is that equity and excellence are mutually inclusive.” 

Comparisons between low SES and other SES students for the University of Newcastle indicate that there is a negligible difference in success, retention and attrition rates and grade point average as a measure of academic performance.

Professor Parfitt said universities played a critical role in increasing social mobility and improving outcomes for low socio-economic status communities.

“The proportion of students from low socio-economic backgrounds enrolled at the University of Newcastle is 27 per cent, significantly higher than the sector average of 16 per cent. Our most recent analysis indicates that there was a 0.3 per cent difference in success rates between our low SES students and those from other backgrounds,” Professor Parfitt said.

“The University of Newcastle was among the first in Australia to introduce enabling programs and today we are the country’s largest provider of these programs. We recognise the challenges faced by many in the community who have left school early, face significant financial hardship or who have never considered the option of attending university.

“Our NewStep and Open Foundation programs provide a strong platform for entry, with nearly 1,400 offers made to graduates of these programs in the main 2013 UAC round. Evidence shows that these students will succeed at the same rate as the rest of our cohort.

“Newcastle has the support in place to help talented and motivated students from all walks of life to gain entry and do well at a university, which is in the top 10 for research performance in Australia. The support we provide to students means that there is no trade-off between equity and excellence.

“Equity and excellence are mutually inclusive as long as students are offered the right preparation and support to succeed.”