Growing up in the town of Taree, about a four-hour drive north of Sydney, Kristy Everett assumed she would go to university because she always received good grades in school. But with her university of choice in Sydney, Ms. Everett worried about how she would afford the cost of moving to the city, the most expensive in Australia.
After winning a scholarship at the University of Technology Sydney, Ms. Everett, the first in her immediate family to go to university, is now able to make ends meet while studying for a double degree in design and visual communication and international studies.
Ms. Everett, 18, is one of a growing number of young Australians from regional areas or disadvantaged backgrounds who enrolled in university this year after the government removed a cap on the number of students receiving government subsidies.
The change is part of a plan to increase the number of citizens with higher education qualifications, in order to ensure that Australia has a skilled population able to compete in the global economy.
“Australia needs a more highly educated work force, and we cannot afford not to tap into the talent of regional and disadvantaged students,” the minister for tertiary education, Chris Evans, said in a statement last month. This year, 40,000 students from low socio-economic backgrounds received university offers, a 19 percent increase since 2009, according to government figures.
They represent a significant segment of the additional 150,000 students who received offers this year after the government introduced changes that are expected to lead to a record 770,000 students enrolled in Australian universities by 2015.
The policies are intended to help increase the number of 25-to 34-year-olds who have a bachelor’s degree or above to 40 percent by 2020, from 35 percent last year, and to raise the number of students from low socio-economic backgrounds attending university to 20 percent of undergraduate enrollments, from 16.5 percent in 2010.
The changes, which include financing for additional university places and more financial support for disadvantaged students, are expected to cost the government 38.8 billion Australian dollars, or $39.3 billion, over the next four years.
Marcia Devlin, chairwoman of higher education research at Deakin University, which has campuses around Melbourne, said the changes would mean that the student body would become more diverse than it was in the past.
“Universities have been very exclusive, and now that the cap’s off it’s more inclusive,” she said, adding that additional funds for disadvantaged students were also helping to increase the diversity of the student body.
Gavin Moodie, a higher education policy analyst at RMIT University in Melbourne, said the government’s open-ended commitment to subsidize as many students who wish to enroll and are accepted by universities was in stark contrast with Britain and many U.S. states, which have either capped or cut higher education financing.
He said the Australian government could afford to introduce the policy because of its strong fiscal position and the structure of the country’s student financing system.
“Australia is unusual in separating financing for student living expenses and income support from financing for tuition fees,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Some 98 percent of undergraduate university students receive a government subsidy and an income-contingent loan for tuition fees, but only about a third receive income support for living expenses.”
“So uncapping subsidized places is much less expensive in Australia than in many other countries,” he added.
While the changes have resulted in strong growth in total enrollment, some institutions have grown more than others, while a few have even shrunk, Mr. Moodie said.
“This has resulted in adjustments — some of them painful — for some programs and institutions,” he said. “But over all the result has been very positive.”
Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, which represents the country’s 39 universities, said the increase in enrollment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom may be the first in their families ever to go to university, was particularly welcome.
“This opportunity can have a profound effect on breaking the cycle of disadvantage. It also represents a big step forward for Australia by more fully developing our human capital potential,” she said in a statement. “More students, though, means more pressure on already stretched university budgets and facilities and puts the spotlight on the need to invest adequately in supporting students who are less well prepared for university.”
The National Union of Students echoed Ms. Robinson’s concern.
“The challenge is not only getting more students from a diversity of backgrounds to enroll at university, it is making sure that they are supported while they are at university,” said Donherra Walmsley, the union’s president. “Students need quality student support services, and lower student-staff ratios to ensure that they can successfully complete their degrees.”
The government will provide a further 41.6 million dollars over four years to help universities provide free courses to help prepare students, and to provide pathways for students who would otherwise not be qualified for university. Funds are also being provided to help institutions retain disadvantaged students and help them complete their degrees.
“Our reforms recognize that there will always be students who need additional support to gain entry to university,” Mr. Evans, the higher education minister, said during a speech last month. “That’s why in this year’s budget, the government has increased the amount of loading paid to universities to run enabling courses.”
But Ms. Devlin says she is concerned that lecturers may not be prepared for a more diverse student body. She said that traditionally teachers taught students who came from similar backgrounds to themselves, and that they would need to adapt to ensure they were catering to students from different social and cultural backgrounds.
“It’s a great thing for universities, but teachers are not yet well prepared for it,” she said.
Ms. Devlin said the Group of Eight universities, the country’s top research institutions, had traditionally had a lower proportion of students from low socio-economic backgrounds than universities in regional areas.
Increasing the number of financially disadvantaged students in the most prestigious schools will be challenging, but she said universities had signed agreements with the government stipulating the proportion of poorer students they would enroll.
“I think it will make a difference because funding will be tied to it,” she said. “Because these agreements are in place, universities have to do more than pay lip service to it.”
Ms. Everett, who lives on campus and recently started a part-time job, said her scholarship — 12,500 dollars a year for the duration of her six-year course — meant she could live relatively comfortably in Sydney.
But she realizes that not everyone gets the same opportunity, and thinks more needs to be done to help students who may not live close to universities. She said she knew many people from her hometown who could not afford to move away.
“It’s really important in getting people onto higher education,” she said. “I think for a lot of people they don’t even consider it as an option.”