OPINION

Uni admission scams: we're not the US, but it happens here

I feel ever-so-slightly sorry for Olivia Jade Giannulli whose parents, Full House actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were among those charged by the US Justice Department this week with participating in a bribery scheme to get their children admitted to fancy US colleges and universities.

Slightly sorry. This is a young woman, with her sister before her, whose parents allegedly scammed her a spot at one of the top US universities.

Actress Lori Loughlin with daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli in Beverly Hills in February.  Photo: AP

Actress Lori Loughlin with daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli in Beverly Hills in February. Photo: AP

Does it happen in Australia? Not in exactly the same way – but wealthy families do have benefits.

I feel sorry for Olivia Jade because I’m assuming she knew nothing about the scheme. Parents, some parents, love to smooth the way for their children to succeed. Believe me, I know how it feels to want your kids to succeed, although I prefer to nag them where possible. It’s cheaper and more rewarding.

But I’ve always been fascinated by the feudal approach to university admission in the US. For example, students applying to Harvard were five times more likely to be admitted if their family members had attended the school. But now it appears that some believed they needed more than family connections.  US college consultant William Singer pleaded guilty this week to a cheating scheme that included bribing test administrators and college coaches on behalf of these families.

When I read this story I wondered what the equivalent was in Australia – or if there was an equivalent. There is.

Shane Duggan, a postdoctoral researcher at RMIT University, says the path to university is not equal for all Australian students. He’s in the US right now on a visiting fellowship to New York University; and news of the academic scandal is everywhere, feverish.

In Australia, he says, we don’t have the same admissions system as they do in the US. We aren’t as vulnerable to the same problems. But he says there are two key ways in which the path to elite universities is much easier for some than for others.

Duggan has real concerns that some universities avoid the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) and increasingly admit students through other means, including local students as full-fee paying – which means they can avoid some of the more onerous – or perhaps transparent – admission requirements, such as the ATAR. Full-fee places have grown exponentially in medical schools and the Australian government is considering whether it's possible to implement controls on full-fee medical enrolments. In 2017, the last year when figures were available, there were almost 200,000 full-fee-paying students in Australia. That's an increase of about 10 per cent in five years.

“Money does speak in Australia but not quite in the same way,” says Duggan. He says there is also plenty of evidence that elite schools, both private and public, game the system; and he tends to agree.

“Those schools are grooming their students for high-status university degrees at high-status universities,” Duggan says. “We are vulnerable to elite secondary schools, public and private, being able to orient students to particular subject offerings, being able to get students to be strategic about subject choice.”

That means students are channelled subjects that scale well rather than providing genuine choice. Some schools organise timetables to funnel students into the best-performing subjects.

So what’s wrong with that?

Here’s the problem. That training doesn’t necessarily make for a sturdy or resilient learner. As Barbara Preston, an independent education researcher, wrote for The Conversation: “State school graduates do better at university than private school graduates with the same end-of-school tertiary entrance score.”

Today she says being spoon-fed and coddled is not the best preparation for university.

Together, this grooming of students and paying full fees really advantages the already advantaged. They play on the fact that one group of students has better access to information regarding university pathways than the other group.

There is one other way in which money speaks. For years, the percentage of private school students awarded special provisions in the NSW Higher School certificate has been far higher than for students enrolled in public schools. An ombudsman’s report in 2013 found that the processes for dealing with applications were rigorous and didn’t favour one sector over another.

The problem is not in the application process but in the fact that some schools don’t even have access to the support that their students need to apply and then to be successful in that application. It won’t be an equal playing field until we can improve access to that support across all schools and students in Australia.

And the disadvantage gets replicated from generation to generation. Claire Brown, national director of AVID at Victoria University and a researcher in higher education, believes we are kidding ourselves if we don’t recognise the advantages that children of wealth get, above and beyond the actual wealth.

She cites examples of children of the wealthy and powerful who get scholarships to various institutions as an example of the way the system goes badly wrong.

“You would have to be sticking your head in the sand to think it doesn’t happen here in some form or another,” she says. “You can only be in the club if you come from the club.”

Those clubs might not be as explicit as they are in the US, but they do as much damage. We need to give the best people opportunities, not the wealthiest.

Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.

This story Uni admission scams: we're not the US, but it happens here first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.