Demand for university places among high school graduates in Australia has plateaued after three years of strong growth, suggesting that key participation targets may prove to be unachievable.
Only 1,400 more school leavers applied for spots on university campuses this year than in 2012, an increase of just 0.6 per cent. Western Australia registered a drop in applications of 2.6 per cent, while Tasmania heralded a 7.9 per cent increase in applications.
And, while the government will be able to trumpet a 1.9 per cent increase in the number of financially disadvantaged students applying for university, it represents just 820 more applications than last year; besides, many of them are unlikely to get an offer due to a strong correlation between wealth and school performance.
"These figures show stagnation in demand," said Trevor Gale, chair in education policy and social justice at Deakin University.
"The percentage increase in low socioeconomic status students applying for university is really by default and reflects a saturation in mid- and high socioeconomic applications."
In 2009, the government set two participation targets that are central to its higher education policy: that 40 per cent of young people should hold a degree by 2025, and the proportion of financially disadvantaged people with a degree should increase to 20 per cent by 2020, up from 16 per cent, where it had hovered for years.
To achieve these targets, the government funds a place for every student who "qualifies." As a result, school leavers with Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks below 50 have flocked into some institutions and courses. Critics say this puts the quality of education at risk.
Gale said that to meet the first target universities needed to enroll an additional 25,000 students each year to 2025. "Even if they offered a place to every single student who applied this year, they still wouldn't make up the numbers." Preliminary data published by the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education also shows that rural and regional students are staying away from university in droves.
While 21.5 per cent of applications were from regional and remote areas, this was well below the 27.9 per cent share of the population.
However, applications from indigenous Australians increased by a healthy 4.2 per cent -- or 100 more applications than last year.
A spokeswoman for the tertiary education minister, Chris Evans, said the statistical information was only preliminary.
"It is based entirely on students that apply to Tertiary Admission Centres -- it does not include applications made direct to universities. The numbers are not reflective of all applications," she said.