Australia’s disadvantaged students spurn enabling programmes

As Universities Accord shines a spotlight on equity, new research finds that the most propitious pathway is little trodden

五月 25, 2023
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Disadvantaged Australian students are shunning the university admissions pathway most likely to deliver them good academic results, researchers have found.

Analyses of enrolment data have found that barely one in ten socioeconomically disadvantaged students enters higher education via “enabling” courses designed to help people cultivate academic skills such as researching, paraphrasing, referencing and essay writing.

Yet students who use these programmes have been “consistently found to outperform” their peers admitted to university directly from high school, according to a pair of articles published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.

Enabling programmes were developed to help students from underprivileged backgrounds succeed at university. Co-author Ian Li said their limited use was a “missed opportunity”.

He said students could be unaware of enabling programmes or disinclined to use them, with field of study dominating their deliberations about which courses to pursue. “I don’t think [they] are making really informed decisions across which ones…better prepare them academically and for other aspects of higher education,” he said.

The researchers found that the proportion of students using their high-school marks to access university was in decline. Many were gaining entry on the strength of professional qualifications, vocational training courses, special tertiary admissions tests or portfolios demonstrating their employment and life experience.

But the academic performance of the students admitted through these mechanisms was “generally poorer” than those who entered through secondary education, with enabling courses proving an exception.

“If we’re thinking about alternative pathways as a way of getting students into universities, particularly for those from equity backgrounds, then we need to be encouraging the pathways that lead to greater student success,” said Dr Li, a labour economist at the University of Western Australia.

Enabling courses’ low uptake could also reflect patchy availability, with some institutions receiving little funding to run them. “If something works, then we should look at whether it’s being resourced properly,” Dr Li said.

The researchers analysed government enrolment data covering almost two million Australians who started bachelor’s courses between 2011 and 2019. The team also obtained more granular information on more than 80,000 undergraduates admitted to 16 universities in 2015.

Eight of these universities had recorded data from a plethora of “pathway classifications”, allowing the researchers to drill into the patronage and outcomes of enabling programmes.

The studies have yielded previously unavailable statistics on the experiences of students from under-represented backgrounds, at a time when the Universities Accord has them in its sights. Education minister Jason Clare said that, whereas roughly half of Australians aged in their 30s had university degrees, the proportion was closer to 30 per cent in the western Sydney suburb of his upbringing and far lower again in the bush and indigenous communities.

Asked in parliament whether he planned to freeze the indexation of graduate debts, Mr Clare said he was more focused on diversifying university admissions: “The cost of university degrees is important. The cost of living is important. But the cost of those kids from those communities missing out is important too. This is what we’ve got to fix, and this at its core is what the Universities Accord will be all about.”

The researchers found that, while alternative pathways were increasingly popular with students in all disciplines, growth was “particularly pronounced” in health fields.



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