We judge our tertiary education systems on how well they support access and how effective they are at helping people to gain qualifications and skills. So better policy design relies on improving our understanding of what discourages people from enrolling, and the obstacles to academic success.
Research just published in New Zealand breaks new ground in this regard. David Earle, a researcher in the country’s Ministry of Education, has analysed participation and success in post-school education across an entire birth cohort. He uses the government's integrated data infrastructure: a dataset that links anonymised data from the multiple agencies managing New Zealand’s education, tax, welfare, migration, employment, health and justice systems.
This dataset contains a mass of information on both individuals and their families. Personal information includes ethnicity, exam grades, truancy records, mental health records, criminal history and whether the person has children. Family information includes socio-economic status, residency history (indicating degree of transience) and parental education, income, occupation and criminal record.
Applying statistical techniques to control for all these variables, Earle has worked out which factors are associated with risk of non-participation or poor achievement in higher education. He also reports on the statistical significance and the explanatory power of each variable in his models.
Unsurprisingly, he finds that the influence of achievement and performance at school dwarfs that of other factors. Among people who attain the university entrance qualification, those with good high school grades are more than twice as likely to enrol at bachelor’s level by age 20 as those with lower grades.
But after controlling for school performance, other factors can still play a part. For instance, people whose parents have a degree are more likely to enter higher education – but they have no greater success in their studies than others with similar school achievement records. Students who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods are less likely to enrol or complete a bachelor’s degree even once other factors are controlled for. People who use mental health services are less likely to advance to higher education, and those who do so are less likely to complete.
Ethnicity also plays a part. Young Māori are less likely than the general population to go on to higher education, and those who do so are less likely to complete, even if they have done well at school. Young people of Pacific ethnicity are just as likely to go on to higher education as other young people with similar school achievement, but they are less likely to complete a degree. Young people of Asian ethnicity are more likely to enter higher education than other young people with similar school performance, but their achievement levels at university are similar.
However, many of the variables tested in the study have no significant influence on participation or success in higher education once school performance is taken into account. These include parental income, truancy and family transience.
Moreover, Earle’s participation models explain only 10 per cent of the variation between individuals in terms of participation in higher education. Regarding success in bachelor’s degrees, they explain 14 per cent of the variation. This means that other factors that are not captured by government agencies, such as motivation and persistence, also have a large effect on participation and performance.
Still, this research is a policy analyst’s El Dorado. It suggests that interventions targeting variables shown to be insignificant should be rejected. For instance, given that parental income wasn’t found to be significant, interventions directed at lifting participation of young people from low-income families by compensating for that low income are not likely to work, given current student support policies – most significantly, income-contingent loans.
On the other hand, the research provides justification for policies that aim to encourage Māori to enter higher education and interventions to support Māori and Pacific young people to succeed in their studies. It also suggests that strengthening school performance is likely to help participation and success in higher education.
Such research provides the best yardstick that countries have to check if policy proposals really do hit their mark.
Roger Smyth recently retired as head of tertiary education policy at New Zealand’s Ministry of Education. He is now an independent consultant and adviser.