Research evidence of issues facing disadvantaged students in higher education

The issues facing disadvantaged students wanting a tertiary education are multi-faceted. Just getting into a course at university can be difficult, then there are many hurdles students will face before they actually complete their degree.

This is why funding of over $1 million was made available by The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) during 2014 and 2015 for research projects at Australian universities and other research organisations to investigate aspects of student equity in higher education.

The competitive research grants program was designed to further investigate the impact higher education policy has on marginalised and disadvantaged students and how we could improve participation and success. The NCSEHE publication ‘Informing Policy and Practice’ highlights the outcomes of the first 12 research reports.

Each report addresses different, but related, aspects of higher education student equity. They all bring evidence-based investigation to the consideration of policy and practice. This research highlights the complexity of the issues the researchers are attempting to unravel, and that simple statements arising from analysis need to be carefully considered.

The results confirm that more needs to be done to ensure that capable people are not prevented from accessing and completing higher education.

Higher education confers significant individual benefits in terms of personal development, career opportunities and lifetime learning. Higher education is also the key to the social well-being and economic prosperity of Australia. Providing access to higher levels of education to people from all backgrounds enhances social inclusion and reduces social and economic disadvantage.

In the interests of individuals and for the nation, higher education equity for all capable people must be seen as an objective of the system.

We know, from our research, that the policy framework needed to achieve the required change for disadvantaged people will not result from a single policy decision or funding program. It is complex and challenging and needs a wide-ranging response.

There are 12 research reports available. They include research across the various equity groups:-

Resilience/Thriving in Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities: An Exploratory Study
by Dr Rahul Ganguly, Dr Charlotte Bronwlow, Dr Jan Du Preez and Dr Coralie Graham (University of Southern Queensland)

Educational outcomes of young Indigenous Australians
by Stephane Mahuteau, Tom Karmel, Kostas Mavromaras and Rong Zhu (National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University)

Are low SES students disadvantaged in the university application process?
by Dr Buly Cardak (La Trobe University), Dr Mark Bowden and Mr John Bahtsevanoglou (Swinburne University of Technology)

Choosing university: The impact of schools and schooling
by Jenny Gore, Kathryn Holmes, Max Smith, Andrew Lyell, Hywel Ellis and Leanne Fray (University of Newcastle)

Do individual background characteristics influence tertiary completion rates?
by Patrick Lim, National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER)

Completing university in a growing sector: is equity an issue?
by Dr Daniel Edwards and Dr Julie McMillan (ACER)

Exploring the experience of being first in family at university
by Associate Professor Sharron King (University of South Australia), Dr Ann Luzeckyj (Flinders University), Associate Professor Ben McCann (University of Adelaide) and Ms Charmaine Graham (University of South Australia)

Secondary School Graduate Preferences for Bachelor Degrees and Institutions
by Trevor Gale (Deakin University), Stephen Parker, Tebeje Molla, Kim Findlay, with Tim Sealey

Best practice bridging: facilitating Indigenous participation through regional dual-sector universities
by Bronwyn Fredericks ( CQUniversity) et al

University access and achievement of people from out-of-home care backgrounds
by Andrew Harvey, Patricia McNamara, Lisa Andrewartha, Michael Luckman (La Trobe University)

Understanding Evaluation for Equity Programs: A guide to effective program evaluation
by Dr Ryan Naylor, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education (University of Melbourne)

Equity groups and predictors of academic success in higher education
by Jill Scevak, Erica Southgate, Mark Rubin, Suzanne Macqueen, Heather Douglas, Paul Williams (University of Newcastle)


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Professor Sue Trinidad – Prior to becoming the Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education’s Director, Sue was Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Humanities at Curtin during 2007-2012. In these roles she provided academic leadership for the five schools and led the Higher Education Equity Participation Program for a large faculty which had many LSES, Indigenous and regional students. Sue is an established scholar in the areas of higher education pedagogy and change management, the use of technology and student learning. Her research covers higher education and leadership, including the use of technology for regional, rural and remote areas to provide equity access to all students regardless of their geographical location. Sue has also been involved in consultancies, research projects and grants both in Australia and internationally, including Australian Research Council and Office for Learning and Teaching funded research. She currently sits as an advisor to the Western Australian Minister of Education on the Regional and Remote Advisory Council (RREAC).  Her teaching, learning and research have been acknowledged by a number of awards including the 2001 Life Membership Award for the Educational Computing Association of Western Australia for her work with teachers, two best research paper awards in 2004 and 2006,  the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence and Innovation in Higher Education in 2010; a Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning 2014; and the PTCWA Outstanding Professional Service Award 2014.

Best pathway to university for disadvantaged students: latest research findings

There are many pathways to higher education these days. I am a member of a national research team that has been examining how well pathways work for disadvantaged students.

In particular we are looking at what are called ‘enabling programs’. These are programs that prepare people for university study, who would otherwise be denied the opportunity to participate.

We looked at how enabling programs compared to the pathway to university through Vocational Education and Training (VET) for disadvantaged students.

We have not yet finished our research, but what we have discovered already has implications for universities, governments and people from disadvantaged backgrounds who aspire to a university education.

What is an ‘enabling program’?

We identified forty-eight enabling programs across twenty-seven universities, ranging in length from four weeks to as long as eighteen months, longer if taken part-time.

These programs shared the following broad characteristics:

  • They were expressly for the purpose of preparing (that is, enabling) a student to undertake a higher education degree course;
  • They were free for domestic students, however some were also provided to other types of students (for example, international students) at a charge;
  • Most had no or minimal pre-requisites for entry, in terms of academic capability or past academic performance.

Enabling programs are generally offered at minimal cost to students because the Australian Government funds them. The relatively low cost is a significant attraction for disadvantaged students.

Enabling programs are not exclusive to, but enrol disproportionately from, groups of disadvantaged students. This is in line with their fundamental aim.

Disadvantaged students are defined by the Australian government as those who fit one of more of these categories:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • People from low socio-economic status (low SES) backgrounds
  • People from regional and remote areas
  • People with disabilities
  • People from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) and/or
  • Women enrolled in non-traditional areas of study.

How enabling programs compare

Disadvantaged students who get into university via an enabling program generally experience better first-year retention rates than those using other pathways. This is a very important finding, as completing first year is a generally good predictor of likely future success in university studies.

Disadvantaged students who came to university through the enabling programs expressed greater satisfaction with the experience than those coming through VET. However, this finding can partly be explained by the fact that, unsurprisingly, most VET students undertook the VET qualification for its own benefits and not as a pathway to university studies.

Students from low SES students, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, regional and remote students and NESB students who get into university via an enabling program experience better first-year retention rates than both the same type of equity group students who get in via a VET qualification and the same type of equity students who are in the university student population.

More details will be available as part of the project’s final report.

Enabling programs are not just for mature aged students

There is a common perception that enabling programs are for mature age people returning to study. However, our data shows the programs are popular across age ranges. In fact that there are more 17-18 year olds than 30-60 year olds enrolled in enabling programs across Australia.

It seems that enabling programs are a popular pathway for school leavers with lower ATARs. Expanding enabling places would therefore likely lead to more under-prepared school leavers choosing a pathway to university, rather than going straight into a Bachelor program. This would directly contribute to reducing university undergraduate attrition.

The potential of enabling programs

We surveyed the perceptions of 981 students who participated in enabling programs and 1230 who participated in VET prior at university. A detailed analysis of their responses is ongoing and will be available as part of the project’s final report.

One student from a low SES background sums up the sentiment on the benefits of completing an enabling program:

“It gave me the confidence I need to even try. I am 41 years old and had left high school when I was in year 10 and from then on had worked full time office based jobs. Due to being a poor student at school I had always thought that university was out of reach for me. However, completing [the enabling program] revealed I had more potential than I ever would have imagined.”

As you can see our findings could have a wide ranging impact, from government policy and funding, through how universities structure and offer enabling programs, to personal decisions made by disadvantaged students.

To register your interest in this project, and to have the final report sent to you upon its completion, please email


DevlinMarcia Devlin is Professor of Learning Enhancement and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. @MarciaDevlin

The research team includes Professor Sue Trinidad and Dr Tim Pitman from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University, Dr Andrew Harvey and Matt Brett from La Trobe University and Dr Jade McKay from Deakin University. The project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training via the Higher Education Participation Programme’s National Priorities Pool, 2014.

Andrew Harvey is presenting a paper Pathways To Higher Education: A Comparison Of Enabling Programs And Vet Pathways at the 2015 AARE conference in Fremantle, Western Australia, this week (with Tim Pitman present to help answer questions).