Ian Li

What we now know about the other ways to get into university

How do under-represented individuals use alternative pathways to university, and does this lead to student success?

Participation in higher education is on the rise worldwide. This has meant more support for some who traditionally did not attend higher education. One way that has helped has been introducing new pathways to enter higher education, other than the traditional route from secondary education. These pathways include students entering using a VET qualification, or transferring in from another higher education course. They could enter via an enabling program, where students complete a study program before their course, covering important academic skills, such as referencing.  Another route, often used by international students, is undertaking a Diploma with a pathway provider then transitioning into the second year of a degree course. There are other ways to enter, such as portfolio pathways where students access university based on accrued skills, knowledge and experience, or a professional qualification.  These can be popular with mature-age students. There are also access schemes for under-represented groups, such as regional/remote or Indigenous students, and mature-age entry provision which involves completing the Special Tertiary Admissions Test (STAT). 

Not much is known about alternative entry pathways into university. For example, we don’t know how many students have entered through these different routes over time, and how well used the pathways are by under-represented individuals. Also, we don’t know whether those entering via these different pathways do as well academically as those who enter via secondary education.

The study design

Our study focused on seven groups of under-represented students. These were: i) Indigenous students; ii) students with disability; iii) students from a low socioeconomic (SES) background; iv) students from regional and remote areas; v) students from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB); vi) women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses; and vii) mature age students (those aged 25 years and above).

We used a combination of data sources to look into these: i) administrative data on entry pathways from the Higher Education Student Data Collection, sourced from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, and linked data from unit records of Bachelor degree domestic students and the Student Experience Survey provided by the data offices of 16 participating universities in Australia.

Trends in alternative pathways

Secondary education was the dominant pathway at the start of our data series in 2011, with just over half of university students in Australia entering this way. Over the course of the next nine years, however, enrolment via the secondary education gradually declined to 45% in 2019. Contrary to this, higher education course transfers and VET/TAFE award completions gained popularity, increasing from 22% to 24% (higher education courses) and 12% to 13% (VET/TAFE courses) from 2011 to 2019. The group of ‘other’ pathways (pathway providers, enabling programs, access schemes, portfolio entry) increased the most over this time period, from 9% in 2011 to 14% in 2019. Interestingly, the use of mature-age entry provision halved from 6% to 3%, while the use of professional qualification to access university remained stagnant at around half a percent.

Alternative pathways were important to under-represented groups trying to access university. In fact, over half of all under-represented groups accessed university via alternative pathways. More than three-quarters of Indigenous students and nine out of ten mature-age students came through alternative routes. The use of alternative pathways by under-represented groups rose between 2011 and 2019. For example, for students of low SES backgrounds, this rose from 56% in 2011 to 62% in 2019, and for regional and remote students, this rose from 60% to 52% over the same period. We did find that Indigenous students’ use of alternative entry pathways fell from 79% to 75%, perhaps reflecting improvements in school achievement over the ten years. Alternative entry still remains, however, the most popular way for Indigenous students to enter university.

Student outcomes by university entry pathway

When we compared the academic performance of students from the various alternatives pathways to students coming directly from secondary education, we found some interesting results. Generally, students from alternative pathways had poorer academic outcomes. They were less likely to stay on after their full first-year of university study, or complete their course than those entering directly from secondary education. Students that performed the worst came through the VET and mature-age entry pathways, being the least likely to complete their course  compared to students from secondary education. Interestingly, students from pathway providers or enabling programs actually had stronger rates of retention and completion than secondary school entrants.

We also looked at the marks that students from different pathways achieved, in their first year and over their whole course. We found similar results to retention and course completion: those entering from VET and mature-age entry provisions achieved poorer academic results over their course, although less so in their first year.

What does this all mean?

Our study highlighted how entry pathway can make a difference to how well students do at university, both in terms of the marks they achieve, and whether they complete their course. Some alternative entry pathways – namely enabling programs and pathway providers – did well compared to the traditional way of entering university, via secondary education. Others, notably VET qualification and mature-age entry provision (including STAT), didn’t fare well against secondary education entry. Given alternative entry pathways are on the rise, and this growth is unlikely to slow given the ongoing push for widening participation, higher education institutions need to think seriously about how to better support students coming in through these diverse routes. Furthermore, students from under-represented groups (or ‘equity’ groups) are highly represented in alternative entry pathways, further bolstering the need for support.

Additional academic support may help alternative entrants to achieve better marks, particularly mature-age students and those coming from VET, both perhaps building practical experience and lacking exposure to academic skill development. Strategies to increase alternative entrants’ sense of belonging in higher education may assist with retention, and clearly this needs to extend beyond the first year of study. Given their positive results, strategies to expand enabling programs and upscale entry through extending current and building new pathway partnerships appear sensible strategies to widen participation.   

Ian Li is an economist based at the School of Population and Global Health, The University of Western Australia. He is interested in applied fields of health and labour economics, particularly on research on the determinants of well-being, economic evaluation of healthcare, graduate outcomes and higher education policy equity. Ian is a member of the UWA Academic Board, the Equity and Participation Working Group, and director of the Public Health undergraduate major. He is an editorial board member of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management and a co-editor of the Australian Journal of Labour Economics.

Denise Jackson is the director of Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) in the ECU School of Business and Law and researches student employability and career prospects through embedding meaningful work-based learning and industry and community engagement into the curriculum, as well as providing access to a range of employability-related activities. She sits on the National Board for the Australian Collaborative Education Network, the professional association for WIL in Australia, and maintains close links with industry through research projects, the WIL program and networking. She is also a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

We struggled to make university more equal. Has that battle for equality worked now?

Australian education policy has really focussed on getting  ‘equity groups into university and then onto completion with initiatives designed to improve access and participation.

That worked. 

Recent data indicate that there has been growth in the university enrolment of these equity groups in the past ten years. Published studies have also found evidence for comparable employment outcomes for university graduates from equity groups shortly after degree completion with favourable employment outcomes sustained at three years after graduation.

But what happens next and why does it matter?

Education drives social mobility and levels the playing field for those with  disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our study looked at postgraduate study outcomes in tandem with employment for graduates from equity groups in Australia. We found graduates from equity groups are afforded the same, if not better, opportunities to engage in further study after the completion of their bachelor qualification. 

But we also discovered  graduates from some equity groups, namely those from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, with a disability, or from non-English speaking backgrounds experience weaker employment outcomes including being in full-time employment and salaries. 

Why is postgraduate study an outcome of importance? 

The opportunity to engage in postgraduate study is an important outcome in its own right, especially from an equity perspective. University degree attainment is influential on social mobility and associated with higher earnings over a lifetime, with higher earnings found for those with postgraduate qualifications. Globally, bachelor degree attainment has been growing and arguably, postgraduate degree attainment is increasingly needed to gain a competitive edge in the workplace, and to provide greater opportunities for leadership roles. Moving beyond benefits at the individual level, there are also persuasive reasons for encouraging a diverse postgraduate student base. Encouraging diversity in postgraduate education will flow on to diversity in a nation’s leaders, educators of future generations and other important influencers of a country’s future. 

Furthermore, finances are one of the greatest barriers to participation in higher education. Direct costs such as tuition fees are substantial, but are dwarfed by the opportunity cost of study – the missed earnings from time spent away from the workforce and in study. These costs are exacerbated for postgraduate degree study. It has been argued that social inequalities extend beyond first degrees into unequal graduate outcomes, including postgraduate degree attainment and occupational class. 

Postgraduate study and work outcomes 

Our study used data on over 40,000 Australian graduates sourced from the national Graduate Outcomes Survey, linked to data from 19 universities in Australia to examine work and further study for bachelor degree graduates. We considered employment and further postgraduate study outcomes for six equity groups: low socioeconomic status; with a disability; Indigenous; non-English speaking background; from regional and remote locations; and women in non-Traditional areas of study. We found that graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with a disability, and from non-English speaking backgrounds experienced lower rates of employment, particularly those from non-English speaking backgrounds whose prospects of being employed after degree completion lagged far behind those from English speaking backgrounds. Conversely, graduates from regional and remote areas had superior prospects of being employed. 

Further study opportunity, however, were positive for all equity groups, except those from regional and remote areas. We found, however, that equity group graduates tended to be engaged in study of another bachelor qualification, and did not have comparatively higher rates of study in a postgraduate qualification. The one notable exception here was for women in STEM fields, who had markedly higher rates of further postgraduate research study. 

We also examined the outcome of full-time employment for equity group graduates. Once again, the same groups of graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with a disability, and from non-English speaking backgrounds were found to be less likely to secure full-time employment. Separate analyses of hourly wages showed that these exact same groups also experienced weaker earnings.

What does these all mean? 

The comparable or slightly favourable employment outcomes for three of the equity groups (regional or remote areas, Indigenous, women in STEM) are encouraging and suggest that higher education policy for these groups are achieving their intended purposes. However, given the weaker employment and earning outcomes for the other three groups (low socioeconomic status, with disability, non-English speaking background), there is still work to be done. Our study was not able to pinpoint the reasons for the weaker employment outcomes due to the nature of the data, but previous studies have noted the lack of social capital and/or labour market discrimination for these groups, and these might require policy intervention and development. 

The finding that equity group graduates are more likely to be engaged in further study after their degree completion is interesting, but there remains some issues of concern. Firstly, a higher proportion of equity group graduates are engaging in further study at the bachelor degree level. This potentially limits any advantage that can be gained from further study and time further spent out of the workforce. Secondly, and related to the first point, it is possible that graduates from equity groups feel that they require further study to gain an edge in the labour market. It also raises questions on whether these graduates felt that their first degree did not adequately prepare them for work, and possibly concerns that they felt further investment in study is required to overcome labour market discrimination or other barriers. These important considerations will hopefully be the subject of future studies and action. 

Ian Li is an economist based at the School of Population and Global Health, The University of Western Australia. He is interested in applied fields of health and labour economics, particularly on research on the determinants of well-being, economic evaluation of healthcare, graduate outcomes and higher education policy equity. Ian is a member of the UWA Academic Board, the Equity and Participation Working Group, and director of the Public Health undergraduate major. He is an editorial board member of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management and a co-editor of the Australian Journal of Labour Economics.