Matt Brett

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).