Trevor Gale

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.

Students with low ATARs from wealthier families first to gain from Pyne’s reforms

We are being misled about a key plank of Christopher Pyne’s higher education reforms and, until now, the issue has received little public attention. The idea to allow private providers of higher education, including TAFEs, to access commonwealth supported places was sold to us as a way to give more low SES students access to higher education.

The logic goes like this: low SES students are over represented in vocational education institutions and so they are the most likely group to benefit from these institutions offering higher education (i.e. sub-degrees and bachelor degrees) and pathways to higher education; if TAFEs and private providers are given access to higher education funding through commonwealth supported places (CSPs) there will be more access to higher education for low SES students.

Recent research shows this logic is faulty. A 2014 research project funded by the now defunct National VET Equity Advisory Council (NVEAC) shows non-university degrees, including associate and bachelor degrees, offered by private providers and TAFEs, are not, as might be assumed, dominated by low SES students. In fact, they are dominated by high SES students.

It’s not that low SES students would like to get into these degrees but can’t, out-muscled by their high ATAR, high SES peers. Instead, if low SES students want a sub-degree or a bachelor degree, they prefer to get it from a university.

Recent research commissioned by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) shows students from high SES backgrounds dominate student preferences for TAFE degrees. It also shows these high SES students have low Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranks (ATARs), at levels on a par with and sometimes below the ATARs of low SES students enrolled in universities, about which the media and the sector seem to be in a panic.

Which brings me to last year’s Kemp-Norton report Review of the Demand Driven Funding System. One of its many findings is that “Low socio-economic status students would benefit from increased access to sub-bachelor courses”.  However I can’t find the evidence base for this finding anywhere in the review, and it appears neither can Andrew Norton, one of the review’s authors.  See our recent exchange on Twitter

At best, then, to say that low SES students will benefit from being channelled into sub-degree programs offered by TAFEs and private providers is conjecture, a ‘leap of faith’. And in a context where politicians and education leaders bleat about the need for policy to be informed by evidence, by which they mean statistical or ‘hard’ data, the Kemp-Norton ‘finding’ in the absence of such evidence looks more like politics than good research.

The politics of making commonwealth supported places available to TAFEs and private providers of higher education can go two ways, both with more apparent benefit for high SES students:-

In the short term, it is high SES students currently dominating enrolments in TAFE and private provider sub-degrees and bachelor degrees who will benefit from these institutions accessing CSP funding.

And in the longer term, when TAFEs become the government’s ‘preferred’ provider of higher education for low SES students, as Further Education Colleges are in the UK, high SES students will benefit from the increased status of a higher education gained at a university, particularly high SES students with low ATARs.

And while this is going on, commonwealth support place funding for higher education will be redirected from universities to private providers listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.


Trevor GaleTrevor Gale is Professor of Education Policy and Social Justice at Deakin University, and a past president of the Australian Association for Research in Education. From 2008 to 2011 he was the founding director of Australia’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. He is chief investigator on two current Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grants, one researching the social justice dispositions of secondary teachers in advantaged and disadvantaged Melbourne and Brisbane schools, and the other researching the aspirations of secondary school students in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

Pyne’s proposed changes to higher education will polarize institutions and students

It is good news for many of us involved in higher education that the radical changes to higher education proposed by Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, might not make it through parliament without amendments. But not everyone opposes his plans.

Vice-chancellors of several Australian universities seem to like the idea of fee deregulation. It would mean they could charge higher fees, particularly for high demand courses and particularly in high status institutions, such as The University of Sydney and The University of Melbourne.

There are some wild predictions of increased quality, but the real reason for the support is that our universities are grossly underfunded – the legacy of the Howard years of below OECD funding levels. Those around for the post-Howard after-party will recall vice-chancellors laying bare the higher education funding crisis in the lead up to the 2009 budget. To the surprise of most, the new Labor government kept its word and increased funding, although not at levels universities needed and later it even took some funding back.

Some might find abhorrent the latest escalation of market ideology but the reality is that governments are retreating from public investment in higher education. VCs have been placed in an invidious position, to keep the system operating at or above world standard but without the resources they need to do it.

As Melbourne VC Glyn Davis says:

‘We need more money and governments won’t give it to us’.

However the Federal Government likes  the idea of fee deregulation and a “demand driven” funding system because it fits with its strategy of devolving responsibility for public services while retaining control. And it fits nicely with the recent Commission of Audit to increase student fees.

The idea of fee deregulation is one of the many recommendations made by the Kemp and Norton Review, instigated by Christopher Pyne, to look at, and make recommendations, in relation to the lifting (in 2012) of previously imposed limits on the funding of bachelor-degree students at public universities. The full review can be found here.

Another of the Review’s findings that seems to be popular is that low SES students would benefit from accessing sub-bachelor degrees (Diplomas, Advanced Diplomas and Associate Degrees) because it will provide another pathway into higher education. Even the revamped National Centre for Student Equity likes that one.

But where is the evidence that we need another pathway?

Students from low SES backgrounds are accessing bachelor degrees in universities in record numbers and continue to be retained at rates similar to their peers. Redirecting them to sub-degrees will increase the time and money they need to invest in order to get to the same destinations, further penalizing them for their disadvantage.

Kim Carr, Labor shadow minister, warns that with the removal of price control, elite universities will increase degree fees, and thus (because of debt burden fears) the poor will opt for sub-degree courses in second-rate higher education institutions.

Universities Australia Executive Officer Belinda Robinson says that any changes to higher education should be debated and be evidence based. She also questions the legitimacy of governments giving money to private higher education providers listed on the stock market.

Weighing into the debate, Chief Scientist Ian Chubb says that Review claims about the employment shortages for science graduates are not supported by the data.

Staff and student unions point out that Australian university students are already paying high fees by world standards and any rise will leave them heavy in debt.

And if the National VET Equity Advisory Council hadn’t recently been disbanded by the government, it would have tabled its recent research evidence that private higher education providers, including TAFEs offering degrees and associate degrees, have a poor equity record in higher education. As a ‘pathway’, their retention rates for equity groups are particularly shocking.

The bottom line is the combination of raising student fees and redirecting low SES students into sub-degrees will mean students from disadvantaged families will be relegated to low status institutions and degrees, if they are able to get a higher education at all.

No wonder the Review recommends ditching the attainment and participation targets. I’m pyne-ing already for the old days.

Trevor GaleTrevor Gale is Professor of Education Policy and Social Justice at Deakin University, and a past president of the Australian Association for Research in Education. From 2008 to 2011 he was the founding director of Australia’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. He is chief investigator on two current Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grants, one researching the social justice dispositions of secondary teachers in advantaged and disadvantaged Melbourne and Brisbane schools, and the other researching the aspirations of secondary school students in Melbourne’s western suburbs. He has recently completed research for the National VET Equity Advisory Council on the equity track record of private higher education providers.