Bridges to Higher Education Bridges to Higher Education

Why does Widening Participation matter?

Despite an overall expansion of the Australian higher education sector during the last decade, and greater access to further education, students from low socio-economic backgrounds continue to be under-represented in Australian tertiary institutions.

In 2008, both the Bradley Review and the Participation and Equity Review made a series of recommendations to address the barriers to higher education faced by students from low socio-economic backgrounds. In response to the Bradley Review, in 2009 the Australian Government set a number of concrete objectives for higher education, including: increasing the number of individuals aged 25-34 who have a university qualification to 40 per cent by 2025; and improving the participation of students from low socio-economic backgrounds in higher education to 20 percent of all undergraduate students by 2020.

A 2014 study found that socio economic background remains a major influence on school performance, and in terms of relative outcomes there is little evidence of an increase in intergenerational mobility since the 1970's (Redmond, Wong, Bradbury, Kats, 2014). This combined with research which suggests that socio economic background and educational disadvantage impact on access to higher education, have led to initiatives at a state and federal level to address inequitable access to higher education and poor educational outcomes which cover both the school and university sectors.

Widening participation (WP) is defined by Kennedy (1997:15) as 'increasing access to learning and providing opportunities for success and progression to a much wider cross section of the population than now'. 

The objective of WP within universities is to encourage people from families identified as constituents of targeted equity groups to enter into higher education via enrolment in tertiary education programs of study. The Australian equity framework (Commonwealth of Australia, 1990) identified these target groups as:

  • People from low SES backgrounds;
  • People from regional and remote areas;
  • People with a disability;
  • People from non-English speaking backgrounds;
  • Women in non-traditional areas of study and higher education; and
  • Indigenous people 

This emphasises the importance of widening participation programs as essential to ensure that those students with the ability to study at tertiary level are given the access, support and encouragement to do so (Beckley, Netherton & Singh, 2015).

Barriers to higher education

It has been well documented over recent years that the future productivity of our national economy is dependent on the education and skills of our workforce. Education is at the heart of developing a flexible and resilient workforce, capable to adapting to the significant and, yet unknown, changes required to take the national into the 'Asian century' as a leader amongst developed countries.

Publications including the White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century (Australian Government 2012), the Review of Australian Higher Education (the Bradley Review for the Australian Government 2008), the Review of Tertiary Pathways (NSW Government 2012) and University of the Future (Ernst and Young 2012) have drawn parallel outcomes required for the future. These publications highlight the stagnation of investment in tertiary education, setting Australia behind other developed nations which have invested and driven expansion over recent years and more than trebled from 8% to 25.9% since 2000; likely to double again in the next 10-15 years (Ernst and Young 2012). Australia has however benefited from strong international student recruitment with international students enrolments generating $15 billion for the Australian economy in 2011, making education Australia's fourth largest export industry (White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century, 2012).

Current trends in educational performance

Domestic student enrolments have increased steadily since the move to a demand driven higher education system in 2010. The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released on 29 November 2012 show that almost 37% of 25-34 year olds have degrees, up from 35% last year and less than 25% a decade ago. This is projected to continue to rise as a result of the demand driven system, which has the potential to move well towards the 40% target established by the Federal Government in 2009 following recommendations from the Bradley Review.

Similarly the NSW Government Review of Tertiary Pathways reported a steady rise in the education levels of the NSW working age population, with 57.9% of the NSW population aged 15-64 years holding a non-school qualification in 2011, compared to the national figure of 56.5%; representing an increase in NSW of 3.2 percentage points between 2006 and 2011.

While this progression towards targets is favourable in terms of supporting the economy's need for a highly skilled workforce there is still a long way to go. Work conducted by Access Economics in 2008 to support the Bradley Review identified that over the next decade the demand for people with higher education qualification will outstrip supply. To give some idea of orders of magnitude, in 2018, for example, it is estimated that there will be a shortfall of about 22,000 people with undergraduate qualifications.

Addressing this shortfall is not simply the concern of universities. The responsibility stretches across the education spectrum. The White Paper highlights that 'while many Australian schools currently perform well, as measured by PISA, Australia's overall results have fallen behind in recent years. In particular, from 2000 to 2009, Australia experience substantial declines, among all student groupings, reading and mathematics performance matched by only three other OECD countries'. 

The 2011 PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and TIMSS (Trends in International mathematics and Science Study) results, released December 2012, showed Australia performing poorly in Year 4 literacy, numeracy and science standards (ACER, 2012). The average score for Australia's year 4 reading was 527 points, significantly lower than 21 other countries including the United States, England, Canada and the participating Asian nations. The achievement score for Year 4 Mathematics was 514, significantly below 17 other countries, including most of the Asian countries, England and the United States. In Year 4 Science, Australia's achievement score was significantly below 18 countries, again including most of the Asian countries, England and the United States. Across all three categories, New South Wales was one of the better performing States, behind the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria. The report also highlighted that 57% of Australian year 4 students were reported to be 'somewhat affected' by resource shortages related to reading, 54% by resource shortages related to mathematics and 68% shortages related to science. Students attending schools in which principals reported no resource shortages scored significantly higher in reading and mathematics than students from schools where principals reported being 'somewhat affected' by shortages.

Similarly, NAPLAN results released on 18 December 2012 showed the overall rate of improvement seen in the early years of NAPLAN testing has slowed, creating pessimism around the potential to achieve the Commonwealth government's goal of having the gap in literacy and numeracy skills between indigenous and non-indigenous students by 2018, and being among the top five nations in the world by 2025. The report evidenced the impact of parental levels of education on a child's results, with almost 98% of students whose parents who have a university degree meeting the minimum standards compared with 84.5% of students whose parents finished up to year 11 at school.

Impact of socio-economic disadvantage on educational outcomes

Students from low socio-economic backgrounds have the poorest educational outcomes (Gonski 2011: Nous Group et al 2011). By Year 3, 89% of children from the poorest quarter of Australian homes are reading below average. By year 9, the average child from the poorest quarter is two years behind children form the most well off quarter of Australian homes in reading and maths. In very remote Australia, the average Indigenous child is reading below a year 3 level in year 9 (White Paper, 2012). Information from My School and other international sources such as the OECD shows that the achievement gap linked to socio-economic disadvantage is too great, and we must aim higher for every child in every school (White Paper / Gonski).

It would appear that low university participation rates amongst students from low socio-economic backgrounds is an issue of access to higher education, not potential to succeed. There is little evidence to suggest significantly different levels of retention and success amongst students from low socio-economic status backgrounds at university. A report by the University of Melbourne in 2008 showed that 'at aggregate level, socio-economic status appears to explain little of the variation in higher education success and retention rates. Once enrolled, low SES people do almost as well medium SES and high SES in terms of retention, success and completion. Low SES remote students and Indigenous students are an exception and particular attention needs to be given to both these groups'.

The latest national university admissions data for 2014 shows an increase in total university offers to low SES shows a slight increase from 2013 in total university offers to low socio-economic students of 2.1% and between 2009 and 2014, offers to low SES applicants have increased by 24.2%, larger than the increase seen in offers to medium and high SES applicants (21.0% and 13.7% respectively) . However there continues to be a significant disparity in course selection and as a result, access to professions. People from low socio-economic backgrounds are particularly under-represented in the professional fields of study for which there is the most competitive entry and in postgraduate education. Students from low SES backgrounds remain at less than 10% of postgraduate students. Participation rates of low SES people relative to medium / high SES people are stronger in vocational educational training (VET) than in higher education (University of Melbourne, 2008). For example, 2014 data on the proportion of high and low SES applications for health disciplines showed applications for medical studies at circa 6.2% from high SES backgrounds, compared to 2.5% from low SES backgrounds; a stark contrast to applications for nursing at circa 5.5% from high SES and 11.8% from low SES backgrounds (DEC, 2014).

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