Higher education inequality: how well has Australia limited differential access levels by socioeconomic status?

In an earlier post, I argued that higher education has substantial inequality-generating features. This post is the first in a series looking at how well Australia’s higher education system does in this context, starting with access to higher education. Essentially, this is about how well the higher education system can foster social mobility.

The potential of the Australia’s higher education system is constrained by the potential pool of students, which largely comes from people who have successfully completed school. Before the 1980s, that was a minority of the population. Don Anderson and A.E Vervoorn’s interesting book Access to privilege reports that in 1980 overall school retention to Year 12 was only 34.5 per cent, and 28.4 per cent at government schools. It was already a massive 88 per cent at the non-Catholic private schools, favoured by many higher SES families. They were setting up the basis for the next generation’s educational success.

In the 1980s, school completion rates increased, so that about half of low SES students finished school by the end of the decade. Low SES Year 12 completion is now at 73 per cent, compared to 80 per cent for high SES students (with the caveat that dividing the population into three groups misses likely much larger difference in the lowest and highest deciles).

ATAR results by SES are rarely published, but some Victorian data I published in a book chapter a few years ago shows the highest SES quartile by postcode substantially over-represented in the 90+ group, and the lowest SES quartile substantially over-represented in the below 50 group.

University enrolment data by definition doesn’t include Year 12 students who never apply, but we know that almost all high-ATAR school leavers put in an application. Using a parental education measure of low SES, we can see in the chart below that there are many more students with an ATAR reporting parents with a higher education qualification than we would predict based on the education levels of people old enough to be parents of undergraduates (notice the different scales).

Further, when one or both parents have degrees (the chart shows the parent with the highest qualification, but frequently both parents have degrees) the ATARs skew more markedly to the higher end, producing higher medians.

atar_parent_dist (003)

The annual NAPLAN reports show that, again, the high SES students, whether measured by parental occupation or parental education, do significantly better across all the literacy and numeracy tests, although consistent with meritocratic hopes there are – as the enrolment data also suggests – high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds. So even though Year 12 completion has improved, we still have substantial issues with inequality of school-level academic achievement.

I don’t feel competent to judge to what extent university education faculties are to blame for this situation – although the early childhood research suggests that schools, also, are working within the constraints of the student pool. I will assess universities and higher education policy on how they deal with this academic achievement situation as they find it.

From the earliest days, universities and higher education policy (which was originally a State responsibility) have been concerned with access, offering students subsidies and scholarships. But that really only mattered in the post-WW2 era, since very few people before then went to university and it was not needed for most jobs. Hannah Forsyth has written about university admission policies in the post-war era. The Commonwealth government offered merit-based scholarships.Read More »

Was higher education ever likely to reduce inequality?

Next week I am a panelist in a discussion on whether Australia has an equitable tertiary education system. The promotional blurb says:

Australians believe we live in a fair and egalitarian country. We believe in a fair go: in equality of opportunity. We also believe that accessible education and training is a fundamental right and it facilitates prosperity, social mobility and a richer and more engaged economy.

Are these beliefs about who we are based in fact? While access to higher education has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, income and wealth inequality is also on the rise. This seeming contradiction challenges our most fundamental beliefs about intergenerational mobility. Is the education system a cure or a curse? …

When I accepted the invitation to be on the panel I told the organisers that I did not know the answers to their questions, but I could offer some observations. I am going to try a few of them out on this blog.

Starting theoretically, I think social mobility and income inequality are distinct issues. It was always more plausible that education would promote mobility in personal status than that it would reduce snapshot-in-time income inequality figures. Indeed, there are reasons for thinking that higher education is more likely to increase than decrease income inequality.

Higher education can increase individual income inequality by facilitating a more unequal labour market. Higher education provides the training to support an increasing number of highly-skilled and highly-paid professionals. In a 2017 paper, Jeff Borland and Michael Coelli have some interesting charts showing growth in demand for the kinds of cognitive skills that a university education aspires to teach. Consistent with this, numerous papers have shown substantial financial ‘returns’ to higher education. This Deloitte report from last year summarises some of the local literature and adds its own estimates. Read More »

Have you ever not finished a university degree?

At the Grattan Institute, we are nearing completion of a report on not completing university degrees, one of the measures that could be used in the new performance funding regime.

We’ve got lots of interesting new data on how much time students spend enrolled before they leave, how much they have spent, and the risk factors that can help predict who will complete and who will drop out.

But the data and literature on how people feel about incomplete qualifications is very sparse, and so we decided to run our own online survey.

It’s obviously not a random sample, but with over 800 responses to date we are able to identify some general themes. With more respondents we could start to see whether reactions to not completing differ across student categories.

The survey is going to close in a few days, so if you have dropped out a degree yourself, please take it. Or if you know someone who has dropped out, please forward the link to them.

Our report is going to focus on people who have left university without any degree, but we are also interested in people with a complete degree as well as a complete one.

How students study influences course completion rates

My concern about low-ATAR students is primarily about their high risk of not completing a degree. But in this we tend to focus much more on underlying academic ability than on the circumstances in which students study. Completions analysis shows that off campus and part-time students have non-completion risks that are very similar to those faced by below 50 ATAR students, as the slide below shows.

The number of commencing off-campus and part-time students greatly exceeds the number of commencing low ATAR students, as the next slide shows. We are doing some more work at the moment to try to understand the interactions between these factors. In 2015, for example, 24,000 commencing bachelor students were both part-time and off-campus – are these cumulative risk factors, or both just proxies for students with other commitments? Distraction from study could be the actual main risk factor.


Source: Department of Education and Training (domestic students only)

Low ATAR is an issue. But if we are worried about increasing attrition, we have to focus on how students are engaging with their studies and not just how well they did at school.

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Update: The day after I wrote this post, the Department released new completion statistics. They are slightly worse than the numbers shown in the first chart.

Low ATAR enrolments are increasing, but still a small share of all commencing higher education students

This week the main university offer rounds start, and with them the annual ATAR controversy. If the last few years are a guide, demand from low ATAR school leavers has stabilised, as the chart below shows. Offers, however, are increasing. Although most low ATAR applications do not result in offers, the number which did more than quadrupled between 2010 and 2016, from less than 2,000 to more than 8,000.


Source: Department of Education and Training

Last year, the number of low ATAR students accepting their offer increased, but still less than half of offers were accepted, which was about a quarter of the original applications.

When I looked at this last year, I said that a significant proportion of low ATAR applicants who accepted their offer were not enrolled after the first census date. While this is a factor in eventual enrolments, we now think this is less of a factor as some students who are reported as having an ATAR during the applications process don’t have one recorded in the enrolment data. A declining share of school leavers are being admitted based on their secondary education. This has dropped from 87 per cent in 2012 to 80 per cent in 2015.

Of the students who do have an ATAR in the enrolment data, those with low ATARs mostly don’t come direct from school. In 2015, there were 2,830 below 50 ATAR students enrolled who had completed school in 2014 (this includes students in pathway diploma courses, not just bachelor degree courses). But in the same year there were 8,000 students with below 50 ATARs in the enrolment data. Of those not being admitted based on their secondary education, about two-thirds were admitted based on previous higher education or vocational education.

Low ATAR enrolments are increasing, and I am among those who thinks that this is an issue. However, it is an issue that needs to be kept in perspective. Only 3 per cent of commencing bachelor degree students have ATARs below 50, and only 7 per cent have ATARs below 60.

Should teacher education places be capped?

NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli has long been a critic of universities over-supplying the teacher education market. In this morning’s Australian, he is calling for caps on student places. If accepted, this would be the second course after medicine to be capped.

It would also be a major precedent, as it would set a low benchmark for justifying capping. According to employment surveys education graduates do slightly better than average in finding full-time work. Among those finding FT work, education graduates do significantly better than graduates in other fields in getting jobs that use their qualifications. That said, full-time employment for education graduates is down 11 percentage points on 2008, the recent peak of graduate employment rates.

The strength of the demand driven system is not that student and universities will always make the right call about where the job market is going, but that it can adapt as new information becomes available. Over the last few years, the message that the teacher market is saturated has been well publicised. Commencing student numbers were already past their peak by 2015, as the chart below shows. The trend would have been further down except for a major move by Swinburne Online, which went from no students in 2014 to 8.5 per cent of the national commencing market for initial teacher education in 2015.

commecning ed students
Source: uCube

There are bigger falls in education more generally – down 10% percent in commencing students between 2014 and 2015 and 13 per cent in full-time equivalents (presumably part-time enrolments at Swinburne Online are affecting that). Under the legislation, capping occurs in full-time equivalent places, not on a head count of students.

The initial 2016 applications and offers data suggests a fall of 2.4 per cent in applications and 4.7 per cent in offers for education, so a further drop in student numbers seems likely.

Cutting student numbers under the pre-demand driven system was a slow, politically painful process. With demand driven funding, it is happening quickly with few people even noticing.

Low ATAR offers result in few low ATAR completions

The SMH has lots of NSW university offers data to contribute to the annual ATAR controversy. It’s the usual story of students being offered places with very low ATARs.

There are always lots of threads to this controversy. Are low-ATAR admissions a sign of declining academic standards? Do we place too much emphasis on ATAR anyway? Should universities be more open about their admission practices? Do low-ATAR enrolments risk putting incompetent professionals out into the workforce?

While there are real issues here, some numbers are useful for putting things into perspective. I’m using 2014 numbers because I have enrolment data for that year but not yet 2015.

The first three columns in the chart are from tertiary admission centre data. The first thing to note is that in 2014 about 60% of very low ATAR – 50 or below – applications did not result in any offer. Of the applications that did result in an offer – the issue in the news this week – about half resulted in the prospective student rejecting it. The offer might have been for a course that was not their first preference, or possibly they only applied to keep options open, without having a firm intention to go to university.

diminishing ATARs

The next bar on the chart is enrolments of students who reached the HELP census date, usually around the end of March. It shows that about a third of below 50 acceptances leave before the census date, presumably having decided that higher education was not for them, at least not at this time. The low-ATAR issue is starting to look at lot smaller than it did at the offers stage. Final enrolments of 50 or below ATARs from 2013 school leavers in 2014 were only 3% of all that cohort (although total low-ATAR enrolment is higher than this, due to students who finished school in other years).

I have added a projection of their final completions, based on the Department’s 2005 cohort analysis. If that is a good guide to the future, less than 20% of below 50 ATAR school leavers who receive an offer will eventually get a degree.

My perspective on this is primarily a consumer protection one. Prospective students are not being informed of the risks they are taking. Universities say that they are looking at what predicts success other than ATAR, but only rarely do they release any evidence of this that can be checked by independent analysts. The regulator’s vague statements are less than confidence inspiring. The numbers of people taking major risks are not that large in the context of total enrolments. But we should be doing more to ensure that they are making decisions that are in their own long-term interests.