The major expansion in student numbers that followed the introduction of the demand-driven funding system has resulted in more students from equity groups accessing university. Between 2008 and 2015 the number of undergraduate domestic students increased by 34.7 per cent, with most equity groups recording growth rates substantially above that figure. As a result, equity students as a proportion of the total student population has increased.
This change has been especially true of students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds whose numbers have increased by 50.4 per cent in the same period, resulting in an increase in enrolments from 86,581 to 130,246. This has been brought about via the demand-driven system and important policy initiatives such as the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP). While these numbers indicate that great progress is being made towards making the higher education system more accessible for low SES students, progress has been slowing in recent years.
This challenge was acknowledged in the Australian Government’s Higher Education Reform Package which set out defining hallmarks for higher education, which included that it be sustainable, accessible, affordable and accountable. The Package re-affirmed the Government’s support for the HEPPP which, in conjunction with The Evaluation of the HEPPP report by ACIL Allen Consulting, indicates that financial support for policies and programs that support students from low SES backgrounds will continue with a growing emphasis on transparency and accountability.
A critical component of the drive towards more equitable outcomes in higher education is the need for quality research into the trends and issues, and the challenges and opportunities, which characterise equity in higher education. The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) seeks to close the gap between equity policy, research and practice through programs in evaluation, research and analysis. The NCSEHE has funded 34 research projects that inform policy and practice, 10 of which have a primary focus on students from low SES backgrounds and which form the basis of this report.
These reports add to our growing knowledge of the underlying reasons why students from low SES backgrounds struggle on access, participation and outcomes. Collective insights from the NCSEHE reports illustrate how compounding disadvantages limit students’ ability to navigate the Australian higher education system as easily as their non-equity group peers.
There are some clear messages from the research. Being from a low SES background is still a predictor of adversity for many students: school experiences and school guidance are critical to shaping intentions, expectations and outcomes; the personal and family characteristics of students from low SES backgrounds matter for shaping individual journeys; low SES students find it difficult to navigate the application system for accessing university; and transitioning through university is a multi-faceted challenge for low SES students.
We need to recognise that compounding multiple issues require diverse multiple solutions. There is a need for more quality research to better elucidate challenges and solutions. Recommendations for positive change must then find their way through research, information and communication channels to contribute to progressing equity in higher education. Researchers can be assisted in this process by a greater commitment to transparency and accountability across the higher education system, involving all stages and all institutions.
The insights from NCSEHE funded reports on low SES students add to our knowledge of equity in higher education and make a contribution to signalling future directions for policy and practice.