Equity groups: Students from Low Socioeconomic Backgrounds in Australian Higher Education

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

There has been a strong focus on low SES students in Australian higher education since the then-Labor government chose to focus exclusively on low SES students despite the suggested target groups of low SES, Indigenous and rural and remote students in the 2008 Bradley review. As with the strong focus of federal policy and funding on low socioeconomic status (SES) students, there is a large body of literature that attends specifically to the experiences of low SES students, and the challenges/ barriers to learning that they face. These challenges are highly pertinent to the selection and admissions processes and the ‘poverty of aspirations’ argument that has fuelled the federal focus on widening the participation of low SES students. As described above, there are patterns in the participation of low SES students that are salient to the equity story. Edwards & Coates’ (2011) work illustrates that low SES students are more likely to:

  • Attend institutions that are less than 50 years old and/or in regional locations;
  • Study in the fields of education, engineering, IT or business;
  • Attend part-time or externally or by distance;
  • Be slightly older;
  • Come from a provincial or remote area (p. 155)

Research clearly shows that coming from a low SES background is significant influence on the likelihood of completing high school and aspiring for higher education, especially when combined with geographic factors (for example, James, 2001, 2002; James et al., 2008; Edwards & Coates, 2011; McInerney & Smyth, 2014). Indeed, as James (2001) contends, “…educational advantage and disadvantage are the result of a three-way intersection of family socioeconomic background, the characteristics of the urban or rural context in which people live, and the physical distance from campuses” (p.469). Indeed, in later work James and colleagues have argued that there is a significant distinction to be made in terms of participation between rural and urban low SES students (James et al., 2008). They argue that there is considerable variation between Australian universities in terms of the proportion of students from low SES backgrounds, which is due partly to geography and partly as a result of competitive selection based on school achievement. This is in part due to the shape of the school curriculum, but is also due to the subjects offered to senior secondary students, which are dependent on the resources a school has to allocate. For instance, Tranter (2012) argues that “the senior secondary curriculum and higher education selection processes are heavily skewed against students from low SES schools” (p.911), as a result of the subjects offered for study in Years 11 and 12 which impact on a student’s potential ATAR score. Tranter found that there was a proliferation of VET subjects on offer in the low SES schools, which hold less currency in higher education applications, and where academic subjects were offered, they were offered in limited subject areas, or with insufficient support offered to facilitate student success. Similarly, McInerney & Smyth (2014) argue that there are a lack of opportunity-structures in public education to support low SES students’ participation in post-school futures, as a result of poor resourcing and funding of public schools and the neoliberal focus on the individual, which combined erode the possibilities for public education and teachers to support low SES students.

In other work, Cardak, Bowden & Bahtsevanoglou (2015) add further detail to the picture of inequitable application to/ participation in more competitive institutions; their work suggests that low SES school leavers are not as adept at navigating the process of admissions for university entry as their higher SES counterparts, with low SES as active in the window between receiving their ATAR score and finalising their applications through the University Admissions Centre (UAC). Cardak, Bowden & Bahtsevanoglou (2015) argue that more needs to be done at school to help students better understand process and options: “policy actions should be taken towards the end of high school to improve student understanding of university application processes and thereby outcomes for low SES students” (p.2).

When the lens is focused on participation in higher education, similar patterns of disadvantage emerge, resulting in beliefs that students from low SES backgrounds are more difficult to teach and are ‘lacking’ core competencies, ‘skills’ and capital that their higher SES peers bring with them to their university studies.  Although many of the contributions in this review challenge the deficit framing applied to ‘non-traditional’ students (Devlin, 2011; Devlin & O’Shea, 2011, 2012; Thomas, 2014), the literature is replete with examples of perceptions and attitudes that denote deficit views with regard to low SES students. In their 2015 paper, McKay & Devlin cite the kinds of deficit thinking that their participants (higher education staff) had observed from colleagues, such as “low SES barbarians”, and characterisations such as ‘lazy’ and ‘disengaged’ (p.5). Thomas (2014), working from a similar space of contestation, contends that such deficit thinking serves to worsen disadvantage, arguing that “Even forward-thinking policies and initiatives will falter if the intended beneficiaries (the students from low-SES backgrounds) are blamed by the academics teaching them for the difficulties these students encounter” (p.815). In both papers, a strong commendation for diversity to be valued, rather than ‘remedied’, is put forward.

In her extensive work on resisting deficit framings of low SES students, Marcia Devlin puts forward a three-part conceptualisation of deficit:

  1. Students are the problem
  2. Institutions are the problem
  3. Schools/ preparatory institutions are the problem

While the first theorisation is a common framing for federal policy, and is also evident anecdotally and presented from empirical evidence in the research literature (see McKay & Devlin, 2015; REFS), the second theorisation is more often the position taken in equity-focused literature (REFS). Devlin (2011) argues that the third concept is often implicit in discussions of ‘academic under-preparation’, but is rarely explicitly articulated. In related work, O’Shea, Onsman & McKay (2011) make a similar argument, proposing that notions of student deficit exist on a continuum, with the student-must-adapt position at one end, and the institution-must-respond at the other, and where a level of misunderstanding between the two poles perpetuating misunderstandings and inequities.  To counter these misunderstandings and (mis)ascriptions of blame, Devlin (2011) argues that the deficit positioning of low SES students (and other equity groups), is attributable to ‘socio-cultural incongruence’, whereby universities are best understood as ‘alien environments’ that need language, culture and norms to be explicitly unpacked to all students. Therefore, rather than locating the onus of change on any one particular agent, Devlin recommends a ‘joint venture’ between students and universities and other institutions, so as to avoid resting on ‘implicit expectations’ and ‘tacit understandings’.

In other work, Devlin and colleagues have sought to identify what strategies facilitate success for low SES students (Devlin & O’Shea, 2011, 2012; McKay & Devlin, 2014, 2015). Devlin & O’Shea (2011) suggest that individual attitudes and behaviours, such as motivation, time management, perseverance, communication, study skills, are the most commonly cited ‘success factors’, followed by teacher-related factors – in particular their availability and enthusiasm (Devlin & O’Shea, 2012) - and institutional support services. However, they also highlight the constraints that some students – low SES included – face, and thus advocate for the use of as “a vehicle through which universities can assume that all students can be reached” for student engagement, embedding guidance, and advising what behaviours and attitudes lead to success (p.533), a contention that is also proposed in Thomas (2014). For Tones et al. (2009), the challenges can differ according to the age of the student. They contend that for older students there are two significant barriers to learning: ‘responsibility conflict’ and adjustment to university life. The relative lack of flexibility of course scheduling and assignment deadlines can add layers of stress to an adult student’s life due to the multiple roles and duties they hold (study, family, work, care), although there is a significant body of literature that illustrates that younger students are also balancing study and employment (for example Richardson, Bennett & Roberts, 2016; Li et al., 2016). In Tones et al.’s study, they showed that low SES students generally make more use of support services such as financial services but are less likely to access supports like disability support/ counselling and academic services; for the older students, this was attributed to the services not being available when needed. Tones et al. contend that older students, particularly those aged over 45, need greater support adjusting to university life and suggest that support services are inadequately promoted, with high numbers of both low SES (76%) and higher SES students (54%) reporting being uncertain of where to go for assistance.


Cardak, B., Bowden, M. & Bahtsevanoglou, J. (2015.) Are Low SES Students Disadvantaged in the University Application Process? Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Perth: Curtin UniversityDevlin, M. (2011). Bridging socio-cultural incongruity: conceptualizing the success of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds in Australian higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 38(6): 939-949.

Devlin, M. & O’Shea, H. (2011). Directions for Australian higher education institutional policy and practice in supporting students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 33(5): 529-535.

Devlin, M. & O’Shea, H. (2012). Effective university teaching: views of Australian university students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, Teaching in Higher Education, 17(4): 385-397.

James, R. (2001). Participation disadvantage in Australian higher education: An analysis of some effects of geographic location and socioeconomic status, Higher Education, 42: 455-472.

James, R. (2002). Socioeconomic Background and Higher Education Participation: An analysis of school students’ aspirations and expectations. Centre for the Study of Higher Education: The University of Melbourne

James, R.; Anderson, M.; Bexley, E.; Devlin, M.; Garnett, R.; Marginson, S.; & Maxwell, L. (2008). Participation and equity: review of the participation in higher education of people from low socioeconomic backgrounds and Indigenous people. Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne.

Li, I. W., Mahuteau, S., Dockery, A. M., Junankar, P. N. & Mavromaras, K. (2016.) Labour Market Outcomes of Australian University Graduates from Equity Groups. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

McInerney, P. & Smyth, J. (2014). ‘I want to get a piece of paper that says I can do stuff’: youth narratives of educational opportunities and constraints in low socio-economic neighbourhoods, Ethnography and Education, 9(3): 239-252.

McKay, J. & Devlin, M. (2014). ‘Uni has a different language… to the real world’: demystifying academic culture and discourse for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, Higher Education Research & Development, 33(5): 949-961.

McKay, J. & Devlin, M. (2015). ‘Low income doesn’t mean stupid and destined for failure’: challenging the deficit discourse around students from low SES backgrounds in higher education, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 20(4): 347-363.

O’Shea, H.; Onsman, A.; McKay, J. (2011). Students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds in higher education: An annotated bibliography 2000-2011. Higher Education Research Group (HERG): Deakin Australia.

Richardson, S., Bennett, D. & Roberts, L. (2016) Investigating the Relationship Between Equity and Graduate Outcomes in Australia. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Rubin, M. (2012). Social Class Differences in Social Integration Among Students in Higher Education: A Meta-Analysis and Recommendations for Future Research, Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 5(1): 22-38.

Rubin, M. (2012). Working-class students need more friends at university: a cautionary note for Australia’s higher education quality initiative, Higher Education Research & Development, 31(3): 431-433.

Rubin, M. & Wright, C. (2015). Age differences explain social class differences in students’ friendship at university: implications for transition and retention, Higher Education, 70: 427-439.

Thomas, G. (2014). Closing the policy-practice gap for low-SES students in higher education: the pedagogical challenge, Higher Education Research & Development, 33(4): 807-820.

Tones, M.; Fraser, J.; Elder, R.; & White, K. (2009). Supporting mature-aged students from a low socioeconomic background, Higher Education, 58(4): 505-529.

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.

Equity groups: Students from Low Socioeconomic Backgrounds in Australian Higher Education