Access to Australian Higher Education for Equity Groups

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.

The major themes in this body of literature are:

  • Admissions and selection tools: How the principal currency for entrance into higher education (the ATAR) works to disadvantage particular groups of students;
  • The efficacy and equity of the ATAR (connecting with patterns of equity in schooling);
  • The predictive validity of different forms of access (connecting with patterns of equity);
  • Alternative entry schemes for non-traditional students (explicitly and implicitly addressing issues of inequitable access to higher education);
  • Other initiatives to facilitate access and entry for particular groups, including residential and financial support; and
  • Ideological underpinnings of access policies, processes and practices that impact on student equity

Policy context

Access is not only a key theme in the research literature; it is also a central policy driver for institutional equity practices. Access has been an explicit focus for equity work since the social justice-oriented policies of the Hawke Labor government, which promised “fair and equal access to essential services such as housing, health and education” (Hawke, 1988: 1); however, Gale & McNamee (1994) argue that Labor’s professed commitment to social justice in the Dawkins reforms to higher education (1988-90) was “a justice mediated by particular economic and managerial practices which tend to limit equity to issues of access” (p.8). The focus on access continued throughout subsequent policy reviews and reforms, albeit the ideological underpinnings shifted from an egalitarian-social democratic position to a more neoliberal position. The Bradley Review (2008) pushed an access-focused imperative for reforming higher education, which argued for the establishment of a “higher education is accessible to all and ensure education is high quality” (p.xiii), largely for the purposes of creating an ‘outstanding and internationally competitive’ higher education system to maintain our standards of living in context of ‘rapidly changing future’ (p.xi). This focus on access translated into policy targets in 2009 (for 20% of graduates to be from low SES backgrounds, and 40% of 25-34 year olds holding an undergraduate degree by 2020), with additional priority funding offered in the form of HEPP(P) funds. Access constituted the dominant focus on HEPP(P) funding until 2013, with 49.3% of HEPPP funding spent on pre-entry initiatives (Naylor, Baik & James, 2013).

Admissions and selections processes

The literature that attends to issues of admissions and selection criteria focus predominantly on the efficacy, transparency, predictive validity and equity of the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) as the principal form of the currency for entering undergraduate studies in Australia. There are strong connections suggested in the literature between the high achievement in the ATAR and the socioeconomic background of the high school (Birrell et al., 2000; Cardak & Ryan, 2009; Palmer, Bexley & James, 2011; Harvey & Simpson, 2012; Willis & Joschko, 2012; Gale & Parker, 2013; Knipe, 2013; Cardak, Bowden & Bahtsevanoglou, 2015). This connects strongly with the educational disadvantage that results from schooling, especially in terms of equity groupings, particularly for low SES, Indigenous and rural & remote students (for example, Tranter, 2012; Cuervo, 2012). The use of the ATAR has also been critiqued for the way it reduces the complexity of schooling to a single number; indeed, Tim Pitman argues that the reduction of academic preparedness or merit to a single number is “fundamentally flawed” (Pitman, in Harvey et al., 2016), and inevitably contributes to entrenched patterns of inequality in terms of outcomes and futures. Beyond the ATAR, Cardak, Bowden & Bahtsevanoglou (2015) examine how the process of applying for university through a Tertiary Admissions Centre is also impacted by a student’s SES background. Their NCSEHE-funded research shows that low SES students are less active in the window between receiving their ATAR and the submission of an application, meaning that they are less likely than their high SES counterparts to take advantage of the window to update their applications. Cardak, Bowden & Bahtsevanoglou argue that their research strongly suggest that more needs to be done at school to help students better understand the processes and options when it comes to applying for university, particularly for low SES schools.

Following the introduction of the demand-driven system (DDS), there has been concern about the lowering of thresholds – most often connected with ATAR scores – driven by the policy imperative to expand participation in higher education. As Palmer, Bexley & James (2011) note, “Distinctions between selective and recruiting courses and institutions become blurred in expanding tertiary systems, where selection decisions are also informed by equity priorities” (p.1) Knipe (2013) argues that the setting of minimum thresholds (e.g. ATAR of 70) deemed to represent potential for ‘success’ in HE is arbitrary when universities adapt the entry requirements to suit the student demands. The strong connections noted in the previous paragraph about inequitable experiences and opportunities as a result of schooling are divisive in discussions of higher education. Many researchers are committed to the idea that the ATAR offers the most predictive reliability regarding students’ capacity to succeed in their undergraduate studies, particularly for high achievers. However, researchers note that middle band results (an ATAR of under 80) are a less reliable predictor of university success (Cardak & Ryan, 2009; Palmer, Bexley & James, 2011; Pitman, Koshy & Philimore, 2015). When compared with other entry pathways, such as VET articulation or enabling programs, other research suggests that ATAR makes little difference in terms of students’ performance in their first year of an undergraduate education program. Knipe’s (2013) study of enrolment patterns compared the completion rates of students who entered on the basis of their ATAR and students who entered from TAFE. Her findings suggest that once they have entered their program, “little difference in course completion rates between entry pathways” (p.37); leading Knipe to conclude that entry scores like ATAR are not necessarily a strong predictor of completion/success (see also Harvey & Simpson, 2012). A similar study by Willis & Joschko (2012) suggests that participants in their study who came from a TAFE pathway scored consistently higher grades that ATAR articulants.

Alternative Entry Schemes

In addition to discussions of the use of ATAR for admissions and selection[1], there are also examples in the literature of alternative entry schemes:

  • Palmer, Bexley & James (2011) discuss alternative selection tools to the ATAR, such as portfolio entry, the Special Tertiary Admissions Test (STAT), interviews
  • Harvey & Simpson (2012) discuss the Schools Access La Trobe (SALT) alternative entry scheme which offers undergraduate places to students from low SES backgrounds on the basis of school recommendation;
  • Cullity (2006) discusses patterns of access and participation in alternative entry programs (AEPs), focusing specifically on mature age learners. Christensen & Evamy (201) also report on a special access scheme (the “MAPS to Success” - Mature Age Access Pathway at UWA);
  • Scull & Cuthill (2010) describe an outreach program as a form of AEP, which they describe as ‘tailored outreach’, which was developed out of community intervention and consultation with ‘at risk’ communities;
  • Penman & Sawyer (2013) describe a University of South Australia program (‘UniReady‘), which was designed to attract and facilitate access for ‘immigrant families’ in a rural area of South Australia;
  • Fleming & Grace (2014, 2015) report on pre-entry initiatives at the University of Canberra that straddle both access and aspiration-raising agendas, specifically targeting rural and remote students in the ACT; and
  • There is some discussion of sub-bachelor programs, such as Monash University’s Diploma of Tertiary Studies (Levy & Murray, 2005; Willis & Joschko, 2012); see also the literature that looks at enabling education.

Other initiatives reported in the literature that work to improve access rates include:

  • Residential services as mechanism to increase access and participation through targeted support, particularly for rural and remote students who need to relocate to attend university (Burge, 2012);
  • Discussion of financial support and scholarships (Carson, 2010; Reed & Hurd, 2014; Zacharias et al., 2016).

Socioeconomic, geographic and cultural patterns of (inequitable) access.

There are clear patterns of historic under-representation and issues relating to inequitable access to higher education in the literature. In particular, and in line with the policy foci, low SES, rural and remote, and Indigenous students are most prominently disadvantaged. James et al., (2004) found that low SES students and Rural & Remote students required the most attention in terms of the equity policy framework and with regard to inconsistent ways of measuring these groups. Le & Miller’s (2005) study of the determinants of (access into and) participation in higher education came to similar conclusions, noting that early school achievement and family background are two strong influences on students’ likelihood to access higher education/ proceed beyond compulsory schooling. The connections between schooling, SES and achievement have been well documented (for example, James, 2001; Harvey & Simpson, 2012; Willis & Joschko, 2012; Gale & Parker, 2013). Le & Miller (2005) also note that females had “much higher tertiary participation rates than males” (p.157). The influence of parents and parental backgrounds is also a significant area of interest, with research strongly suggesting that the higher the level of education of at least one parent, the more likely a child is to aspire to, and access, higher education (Birrell et al., 2000; Le & Miller, 2005; Scull & Cutjill, 2010; Wilks & Wilson, 2012; Chesters & Watson, 2013).

Interestingly, the analysis presented in James et al. (2004) resulted in the recommendation that NESB students should no longer be considered an equity group on the basis of their performance data, and instead “universities should be encouraged to develop focused programs for specific groups of recent immigrants in their local areas, as part of their responsibility for community service and engagement” (2004: xiv). Similarly, Le & Miller note thatstudents born overseas or to non-Australian parents are more likely to participate in higher education. On the surface, these findings suggest that NESB students should not be a focus of equity policy and practices. However, Mestan & Harvey’s (2014) research shows that while the access rates of NESB students suggest that they are proportionally represented in higher education, they are disadvantaged later in their higher education experience (post-access). Mestan & Harvey (2014) claim that although some ethnic-language groups are shown to perform well at school (Chinese/ Vietnamese), others perform less well (Turkish/Arabic/ Pacific Islander/ African groups). They note that in particular, students from refugee backgrounds and children of unskilled migrants likely to be most disadvantaged because “[t]he majority of Australian universities do not provide specific and systematic support for people from refugee backgrounds to access their institutions” (p.67).

Ideological foundations of conceptions of access

The ideologies underpinning the varying conceptions of access – in terms of reactions to federal and institutional policy, and in terms of practices designed to widen access to particular groups – is another theme evident in the literature. Gidley et al. (2010) note that within the discourse of social inclusion,  “access, participation and success are ordered according to a spectrum of ideologies — neoliberalism, social justice and human potential, respectively — by way of a nested structure with human potential ideology offering the most embracing perspective” (p.124). The dominant ideology that underpins federal policy is predominantly based on a neoliberal thinking underpinned by human capital theory – with increasing graduate numbers for economic and future-oriented competition in the global knowledge economy the key drivers for widening access. A social justice imperative is also evident in federal policy, often under the phrase ‘social inclusion’, although this focus is subordinate to the notion of contributing to an individual’s productivity and therefore to the national economy. Gidley et al. (2010) argue that access viewed through the lens on neoliberalism works from a deficit position fuelled by a scarcity of resources. They argue that the reduction of a complex and nuanced social explanation to an economic-rational framework is both a “conceptual reductive integration” and a lifeworld reduction, leading to “cultural assimilation and stakeholder dominator hierarchies” (2010: 133).

There are two principal notions that frame access (albeit with differing readings depending on the ideological lens used): fairness and merit/capability/ potential.


Tim Pitman (2015, 2016) has written extensively about the notion of ‘fairness’ that underpins access policies, including admissions tools and selection procedures. In his 2016 paper, Pitman argues that fairness is on a continuum that is informed by three conceptualisations of fairness: merit based, procedural and normative fairness, whereby:

  • Merit-based fairness connects with notions of talent, skill, intelligence, ability and effort, underpinned by a distributive view of justice (justice for ‘the deserving’);
  • Procedural fairness based on notions of transparency and systematic application of rules, with attempts made to convert all forms of entry into something that can be measured against a standard;
  • Normative fairness rests on a ‘common-sense approach’, whereby policies instantiate the ‘iron law’ of regulations, and “seek to select the ‘right’ students, as opposed to the ‘best’ students” (p.1209).

Pitman (2016) used these three conceptualisations to probe the admissions policies of 36 Australian universities. He found that merit based fairness was found to be the primary characterisation of fairness in 12 universities and a tertiary frame in other 20 universities. In contrast, procedural fairness was a primary theme in 13 universities (with 10 focusing on transparency) and a tertiary frame in a further 4 universities. Normative fairness was privileged in policy by 11 of the universities. Despite this relatively broad spread of approaches (see also Kilpatrick & Johns, 2014 for a similar analysis of the positioning of social inclusion in Australian universities’ publicly available strategic documents), Pitman argues that merit based fairness was discursively the most prominent discourse across the sector, Pitman argues that this appears to have benefitted low SES students, based on enrolment data from 2013, but it places the onus of responsibility onto the individual: the implicit assumption of merit-based policies of fairness is that students who are not selected are perceived as having failed on their own terms, without acknowledging the greater structural forces at play” (2016: 1214).

This discursive alignment with neoliberal principles is recognised in Southgate & Bennett’s (2014) characterisation of the ‘capable individual’, a person who is the ““quintessential neo-liberal subject who possesses ‘natural ability’, hope for social mobility and highly individualised and entrepreneurial disposition” (p.29). The connections between access and merit, or capability for study, are explored in Burke et al. (2016). Their work suggests that that conceptions of capability drawn on and reproduced in universities, and as understood by students themselves, impact on student equity and unwittingly reproduces inequities. These deeply entrenched conceptions of who is ‘worthy’ or most capable for higher education study require universities need to work proactively to challenge stereotypes of ‘capable students’, particularly for students from diverse and under-represented backgrounds.


Birrell, B.; Calderon, A.; Dobson, I.; & Smith, F. (2000). Equity in Access to Higher Education Revisited. People and Place, 8(1): 50-61.

Burge, L. (2012). Infinite possibilities: exploring opportunities for non-traditional students to become global citizens, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 13: 6-18.

Burke, P.J.; Bennett, A.; Burgess, C.; Gray, K.; & Southgate, E. (2016). Capability, Belonging and Equity in Higher Education: Developing Inclusive Approaches. University of Newcastle.

Cardak, B. & Ryan, C. (2009). Participation in Higher Education in Australia: Equity and Access. The Economic Record, 85(271), 433-448.

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 University.

Carson, T. (2010). Overcoming student hardship at SWIN University, Australia: an insight into the impact of equity scholarships on financially disadvantaged university students,

Chesters, J. & Watson, L. (2013). Understanding the persistence of inequality in higher education: evidence from Australia, Journal of Education Policy, 28(2): 198-215.

Christensen, L. & Evamy, S. (2011). MAPs to Success: Improving the First Year Experience of alternative entry mature age students, The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 2(2): 35-48.

Cocks, T. & Stokes, J. (2013). Policy into practice: a case study of widening participation in Australian higher education, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 15(1): 22-38.

Cullity, M. (2006). Challenges in understanding and assisting mature-age students who participate in alternative entry programs, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 46(2): 175-201.

Gale, T. & McNamee, P. (1994). Just out of reach: Access to equity in Australian higher education, Australian universities’ review, 37(2): 8-12.

Gidley, J,; Hampson, G.; Wheeler, L.; Bereded-Samuel, E. (2010). From Access to Success: An Intergrated Approach to Quality Higher Education Informed by Social Inclusion Theory and Practice. Higher Education Policy, 23: 123-147.

Harvey, A. (2014). Early and delayed offers to under-represented university students. Australian Journal of Education, 58(2): 167-181.

Harvey, A. & Simpson, A. (2012). Powers of prediction: Can school recommendations forecast university achievement?, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 14(3): 157-171.

Harvey, A.; Norton, A.; Matters, G. & Pitman, T. (2016). Should we scrap the ATAR? What are the alternative options? Experts comment. The Conversation. 3rd March 2016 [online]

Higton, J., Noble, J., Pope, S., Boal, N., Ginnis, S., Donaldson, R., Greevy, H. (2012). Fit for Purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels [Online]. Available at [Accessed 23 January 2013]

James, R.; Baldwin, G.; Coates, H.; Krause, K.L.; & McInnis, C. (2004).  Analysis of Equity Groups in Higher Education 1991-2002. Centre for the Study of Higher Education: The University of Melbourne.

James, R. (2007). Social equity in a mass, globalised higher education environment: the unresolved issue of widening access to university. Centre of the Study of Higher Education, The University of Melbourne.

Knipe, S. (2013). University Course Completion and ATAR Scores: Is There a Connection?, Journal of Educational Enquiry, 12(1): 25-39

Le, A. & Miller, P. (2005). Participation in Higher Education: Equity & Access?, The Economic Record, 81(253): 152-165.

Levy, S. & Murray, J. (2005). Tertiary Entrance Scores Need Not Determine Academic Success: An analysis of student performance in an equity and access program, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 27(1): 129-141.

Mestan, K. & Harvey, A. (2014). The higher education continuum: access, achievement and outcomes among students from non-English speaking backgrounds, Higher Education Review, 46(2): 61-80.

Naylor, R.; Baik, C.; & James, R. (2013). Developing a Critical Interventions Framework for advancing equity in Australian higher education. Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

Palmer, N., Bexley, E., & James, R. (2011). Selection and Participation in Higher Education: University selection in support of student success and diversity of participation. Prepared for the Group of Eight. Centre for the Study of Higher Education: The University of Melbourne.

Penman, J. & Sawyer, J. (2013). Expanding Horizons: UniReady Program for Multicultural Groups, Australian and International Journal of Rural Education, 23(3): 71-81

Pitman, T. (2015). Widening access in a fee de-regulated system: exploring contemporary ideals of ‘fair’ access to higher education, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 17(3): 17-31

Pitman, T. (2016). Understanding ‘fairness’ in student selection: are there differences and does it make a different anyway? Studies in Higher Education, 41(7): 1203-1216.

Pitman, T.; Koshy, P.; & Phillimore, J. (2015). Does accelerating access to higher education lower its quality? The Australian experience. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(3): 609-623.

Reed, R. & Hurd, B. (2014). A value beyond money? Assessing the impact of equity scholarships: from access to success, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2014.968541

Scull, S. & Cuthill, M. (2010). Engaged outreach: using community engagement to facilitate access to higher education for people from low socio-economic backgrounds, Higher Education Research & Development, 29(1): 59-74.

Southgate, E. & Bennett, A. (2014). Excavating Widening Participation Policy in Australian Higher Education: Subject Positions, Representational Effects, Emotion, Creative Approaches to Research, 7(1): 21-45.

Wilks, J. & Wilson, K. (2012). Going on to uni? Access and participation in university for students from backgrounds of disadvantage, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(1): 79-90.

Wills, S. & Joschko, L. (2012). A ‘high quality, high access’ university that aims to marry excellence and equity, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 14(1): 8-26.

Zacharias, N.; Cherednichenko, B.; Ryan, J.; George, K.;  Gasparini, L.; Kelly, M.; Mandre-Jackson, S.; Cairnduff, A.; & Sun, D. (2016). Moving beyond ‘acts of faith’: effective scholarships for equity students. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education: Perth.

[1] See current debates on whether ATAR is fit-for-purpose – for example, Harvey et al., 2016; Parker, 2016- and similar arguments made about A-levels in the UK – see Higton et al., 2012

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.