Pathways into 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.

Pathways in: School to university

There is a raft of literature that discusses the outreach activities that aim to both build aspirations in educationally disadvantaged schools, and to offer information about pathways for students into higher education. As previously discussed, there are significant patterns of disadvantage evident in the school achievement data (particularly in the ATAR), which impacts on students’ access through the dominant procedures of admissions and selection. Lim’s (2015) research suggests that schools are responsible for 30% of the variation in university completion. Chesters’ (2015) examination of pathways through school according to influence of parents’ education illustrates these patterns; her findings show that from the ACT Education and Training Directorate data (collected from 1770 students in ACT in Years 9 and 12 from random government schools), 48% graduated with ATAR: females were slightly more likely than males to gain an ATAR (49% - 47%), while indigenous students were less likely (21%-48%) and NESB more likely (62% - 45%). Her findings also show a socioeconomic difference: 66% of high SES students got an ATAR compared with 33% of low SES students (see also Lim, 2015). Students with low-educated parents were most likely to complete a VET certificate (22%), while conversely students with VET-educated parents were least likely to get a VET certificate (15%). Chesters (2015) argues that variations in pathways between school to university (based on ATAR pathway) are strongly connected to parents’ educational levels rather than school achievement: “high-achieving students with low-educated parents are less likely than their peers with higher-educated parents to pursue an ATAR pathway” (p.241). Other factors reported by Lim (2015) include the influence of the type of school attended, with low SES students from government schools having lower completion rates than low SES students from Catholic and independent schools. As such, Lim argues that: “low SES students from regional areas, who attended government schools and who are female, may need further support to ensure they complete at the same rate as their high SES peers” (2015: 7).

Deborah Tranter (2012) explores how school curriculum and subject stratification impacts on university pathways for low SES students. She argues that school curriculum – in terms of what is taught and how it is delivered – is a vehicle for social reproduction of classed inequalities because the traditional core of the curriculum “favours students who can draw on the cultural and intellectual resources of the middle class, who come from families where reading is encouraged, intellectual activities are valued above manual and ‘high culture’ is valued above ‘mass culture’” (p.903). In contrast, at the bottom of hierarchy of school subjects are VET/ vocational subjects. Tranter’s ethnographic research into three schools in South Australia illustrates how the range (or lack) of subjects available for students in their final years of schooling serves to limit their options, and hence their potential access to university. The most disadvantaged school in her study offered only six higher education selection (HES) subjects in Year 12, suggesting, “the school had determined that the traditional competitive academic curriculum was not appropriate for its students” (p.905). By contrast, the largest school offered wide range of HESsubjects and marketed itself on that basis. However, members of staff in this school were divided in terms of how they viewed students capacity to cope with ‘higher level’ subjects (for example, Extension Maths/ Physics), and for many students, the demands of the academic (traditional) curriculum were “overwhelming” (p.906) and the attrition rate was high. The third school in Tranter’s study had a high mix of diverse cultures and offered mid-range of HES subjects, while also having an agreement with a local TAFE to allow school students to undertake Year 11 on TAFE campus to do Cert 2 VET qualification alongside school subjects. Students complained about strong direction towards maths and science and that TAFE pathways encouraged rather than HE, suggesting “the ‘taken for granted’ beliefs of many of these students: that students like themselves are not capable of achieving university” (p.907). Tranter argues that when vocational subjects proliferate in low SES government schools, they do so at the expense of academic options (p.908), therefore disadvantaging these students in terms of limiting their available options “and steering students away from a university pathway” (p.913).

Abbott-Chapman (2011) adds explanation to this context, arguing that universities need to recognise that disadvantaged students’ pathways are limited by circumstances and economic/social capital. This is increasingly problematic when coupled with a neoliberal ideology – the entrepreneurial self and the ‘do-it-yourself’ biography (p.62) – and external challenges (such as geography and distance) and teachers’ expectations or positioning of students. Abbott-Chapman argues that approaches to facilitating pathways for disadvantaged school students should target the 3 ‘Rs’—student resilience, institutional responsiveness and policy reflexivity (p.58), and reconfiguration of universities as ‘traversing places’: a “complex network of connections with hubs” (p.67). Such an approach would require a substantive shift in approach and thinking that would require stronger connections and relationships between schools and universities.

It is likely that since Abbott-Chapman’s paper was published in 2011, many changes have been made to the ways that universities communicate with local schools as a result of the federal HEPPP funding. One example is offered in Hughes & Brown (2014), who offer an account of how the implementation of the Advancement Via Individual Development (AVID) program has strengthen relationships between one university and local schools, and as an example secondary/tertiary collaboration. They argue that, “AVID demystifies entry processes to tertiary education by explicitly teaching students institutional literacies” (p.6). An additional likely outcome is that AVID teaches schoolteachers alongside their students, and helps university staff to see what happens in school, thus helping to develop stronger shared understandings between both sectors. However, there may be constraints on how much of these understandings are shared with colleagues more widely in both institutions. On the basis of the success of the AVID program, Hughes & Brown offer five recommendations to strengthen school and university pathways, based on the goals of the AVID program and an OECD framework (‘Equity and Quality in Education. Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools’ (2012): to strengthen and support school leadership,

to stimulate a supportive school climate/ environment for learning, to attract, support and retain high-quality teachers, to ensure effective classroom learning strategies, and to prioritise linking schools-parents-communities.

Pathways in: VET to university

In addition to the focus on improving aspirations and pathways in schools, there is also a significant focus in the literature on pathways from VET to higher education. This imperative was explicitly set out in the Bradley Review (2008), which called for a more holistic approach to planning and provision of VET and HE (as an extended tertiary landscape), with a continuum of tertiary skills provision needed funded by single level of governance and nationally funded. However, the authors of the Bradley Review also noted the high levels of stratification and patterns of inequity that exist in VET. For instance, Griffin (2014) reports that in 2011, VET students from indigenous, NESB, rural/remote backgrounds and students with a disability were over-represented in Cert I courses and Cert II, leading to limited direct employment outcomes. Moreover, the number of students from equity groups who transition from VET to higher education is lower, regardless of level of qualification completed (except for NESB and younger students). Adding to this picture, Curtis (2011) reports that regional and remote students are more likely to undertake VET studies than metropolitan students, which he posits is (in part) related to concerns with the quality of school education in non-metropolitan.

The differences in participation in tertiary education can be attributed to the differentiated status of the sectors and epistemologies both within and between VET and higher education. Wheelahan (2009) argues that VET-HE pathways “are shaped by and enacted within a tertiary education sector that is differentiated by status and they do little to act as an equity mechanism as a consequence” (p.262); moreover, “they do little to widen participation of students from low socio-economic backgrounds in HE” (p.262) because they reinforce/ replicate the SES patterns, with high/middle SES students more likely to take higher level VET courses and articulate into higher education. She notes that of the Australian public universities, five are dual-sector (VET and HE) and admit more VET articulators than all the other universities. Accordingly, it is unsurprising to not that VET-HE pathways rarely provide access to elite universities and “this contributes to the exclusivity of these universities” (p.269). Similarly, Griffin (2014) argues that VET to university articulation in its current form is not an effective mechanism for increasing participation of equity groups (p.12).

In terms of making transitions from VET into university, Pardy & Seddon (2011) discuss how critical differences in the knowledge systems of VET and higher education make moving comfortably from higher level VET courses into undergraduate programs is difficult without explicit acknowledgement of, and support for, these epistemological transitions. VET knowledge works from a ‘competency-based training’ (CBT) approach, which emerged as a result of reforms in job training; in contrast, higher education is based on a graded, knowledge synthesis-production approach. In CBT, knowledge is not made explicit; instead it is tacitly embedded in ‘skills’, which need to be performed or demonstrated but which are not graded. This way of knowing jars with the kinds and ways of learning and demonstrating knowledges at university. Pardy & Seddon draw on Kemmis’ (2005) idea of VET as ‘knowing practice’, recognising that open conceptions of what counts as knowledge are “made in spaces where the materiality of craft, the embodiments of practice and the physicality of work connect with mindful realisations about self and the world” (p.64). However, as argued by Tranter (2012), CBT serves to limit students from accessing the powerful and more high status knowledges (theories) of academic subjects and study, and thus perpetuates the inequitable patterns of participation in particular levels of both school and VET. Much like the discussion of school-university pathways above, Pardy & Seddon posit that the ‘manual-mental’ divide that exists between VET and HE requires stronger partnerships between the sectors that recognises different values and assessments of knowledge, so as to ameliorate the imbalance in parity of esteem between two sectors.

From an indigenous perspective, Bandias, Fuller & Larkin’s (2013) research suggests that between 2000 and 2009, Indigenous enrolments in the Northern Territory were concentrated in the lower levels (Certificate I and II). For students who took Certificate IV or Diploma courses (higher level certificates), 17% transitioned from TAFE into CDU. However, given low numbers of students who study higher-level certificates, this translates into “relatively few students” (p.3). Most of the indigenous students in CDU between 2000-2009 were admitted on the basis of previous higher education experience or from an alternative entry pathway. For the students who transitioned from VET, they found their VET studies useful, but “some students were unprepared for the more academic environment of higher education and the emphasis on online learning” (p.3).

A lack of preparation is a common finding in terms of the difficulties that VET students face in their movements into higher education, related often to the differences in assessment discussed in Pardy & Seddon (2011) and Tranter (2012), but are also related to the different literacies that students need to master for higher education. There are three papers that attend to these issues, offering accounts of three different approaches to seeking to understand the issues TAFE articulants perceive as hindering their adaption to university study, and specific pedagogical interventions to support students’ transitions. Ambrose et al. (2013) describe the practice of trying to support TAFE students as ‘trying to catch smoke’. In their survey of 76 students who gained access via a TAFE pathway, the most commonly cited forms of transition-related support was orientation (32 students), print materials (32 students), ‘skills’ modules (18 students), and student support (16 students). All of these had low rates of perceived helpfulness (11, 6, 2, 2 respectively); 25 students reported having no support. Focus group interviews with 26 of the respondents identified a range of technological and procedural challenges experienced by the students, such as time management, organisations skills, administrative arrangements, online components of learning, reading, group work, research and referencing (p.A124).

In similar work, Delly’s (2016) research focused on the academic literacies requirements and difficulties that students transitioning from TAFE reported. Delly’s self-report questionnaire data suggests a minority of students perceived themselves as having a ‘skills gap’ with writing essays (26% said they did not), but the majority reported they could not identify/read academic texts, locate an academic text or reference correctly (83%, 91% and 87% respectively). Her qualitative data suggests that few students realised that there would be a shift in approaches to knowledge (from competence to ‘evidence-based knowledge focus’, p.A-27), and most only realised this after submitting work and receiving feedback, which Delly argues can be attributed to lack of awareness of ‘rules of the game’, with VET students’ habitus their previous studies no longer appropriate when they transition to university, especially for students moving from TAFE Diplomas to the second year of undergraduate study via credit transfer arrangements.

As an alternative perspective, Weadon & Baker (2014) explored the perceptions of TAFE program coordinators who had implemented higher educations into TAFE settings, seeking to understand what characteristics of the TAFE educational environment promote successful transition into a higher education program for non-traditional students. Their findings suggest that the participant TAFE program coordinators believed that the blended learning approach (12 hours of online delivery of subject materials, 12 hours of online activities and 12 hours of face-to-face workshops per course at the TAFE institution they had previously studied at) and being located within TAFE was fundamental to students’ success. Many thought it eased students’ ‘transition-shock’, particularly because “the blended delivery style favoured the students transitioning from competency-based learning into outcome-based learning… requiring ‘self-directed knowledge acquisition” (p.197). However, while the programs were perceived as positive for students, some of the participants raised issues that teaching staff had in terms of adapting to different ways of teaching, knowing and assessing. Staff were also aware of the stratification of VET and HE in the tertiary system: “Universities were generally perceived as displaying an attitude towards TAFE institutions that did not always acknowledge the teaching and program credentials of VET and, consequently, universities within the same region may not be a ‘fit for organisational objectives’ due to an unwillingness to engage in a productive, inter-organisational dialogue” (p.199).



Abbott-Chapman, J. (2011). Making the most of the mosaic: facilitating post-school transitions to higher education of disadvantaged students, The Australian Educational Researcher, 38(1): 57–71.

Ambrose, I.; Bonne, M.; Chanock, K.; Cunnington, C.; Jardine, S.; & Muller, J. (2013). “Like catching smoke”: Easing the transition from TAFE to university. Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 7(2): A120–131.

Bandias, S.; Fuller, D. & Larkin, S. (2013). Vocational education, Indigenous students and the choice of pathways. NCVER: Adelaide.

Chesters, J. (2015). Pathways through secondary school in a comprehensive system: does parental education and school attended affect students’ choice?, International Journal of Training Research, 13(3): 231–245.

Chesters, J. & Watson, L. (2014). Returns to education for those returning to education: evidence from Australia, Studies in Higher Education, 39(9): 1643–1648.

Delly, P. (2016).  “Your brain just freaks out!” – Understanding VET articulants’ transition experience using Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and field, Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 10(1): A20–A34.

Edwards, D. & Coates, H. (2011). Monitoring the pathways and outcomes of people from disadvantaged backgrounds and graduate groups, Higher Education Research & Development, 30(2): 151–163.

Gale, T. & Parker, S. (2011). Student transition into higher education. ALTC Good Practice Report. Surry Hills, NSW: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Gale, T. & Parker, S. (2014). Navigating change:  a typology of student transition in higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 39(5): 734–753

Gale, T., Parker, S., Molla, T. & Findlay, K. with T. Sealey (2015). Student Preferences for Bachelor Degrees at TAFE: The socio-spatial influence of schools. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Australia. Centre for Research in Education Futures and Innovation (CREFI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.

Griffin, T. (2014). Disadvantaged learners and VET to higher education transitions: National Vocational Education and Training Research Program Occasional Paper. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education Research.

Mahuteau, S., Karmel, T., Mavromaras, K. & Zhu, R. (2015). Educational Outcomes of Young Indigenous Australians. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Australia. National Institute of Labour Studies (NILS), Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.

Meuleman, A.M.; Garrett, R.; Wrench, A.; & King, S. (2015). ‘Some people say I’m thriving but…’: non-traditional students’ experiences of university. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 19(5): 503–517.

Pardy, J. & Seddon, T. (2011). Making space for VET learning after the Bradley Review: Rethinking knowledge to support inclusion and equity, Cambridge Journal of Education, 41(1): 53–65.

Power, C. & Hibbert, E. (2016). Student-facilitated transition: Fostering empowered collectives, Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 10(1): A35–A47.

Rahman, K. (2013). Belonging and learning to belong in school: the implications of the hidden curriculum for indigenous students. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 34(5): 660–672.

Ryan, N. & Hopkins, S. (2013). Combining social media and career development learning: An intensive tertiary preparation programme for disadvantaged youth, Australian Journal of Career Development, 22(3): 107–111.

Stirling, J. & Rossetto, C. (2015). “Are we there yet?”: Making sense of transition in higher education, Student Success, 6(2): 9–20.

Tranter, D. (2012). Unequal schooling: how the school curriculum keeps students from low socio-economic backgrounds out of university, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 16(9): 901–916.

Weadon, H. & Baker, A. (2014). Deviating from the norm: Innovative student pathways for successful TAFE/University transition, International Journal of Training Research, 12(3): 192–202.

Wheelahan, L. (2009). Do educational pathways contribute to equity in tertiary education? Critical Studies in Education, 50(3): 261–275.


Supplementary literature

Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press: Durham, NC.


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.