Low SES university applications at turning point

Advancing Society and Culture

National Equity Fellow, Dr Nadine Zacharias, has presented her findings at the National Press Club.

Applications to university for people from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds are continuing to increase in Australia — pointing to the success of equity initiatives funded by the Commonwealth over the past six years, claims Deakin University researcher Dr Nadine Zacharias.

In fact, Dr Zacharias is optimistic that 2017 could well be an equity milestone year as the cumulative influence of national widening participation partnerships becomes visible in applications data. These partnerships have enabled universities to work strategically with educationally disadvantaged schools and communities.

One of three national Equity Fellows for 2016, sponsored by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University, Dr Zacharias presented the high-level findings of her research at the National Press Club in Canberra two weeks ago.

Reflecting increases in university participation overall, there are significantly more low SES students in the system than ever before: 124,429 in 2014, compared to 90,447 in 2009, an increase of 38 per cent.

The low SES group made up almost 18 per cent of the total domestic undergraduate student population in 2015. This is up from 16.3 per cent in 2009 and represents the first substantial increase in low SES participation rates as a proportion of all students since the 1990s. However, 25 per cent of the Australian population is considered as low SES by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, so there is still ground to be made up to achieve equitable representation.

“Offers for 2017 continued to increase for students from low SES backgrounds, while demand overall is plateauing,” said Dr Zacharias.

“We’ve always said that 2017 will be the year to watch as the cohort we started working with intensively in 2011/12 is the school leaver cohort of 2016.”

The flagship Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) was fully implemented in 2012 and has fundamentally changed the scale and approach to student equity in universities. Around $1 billion has been spent by the Federal Government on HEPPP since it was introduced in 2010, with another $550 million has been committed in forward estimates.

“Encouraging young people from low SES backgrounds to become interested in higher education is a process that takes time.”
Dr Nadine Zacharias
Dr Nadine Zacharias

For her Fellowship, Dr Zacharias undertook three case studies, looking at universities in different states to see which types of programs produced the best results. Her findings showed that it was difficult to link program effectiveness to low SES participation rates at the institutional level and that more finely grained measures were needed.

“I have found that different universities have implemented approaches to HEPPP that best fit their institutional profile and priorities. HEPPP has provided flexibility for the sector to develop bespoke programs and that has been really important. The challenge now is determining how to evaluate the success of these diverse institutional programs,” Dr Zacharias said.

Dr Zacharias’ Press Club presentation was part of a National Research Forum organised by the NCSEHE. The Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, addressed delegates and met the three current and three 2017 Equity Fellows.

“A Q&A with Professor Simon Marginson and Professor Bruce Chapman took the debate to an international level,” she said.

“It put into context how well we are doing in Australia and identified what we have to protect as we embark on a year of HE reforms.”

Dr Zacharias was the Director of Equity and Diversity at Deakin until early 2016. She has remained at the University during the Fellowship and will continue her relationship with Deakin in 2017 through an honorary research appointment, while taking up a full-time research role with the NCSEHE at Curtin University.

“The Fellowship has been a transformative experience for me personally and I am looking forward to new challenges in the national arena,” she said.

“I will use the time with the National Centre not only to build my research profile and expertise, but also to further strengthen the existing national network of equity practitioners. I will explore options to develop our collective leadership capability and improve sharing of successful strategies and practice across institutional and state boundaries.”