Students from Disadvantaged Schools do as well at University as Other Students

Students from disadvantaged schools did as well as those from other government and private schools in first-year subjects at the University of Sydney last year and actually did better than students from all other schools, excluding government selective schools.

The University of Sydney has released information on the performance of its first-year students classified according to student background.

In 2009, 71% of students from disadvantaged schools passed their first-year subjects. This was the same as the pass rate for all high schools, government and private. It was even better than the 68.5% pass rate for students from comprehensive government schools and private schools, that is, excluding government selective schools.

The proportion of selective government school students who passed first-year was 83%. Nearly one in five selective school students failed first-year at the university.

Professor Marie Carroll, director of academic affairs at the University of Sydney, said this reflects a wider problem that many selective school students have difficulty in adapting to the unstructured and unsupported learning environment of university [ Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 2010].

The students from disadvantaged backgrounds who passed all their subjects were from all 17 faculties, with the highest numbers in health, science, arts and engineering.

The big challenge is to lift the participation of students from disadvantaged schools at university. They comprised only 5% of first-year enrolments at the University of Sydney in 2009 compared to about 60% from high socio-economic backgrounds.

There is a huge social divide in university participation in Australia.

According to Dr Leesa Wheelahan, senior lecturer at Griffith University, 8 universities admit more than 50% of their students from high socio-economic status backgrounds, and four of these are in NSW. Privilege is most concentrated at ANU, with 68% from high SES backgrounds, University of Canberra (68%), and Macquarie University (66%). The University of Technology, Sydney, admits 58% from a high SES background, the University of Melbourne 55%, the University of NSW 54% and the University of Western Australia 52%.

Clearly, there is a long way to go to achieve fairer participation in university education. The Federal Government has set a target that 20% cent of higher education enrolments should come from people with low socio-economic backgrounds by 2020.

Trevor Cobbold

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