The Achievement Gap in Higher Education

A report issued by Universities Australia shows that students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds have much lower rates of participation in higher education in Australia than higher SES students.

Students from low SES backgrounds are under-represented in Australian higher education and are about one-third as likely to participate in higher education as students from high SES backgrounds.

According to the ABS Index of Education and Occupation, one quarter of the Australian population lives in low SES postcode areas yet the percentage share in higher education from these postcodes falls well short of this figure.

In 2006, students from low SES postcodes constituted 15.6 per cent of the total Australian resident higher education student population and the proportion has remained virtually unchanged for the past decade despite the expansion in the total number of Australian students in higher education.

Conversely, students from high SES backgrounds are significantly over-represented in higher education. They comprise one quarter of the population but account for 37.5 per cent of all higher education students.

The under-representation of low SES students is even more apparent in the universities and courses for which there is the most competitive entry. Low SES students are most highly represented in regional universities, while high SES students are most highly represented in the elite Group of Eight universities. In the Group of Eight universities the participation share of people from low SES backgrounds is at about 11 per cent, well below the national mean for participation share of low SES students.

A similar pattern is apparent in the most prestigious courses. Students from low SES backgrounds are particularly under-represented in medicine, law and architecture but are less under-represented in teacher education and agriculture. In terms of course level, students from high SES backgrounds consistently comprise the largest proportion of students at masters and doctorate level. Students from low SES backgrounds comprised only 8.6 per cent of the total 2002 enrolment in higher degrees.

One of the most interesting results of the study is that despite large differences between the university access rates of students from low and high SES backgrounds, there is little difference in success and retention rates once students reach university. Higher education statistics show that 79 per cent of urban low SES students stay in an academic course from one year to the next compared to 80 per cent of urban high SES students.

There was little variation in this small difference in the years from 2001 to 2005. These figures confirm the results of other studies which show that once students from a low SES background enter university their background does not negatively affect their chances of completing the course.

Similar patterns are apparent in success rates, which are calculated on the proportion of units students pass in a year compared with the total number of units in which they were enrolled.

High SES urban students have only slightly higher success rates than low SES urban students, usually in the vicinity of four or five percentage points. For example, the success rate of high SES urban students in 2006 was 90 per cent compared with 85 per cent for low SES students.

The results of the study indicate further concerted effort must be made at the school level to improve the participation of low SES students in higher education. The study shows that a major factor inhibiting participation is the higher drop-out rate from school by low SES students and the generally lower achievement levels of low SES students at school.

The Universities Australia report is available at:

Trevor Cobbold

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