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You are reading: Equity implications of non-ATAR pathways: Participation, academic outcomes, and student experience

Dr Ian W Li1, Dr David R Carroll 2, Professor Denise Jackson3

Executive summary

There have been expansionary policies aimed at widening participation in higher education in developed countries worldwide. In Australia, increasing participation among underrepresented groups is a national priority. This has led to the formation of six official student equity groups whose access, participation, and outcomes in higher education have been specifically targeted since 2008. More recently, the development of alternative entry pathways has been encouraged to boost higher education enrolments among these equity groups.

There is, however, relatively scarce evidence on trends in admission to university study through alternative pathways and on the comparative outcomes of students from various pathways.

The project

This study aimed to fill these policy gaps and addressed four research questions:

  1. What are the proportions of students entering undergraduate study through Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) and non-ATAR pathways in Australian universities?
  2. What are the proportions, numbers, and trends over time—by equity group status—of those who access university education through non-ATAR and ATAR pathways?
  3. How are equity students from non-ATAR pathways distributed across courses, and are there observable trends and patterns?
  4. Do student outcomes (retention, progression, student experience, academic performance, work readiness) differ based on the type of entry pathway and equity group status?

Key findings

This study found that, while the ATAR pathway was still the most common pathway to university, there has been a gradual decline in the last decade in the proportion of students accessing university this way. Conversely, alternative pathways, such as the completion of another higher education course, entry via Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses, and other pathways (e.g., access schemes and enabling programs), are increasingly being used by students to gain admission into universities. The growth in alternative entry pathways was stronger for students from all equity groups except for Indigenous students. There were also trends in enrolments by field of study, with disciplines such as engineering seeing a proportional decline in student enrolments while disciplines such as health experienced growth. These enrolment trends were observed for the student body as a whole, and also for the various equity groups examined.

Students who accessed higher education through non-ATAR pathways generally experienced poorer outcomes compared to students from ATAR pathways. Students who entered university through VET, mature age provisions, or on an “other basis” were found to have lower retention rates both in the first year and over their course enrolment and also lower first-year and course weighted-average marks. There were, however, positive findings for students from some other alternative entry pathways. Those who entered university through pathway providers or enabling programs had stronger retention outcomes and higher marks.

Students who gained admission through the completion of another higher education course experienced a mix of outcomes, with lower retention rates but better weighted-average marks than students from ATAR pathways. These findings call for better support of students who enter through VET, mature age provisions, or other admission pathways.

For retention, the findings also call for better support for students who enter through the completion of another higher education course. At the same time, the positive findings regarding students from pathway providers and enabling programs endorse further growth of these admission pathways.

The weaker academic outcomes for students from alternative pathways were, in some cases, exacerbated for students enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses. Similarly, more pronounced weaker outcomes in STEM
fields were observed for some equity groups, such as Indigenous and non-English-speaking background (NESB) students. This indicates the need to provide particular attention and support to alternative pathway and equity group students enrolled in STEM fields, especially as there has been governmental support for increasing student growth in these discipline areas.

This study revealed differences in various aspects of student experience by entry pathway. Students from alternative entry pathways broadly reported a less positive student experience than students entering directly from secondary school. There were also differences observed between the different non-ATAR pathways. For example, compared to students from ATAR pathways, students from other higher education courses had a poorer student experience, but those articulating through the “other basis” pathway had better outcomes.

Student experience also differed across equity groups. Mature age students and those with disability had poorer student experience outcomes. By contrast, Indigenous students, those from regional and remote areas, NESB students, and women in STEM fields generally reported higher levels of student satisfaction. Given that the student experience is associated with academic performance and is important in its own right, these outcome gaps need to be addressed.

Analysis of the intention to drop out indicated that students from most equity groups, except NESB students and women in STEM, were more likely to consider dropping out from their studies. In contrast, students from alternative entry pathways had a comparable—if not reduced—likelihood of considering leaving university study. This was a positive finding. Nevertheless, an examination of the factors prompting the consideration of dropping out from study revealed that, for all students and regardless of entry pathway, social and personal factors were influential.

Among certain entry pathway groups, some factors were also particularly influential in the intention to drop out. For instance, health and financial reasons were important for students from VET and mature age provision pathways, while academic/institutional factors underpinned the attrition of students from ATAR pathways and other higher education courses. Workload was also important for VET entry students, while disposition or attitude towards studies was a barrier to retention among ATAR pathway students.

These reasons for the intention to discontinue study highlight the importance, for the entire student body, of strategies that facilitate connection among peers and of the development of social capital. Clearly, strategies need to be further tailored to address the different factors that are important for students entering through different pathways.

Read the full report, Equity implications of non-ATAR pathways: Participation, academic outcomes, and student experience.

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

1University of Western Australia
2Monash University
3Edith Cowan University


Expert Review

Professor Michael Dockery
Principal Research Fellow
Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre
Curtin University

This report by Ian Li, David Caroll and Denise Jackson presents novel evidence on higher education outcomes and university experiences of students from the main equity groups, conditional upon their entry pathway into university.  These findings have important policy implications for the higher education sector, given major directions in policy to expand participation in higher education, notably for identified equity target groups, and in the context of ongoing debates over the usefulness of the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) as the key selection criteria for university entrance.

The surprising lack of existing evidence of this nature adds to the significance and timeliness of this report, which the authors note is the first to jointly study pathway and equity group outcomes. A major achievement of the research is the collation of the dataset making the empirical analysis possible, involving the matching of individual student records from the Departmental Higher Education Statistics collection, the Student Experience Survey and from the administrative systems of 16 participating universities.

Critically, the resulting analysis provides nuanced findings to guide institutions in developing policies and practice to support students from different equity groups and entry pathways, and at different stages of their studies. I hope the report encourages more universities across the sector to cooperate in providing student-level data, to support the ongoing refinement of these practices to support widening participation and the enhancement of student experiences and outcomes.

Download the full report:
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