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You are reading: Joining the Dots: Re-exploring SES among university students

Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) report written by Daniel Edwards and Eva van der Brugge


Increasing the participation of people from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in higher education is a key tenet of the Australian Government. Australia is aiming to raise the proportion of undergraduate students who are from a low SES background to 20 percent by 2020. The emphasis on improving access has been well received and is a crucial part of the overall ambition of the Government to increase attainment levels in higher education across Australia.

Given the rise in student numbers in recent years, exploring change in SES is important. Whether this growth has encouraged a higher proportion of students from low SES backgrounds to enrol in university is an important factor in the interplay between SES targets, attainment targets and the overall equity aims of Government.

However, measuring SES is a difficult task, especially when it comes to the undergraduate university student population. In general, measurement of the SES of university students has relied on derived measures based on the concurrent residential location of the student. This has been and continues to be the most efficient way of estimating SES distributions among students; however, it is perhaps not the most accurate indicator. While recent changes to these calculations have started to include recipients of Centrelink benefits in an attempt to increase the accuracy of the measure, the current residential address remains the dominant basis for deriving SES of students.

This Joining the Dots (JTD) Research Briefing explores the use of a measure of SES that is based on university students’ prior residential address rather than their address once attending university. It is hypothesised that prior address offers a more accurate indication of the SES background of higher education students, given that many of this cohort move house to attend university, and that the SES of their residential area once enrolled at university may not reflect their original SES background. This exploratory study aims to investigate the extent to which a measure based on previous address changes the SES distribution of the student body. Furthermore, it tracks whether SES of this population changed between 2006 and 2011 based on this new measure, a period in which there was substantial growth in university enrolments (Edwards & Van der Brugge, 2012).

By extracting data from the 2006 and 2011 Census, which include information on residential location five years prior to the Census, and matching this information to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Socioeconomic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA), this briefing reveals a different picture from the one that is based on current methodologies, with the proportion of low SES students being shown to be higher than previously estimated.

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Joining the Dots is a subscription-based resource provided by ACER to those with an interest in Australian Higher Education. More detail can be found at or by emailing

Edwards, D. and van der Brugge, E. 2013. “Re-exploring SES among university students.” Joining the Dots Research Briefing Series, 2 (5). ACER, Camberwell, Australia.
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