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You are reading: Pathways or Goat Tracks – Non-ATAR University Entrance

Megan O’Connell, Aarushi Singhania, Maci Hamdorf and Ciannon Cazaly
RMIT University

Executive summary

This project contributes to filling the gap in the knowledge about how young people find out about pathways into further education and future careers, including alternative non-ATAR pathways into university and pathways to vocational education. It brings to the fore the key role played by significant others, including parents and carers, and contends that young people and their significant others need exposure to a range of success stories in order to see the multitude of pathways possible as equal.

The report is situated in a changing landscape for young people. Young people are making multiple transitions between education and work, and mismatches between skill levels and chosen occupations are prevalent.

Our hypothesis was that young people from some equity groups – particularly those that are in a larger group of equity students such as those attending a school in a low socio-economic school status (SES) area – would be more likely to receive information about alternative pathways into university than young people who are isolated from their equity group peers. This includes pathways to university through vocational education and enabling programs. The project defines non-ATAR pathways into university as alternative pathways, despite the growth in university entrance through means other than ATAR. ATAR based entry remains the primary path of entry for students entering university from secondary education.

As we proceeded with the project a second hypothesis arose – that young people need a combination of three types of information to make a smooth transition from school to university or vocational education. They need to understand their skills and aspirations, their intended career/s, and the range of pathways they can take. We learned that parents and carers also need this information – in particular to hear first- hand pathway success stories.

The project

The project was conceived prior to the advent of COVID-19, and the challenges of the pandemic impacted the primary data collection for this work. Nevertheless, the research provides key insights and reveals gaps in young people’s career awareness and how they find out about pathways. It also provides clear implementable changes to the current ecosystem of careers and transition information and advice to support students to build awareness of how their interests link to careers and corresponding study pathways.

We surveyed and held focus groups with students across a range of jurisdictions – in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. Regardless of jurisdiction, we found similarities in what supported young people to gain knowledge of pathways, and the roles played by families, schools and universities.

Our research affirms and adds to the existing research base about pathways and transitions. Ideally all young people would finish school with a sense of:

  • What they like and are good at
  • Careers they might wish to pursue and
  • Course and pathways that lead to their chosen destination, and an ability to navigate between different options.

Of our respondents, young people who understood all three were most confident of their future, and most likely to know about alternative pathways that would lead to their career goal. The young people most confident in their career ambitions and pathways were those who successfully integrated information from their social or work network, parents, school, industry and higher education providers to validate their pathways. Some young people also benefited from workplace experiences.

Even within this group, understanding of different pathways was limited. Given how many alternative pathways are available it is perhaps not surprising that young people express little understanding of these, beyond a confidence from some that they could find another path if direct entry to their preferred course did not work out. When an alternative pathway was known, it was usually a VET to university pathway as a backup option, rather than a primary path.

Our respondents valued personal information the most – talking to trusted peers, parents or workmates or engaging in workplace activities. This was referred to as hot knowledge. By contrast cold knowledge, for example websites or more generic information sessions or open days with limited opportunities for personal engagement, were perceived as less helpful.

Focus groups confirmed the literature around the importance of hot knowledge. Young people with a trusted advisor – be it a sibling, a co-worker, or a parent, were more likely to have a clearer sense of their future pathway. Some young people validated this knowledge with others, including career advisors, and used it as a springboard to conduct their own research including reaching out to tertiary institutions they were familiar with.

While most young people surveyed were satisfied with the information they had to pursue their pathways, a small group were not. In unpacking this further through focus groups we found that nearly all young people identified a need for more information on jobs and pathways, and information earlier in their secondary education or during primary school. Young people spoke of how jobs were discussed in kindergarten, when parents visited to talk about what they do, but this did not continue into primary school.

Young people spoke of career advice usually starting in the senior years and often focused on subject selection – they wanted to hear more about industries and experience workplaces earlier in their schooling. Very few young people had the opportunities to experience workplaces – the exception being students streamed to vocational pathways. With this came the expectation that these streamed students would pursue a more narrow range of occupations.

The report adds to the existent but scant evidence base around the potential role of warm knowledge to ‘level the playing field’ for young people who lack access to trusted advisors on potential careers and pathways. Young people suggested access to warm knowledge, for example targeted information sessions with former students currently in university, and alumni returning to schools to talk about pathways with interested young people, would help bridge a gap in access to knowledge and support. Young people are comfortable and trusting of people like them providing information – even if they need to form new relationships to receive this information, for example by connecting with a university student at an open day. They are far more receptive to this information than information received on mass, or from a less relatable source.

Key findings

Our research confirms the dominance of the ATAR as a measure of success and the means to enter university, with most young people intending to get an ATAR and go to university regardless of their career choice. Many young people expected, and felt compelled by parents and their schools, to complete school and transition to university through a linear pathway. They were often unaware that different pathways exist and that many young people enter university through different means. Only a minority of students were aware of alternative pathways to university or expressed a desire to complete a vocational pathway in its own right.

Knowledge of alternative pathways to university was limited to some groups of young people. Some young people found out about alternative pathways through a university visiting their school. This was likely where a university was outreaching to an equity group – for example reaching out to a school with a large number of refugee young people. Alternatively, an Indigenous young person in a mainstream academic program, or a young person with a mental health condition, were less likely to know of alternative pathways to university even though they could equally benefit from this knowledge. They were also less likely to know about the ATAR and to have a strong sense of their future career.

Young people who had a significant person (family or friend) with lived experience of pathways, a trusted career advisor or who were targeted by universities due to their equity status were likely to know something about different pathways. However, many young people were unable to source up- to- date, relevant information from their parents or peers, nor to engage in workplace learning – pointing to a need and opportunity to support parents and young people to understand the range of pathways on offer that may lead to university or to vocational education and training.

Parents continue to have a primary influence on young people’s pathways, although many young people found that their parents did not understand how alternative pathways into university or careers work, and were only able to provide a narrow range of advice. Parents’ primary point of reference was their own school experience – their understanding of ATAR was limited but it was still held as the main goal students were urged to meet.

Young people suggested that parents and students need to hear first-hand success stories from former students who have taken alternative pathways to normalise these as a ‘safe’ option, rather than only as a second chance alternative.

Our report proposes simple changes that would make a tangible difference to young people’s understanding of pathways, including utilising peers to convey pathways information. This should include prioritising dissemination of success stories who achieved non- ATAR pathways into university, and pathways available within and through vocational education and training as these are currently less visible to young people and their parents.

Whilst it is not possible to convey information on all the paths available, the presence of a range of different options for entering industry, TAFE and university can be conveyed at large. Young people and their families can learn that there are a range of pathways that can be further explored, dependent on a student’s skills, motivations and career interests.

Young people are challenged to find out about alternative pathways to university, and to careers, if they do not have a firm understanding of what they like, are good at and potential careers. Career information needs to start early, be integrated across the curriculum and draw on relatable peers to showcase a wider range of successful pathways to young people and their families.


The findings of this project confirm that knowledge of careers and pathways, including alternative pathways, is limited to some groups of young people. Many young people are unable to source up-to-date, relevant information from the most trusted sources. We need to start careers exploration early and showcase success through a range of pathways to students, and importantly their parents and carers. Young people who understand their skills and interests, have engaged in workplace learning, and have an understanding of and capacity to navigate pathways will be well placed to transition from school to their next destination, and ultimately to a career of their desire.

Young people had very clear recommendations for schools, education providers and governments about how to improve:

Recommendation 1) Career education should be prioritised in the curriculum, with resources allocated to mainstream career learning across subjects in addition to supporting dedicated career practitioners

All young people benefit from a range of workplace engagement, hearing from other young people in industry, trying different skills at school and visiting workplaces. By starting workplace learning sooner, more young people would be able to identify what they like and are good at and explore a range of pathways.

Greater linking of subjects to careers and support to engage in workplace learning would provide young people with insights into how their skills and interests link to careers. They could then use this information to find pathways.

This approach requires prioritisation of career education in the curriculum, and resourcing to support all teachers to include career- related learning in their subjects in addition to ensuring every young person can access a trained career practitioner.

Recommendation 2) Schools should draw on alumni and industry peers to provide relatable information to young people

Linking to the importance of hot knowledge, young people suggest warm knowledge, delivered by people like them but not immediate peers or family members, would support them to make more informed decisions about their future pathways. Young people suggested having people like them, recent school leavers that are in industry, TAFE or university, return to school and host talks to demystify what these destinations are like and to provide information relevant to future careers and pathways. Young people felt that recent school leavers, rather than university lecturers, would be more relatable and be able to share information on what the transition feels like and what to expect in tertiary education. This could have an added benefit in increasing preparedness for further studies.

Recommendation 3) Schools have a key role to play in building parents’ and carers’ knowledge and understanding of alternative pathways from school to further education by showcasing a range of student success stories

Warm knowledge may help to educate parents and demystify alternative pathways. Parents and carers continue to have a primary influence on young people’s pathways – many young people are aspiring to careers held by parents and other family members and are strongly encouraged and led by their advice. However, many young people found that their parents or carers did not understand pathways into university and a range of careers or provided them with a narrow source of advice.

Parents and carers need to be part of the career information conversation to learn how school and careers are changing. They would benefit from exposure to greater knowledge and understanding of alternative pathways.

Showcasing alternative pathways success stories was seen as crucial, as parents and carers need to see that all pathways are safe to support their children to pursue them. Young people point to the need to ‘sell’ the success of alternative pathways. Young people felt that if students who had achieved success in alternative pathways could return to their school and speak to students and parents this would expand understanding and relieve parent fears about alternative pathways. This could help reframe pathways from being a second chance ‘alternative’ to a different, equal manner for young people to achieve their career goals.

Young people suggested COVID-19 related pivots to remote learning had shown how parents and carers could be more readily engaged remotely than at a school event. This could be part of the solution to engaging parents reluctant, or too time poor, to step into a school. Providing online sessions could be a way for schools to engage parents and carers after hours in career conversations and to hear from students who achieved success in different paths.

Recommendation 4) Universities should personalise their information by utilising peers and technology to support personalisation and connection

Young people commented that technology can expand the reach of universities. Young people in focus groups had at most spoken to representatives from a single university, which was the closest university and most often in a partnership or outreach arrangement with the school. Young people suggested alternatives to enable more universities, and more faculties, to reach them in an effective manner.

Universities and TAFEs should draw on existing students to provide warm knowledge to young people to help them understand pathways. All students suggested having people like them, recent school leavers that are in TAFE or university, demystify what these destinations are like and to provide information relevant to future careers and pathways.

University students from various faculties would ideally host open forums where interested young people could drop in and hear about pathways from people like them rather than having to navigate university websites or hear generic university information in open days. Young people are seeking personalised information and to be able to reach out to people like them, and to hear success stories from students. They find the current broad information sessions disempowering and overwhelming. Open days are preferred where students know and attend these and can talk to current students one on one. Some universities provide mentors to outreach high schools, and these provide a vital link and source of information.

Read the full report: Pathways or Goat Tracks – Non-ATAR University Entrance

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

Expert review

Professor Andrew Harvey
Director, Pathways in Place Program – Logan
Professor, School of Education and Professional Studies
Griffith University

Megan O’Connell and her RMIT colleagues capture the current limitations of careers education in schools through original surveys and focus groups with secondary students across multiple states. The authors particularly highlight the need for greater, and earlier, education around the multiple pathways to higher education. With school students making critical subject choices and often being academically streamed in Years 9 and 10, the need for early, comprehensive careers and tertiary education guidance is paramount. Equally, the authors highlight the need for employability skills more broadly, with most contemporary graduates likely to experience multiple career changes over their working lives.

Both vocational education and training (VET) and university enabling programs are confirmed as important potential pathways, while the authors also note the lack of careers knowledge among many parent and carer groups. Alternative pathways have expanded dramatically in the past decade and include important differences across states and territories. Navigating these pathways is extremely difficult for parents and carers, and information gaps disproportionately affect students from equity groups.

Engaging with parents and carers is therefore critical, as is exposing school students directly to a broad range of influences and potential careers. The value of peer mentors, university students, industry practitioners, and personal networks is highlighted by respondents keen to expand their knowledge and options. Focus groups conducted with students in alternative schools and vocational streams further confirm the need for multiple, accessible pathways to higher education. The report’s recommendations will inform both universities and governments.

Download the full report:
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