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You are reading: STEM Pathways: The impact of equity, motivation and prior achievement

Julie McMillan, Sheldon Rothman, Sarah Buckley and Daniel Edwards, Australian Council for Educational Research

Executive summary

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills are promoted by the Australian Government as pivotal for Australia’s economic prosperity and meeting future workforce requirements (Timms et al., 2018). Whether particular equity groups are able to participate in STEM has implications for the future labour market outcomes of these groups and their contributions in an area seen as vitally important for innovation and prosperity.

This study, developed with the support of a National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) Research Grant, is framed around three core research questions:

  1. How do the STEM pathways of equity groups and non-equity groups differ?
  2. What factors facilitate equity group students participating in university STEM courses?
  3. Do the factors influencing young people’s university STEM participation differ between equity groups and non-equity groups?

The study uses data tracking a cohort of young people from age 15 to 25 to explore these core questions. This data is drawn from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) and from the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA). The study offers new insights into STEM pathways for young people in equity groups as they progress from secondary school, through post-school education and into the workforce. The equity groups of focus in this study are people from Low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, Non-metropolitan areas, First in Family to enrol at university and Women in Non-Traditional Areas (WINTA).

In the analysis of pathways into and through STEM for equity groups, the findings from this study show:

  • Lower relative transition rates into higher education for most equity groups, meaning that a smaller proportion of equity group cohorts go on to study STEM in university.
  • Of those young people in equity groups who do make the transition to university, the proportion who enrol in a STEM field is similar to the average across all university entrants – with approximately one in four university commencers enrolling in a STEM field (except for women, see below).
  • For women entering university, the transition rate into a STEM field is about half the rate of the national average. Less than one in eight women from this cohort who commenced university did so in a STEM field.
  • Once enrolled in STEM at university, equity group students tend to have lower completion rates by age 25. In general the STEM completion rates for equity groups are lower than the completion rates for other fields of education (except for women, see below). This was especially the case for students from Low SES backgrounds, where one third of this group had not completed their STEM degree by age 25.
  • For women in STEM fields, completion rates at university are very high compared with national averages and other equity groups, and unlike other groups, STEM completion rates for women are comparable to rates of completion in other fields.
  • When it comes to transition into a STEM occupation, fewer than one in three STEM university commencers go into a STEM occupation, and for students from Low SES backgrounds and women in STEM the transition rate is even lower, at one in four.

Results of further analyses to explore the factors that contribute to the outcomes, specifically for entry into university, focussed on exploring subject selection in senior secondary school, mathematics achievement in secondary school, and attitudes towards mathematics and school. The analyses found:

  • While mathematics achievement at age 15 is a very strong predictor of entry to university, it did not necessarily differentiate pathways into STEM for equity groups or others in the cohort.
  • Among equity groups, participation in two higher level mathematics subjects in senior secondary school was notably lower compared to the non-equity group in the analysis. Furthermore, analysis of participation in mathematics and science in senior secondary school showed that for those without two or more subjects in this area, the prospects of subsequently studying in a STEM field was low.
  • Instrumental motivation in mathematics (as measured through PISA at age 15) was a significant predictor of subsequent higher education study in a STEM field for the cohort as a whole and all equity groups (especially Low SES), even when controlling for mathematics achievement and other background factors.
  • Self-concept in mathematics (as measured in PISA at age 15) was also a significant predictor of higher education participation in STEM – but only for Low SES, First in Family and women. This outcome was not apparent for the non-equity group or Non-metropolitan students.

These results open the door to future research to better understand the transition points and pathways of young people in equity groups pursuing STEM. They also provide evidence for future policy implementation. In particular, given the influence on decision-making in relation to further STEM study, interventions targeted at fostering self-concept and instrumental motivation are crucial, even before students are at age 15 and particularly with students from equity groups.


The findings from this study have potential implications for policy and practice in relation to three important areas of the student lifecycle – early and middle years of schooling; senior secondary school; and assisting entry into the STEM workforce. Opportunities to influence these three points in the lifecycle so as to improve outcomes for students from under-represented groups include:

  • In the early and middle years of schooling, building mathematics programs and encouraging pedagogical approaches that focus on demonstrating the practical importance of mathematics, with the aim of increasing instrumental motivation in mathematics. Increasing instrumental motivation has been shown to significantly increase likelihood of pursuing STEM among equity groups, especially students from Low SES backgrounds.
  • In the senior years of schooling, policies and interventions to encourage university participation among under-represented groups should continue and be refined to ensure the range of opportunities through higher education are understood. Being able to demonstrate the benefits of mathematics competency across a broad spectrum of employment and practical problem solving issues is of particular importance in increasing the flow of higher education entrants into STEM fields.
  • In the later years of university, opportunities for work placements, internships and/or Work Integrated Learning (WIL) in STEM fields is critical for developing pathways into the STEM workforce. Strong developments in this area across science in Australia, led by the Australian Council of Deans of Science has seen significant change in recent years ( Given this growing confidence and know-how in universities, and the work already underway for Women in STEM, further widening the focus on opportunities for equity groups, particularly Low SES students should be a challenge taken up in the future.

Read the full report, STEM Pathways: The impact of equity, motivation and prior achievement 

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

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