The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our campuses are situated. With a history spanning 60,000 years as the original educators, Indigenous peoples hold a unique place in Australia. We recognise the importance of their knowledge and culture, and reflect the principles of participation, equity, and cultural respect in our work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future, and consider it an honour to learn from our Indigenous colleagues, partners, and friends.

You are reading: Widening Participation in Australian Higher Education

Report submitted to HEFCE and OFFA, October 2013.

Written by Professor Trevor Gale and Dr Stephen Parker

This report documents the current approach to widening participation (WP) in Australian higher education (HE) (as at June 2013). The WP policy has a long history in Australian HE, arguably beginning with the establishment of the nation’s first university (The University of Sydney) in the mid – 1800s which enabled access to HE for those unable to make the long journey to England in order to take up a university place. Other milestones in the nation’s WP journey include post – WWII nation rebuilding, the Whitlam expansions of the mid – 1970s and the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s/1990s. The current Rudd/Gillard targets are the latest in a long line of WP policy interventions. The main focus of these Australian Government interventions has been on increasing access to HE, particularly for people from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds – by definition, 25% of the nation’s population – but also for other target groups including Australia’s Indigenous peoples (see Chapter 6).

Since 1990 this focus has been refined by the use of the term ‘equity’: the notion that the representation of people from low SES backgrounds (and other target or ‘equity groups’) within the university student population should be the same as their representation within the broader population. ‘Proportional representation’ defines equity in Australian HE, although it does not necessarily define equity policy and practice. For example, the current target – that by 2020 20% of undergraduate students should be from low SES backgrounds – is aimed towards equity, while still falling short of it. There is also considerable variation in how equity is understood within university public statements. Australia’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education provides clarity to the term, arguing that equity is predicated on the recognition that:

‘ … social systems (including education systems) tend to produce unequal outcomes (advantage and disadvantage), and that in part this is because individuals’ starting positions and the processes involved in the production of social and economic outcomes are unfair. In this context, a commitment to equity is a commitment to adjusting social systems for socially just means and ends. In short, equity is a strategy: (a) to achieve (more) socially just ends; and (b) is informed by a theory about why and how a particular social system is not just.’

The approach of successive Australian governments to advance equity in HE has drawn from and contributed to a WP policy in other nations, particularly England. For example, Australia’s Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) and its equity performance indicators (monitoring target group access, participation, retention and success) now inform the policy approaches of several nations around the world. Australia’s HE system is very similar to the English system. The approach to WP has also been similar, albeit pursued in alternating periods of policy in/activity.

As far as possible, the following chapters use English terms to describe Australian agendas. They begin with broad accounts of the Australian education system as a backdrop to its HE sector before elaborating on the WP policy and practice. The report concludes with a brief critique of these and potential points of interest for the English context.

Read more here: Widening Participation in Australian Higher Education and at the Higher Education Funding Council for England website.


Trevor Gale is Professor of Education Policy and Social Justice at Deakin University (Melbourne), founding editor of the international journal, Critical Studies in Education and co-editor (with Kal Gulson) of the book series, Education Policy and Social Inequality, published by Springer. He is a past president of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) and from 2008 to 2011 he was the founding director of Australia’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. In 2009 he was appointed by the Deputy Prime Minister to the National VET Equity Advisory Council (NVEAC) and, in 2010, to the National Quality Council (NQC), both reporting to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Standing Council on Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment (SCOTESE). In 2009, he was an expert member of the Australian Government DEEWR working group that developed the Indicator Framework for Higher Education Performance Funding and the new measure of socioeconomic status for higher education students. Trevor’s research focuses on education policy and social justice, particularly in formal education contexts (schooling, vocational and higher education). He is author of books, book chapters, numerous journal articles and other scholarly works. His latest book is Schooling in Disadvantaged Communities (with Carmen Mills), published by Springer in 2010. He is chief investigator on two current Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grants, one researching the aspirations of secondary school students in Melbourne’s western suburbs and the other researching the social justice dispositions of secondary teachers in advantaged and disadvantaged Melbourne and Brisbane schools. He has recently completed major research reports for the Australian Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) on higher education student transitions, for the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) on widening participation in Australian higher education, and for the Australian National VET Equity Advisory Council on TAFE bachelor degrees and disadvantaged learners.


Dr Stephen Parker is Research Fellow in the Centre for Educational Futures and Innovation at Deakin University. He has interests in social justice, public policy, social and political theory and sociology. Stephen has researched and published in higher education policy, student aspirations and student transitions appearing in Cambridge Journal of Education and Studies in Higher Education. Stephen has recently contributed to a number of research reports including VET providers, associate/bachelor degrees and disadvantaged learners (for the National VET Equity Advisory Council), Student Aspirations for Higher Education in Central Queensland: A survey of school students’ navigational capacities (for Central Queensland University) and Widening Participation in Australian Higher Education (for the Higher Education Funding Council for England). He is currently Research Fellow on the ARC project, Social Justice Dispositions: Informing the Pedagogic Work of Teachers in Advantaged / Disadvantaged Secondary Schools, with Trevor Gale, Russell Cross and Carmen Mills. Prior to working at Deakin Stephen was a researcher at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.

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