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You are reading: Pathways to Higher Education: The Efficacy of Enabling and Sub-Bachelor Pathways for Disadvantaged Students

Written by Dr Tim Pitman and Professor Sue Trinidad (NCSEHE), Professor Marcia Devlin (Federation University Australia), Dr Andrew Harvey and Mr Matt Brett (La Trobe University), and Dr Jade McKay (Deakin University)


This report details the findings of the Enabling programmes for disadvantaged student groups project, which was funded as part of the Australian Government Department of Education and Training National Priorities Pool funding 2014 round with the research undertaken in 2015. The project team conducted a review of current enabling programs and reported on:

i. the extent to which current enabling courses offered by Australian higher education providers are an effective means of increasing access to, participation and success in undergraduate courses for domestic students from disadvantaged groups;

ii. the appropriateness of enabling courses as a pathway to university for disadvantaged groups compared to other pathways;

iii. the variability in quality between enabling courses that impacts on their effectiveness for disadvantaged student groups; and

iv. what, if any, particular practices or means of delivery should be incorporated into enabling courses to enhance their effectiveness for people from disadvantaged groups.

For the purposes of this report, ‘disadvantaged students’ were primarily defined in line with the six officially recognised equity groups of students (“the equity group of students”):

  • Low socio economic status (low SES) students;
  • Students from regional and remote areas;
  • Indigenous students;
  • Students with a disability;
  • Students from a non-English speaking background (NESB); and
  • Women in non-traditional areas of study (WINTA).


The main findings from this research project are:

  • There is currently a diverse range of enabling programs available throughout the higher education sector in Australia, including course length, content, and mode of delivery.
  • There is a lack of transparency, transferability and information about enabling programs that is likely to hinder student take-up, mobility and progression.
  • Greater consistency of program design would increase opportunities for institutions to recognise enabling programs other than their own for the purposes of admission to further undergraduate studies.
  • With the exception of programs designed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, most programs are relatively unrestricted in regards to access; both in terms of what types of domestic students can apply and their prior academic performance.
  • A greater proportion of students enrolled in and transitioning via enabling pathways are from recognised equity groups than any of the other sub-bachelor pathways examined.
  • In terms of raw numbers, enabling programs are second only to VET studies in transitioning more equity-group students to Bachelor-level studies than the other sub-bachelor pathways examined.
  • Students from recognised equity groups who articulate via an enabling program generally experience better first-year retention rates than those articulating via most other sub-bachelor
  • In terms of success (i.e. the ratio of units passed to units studied), the evidence appears to be that the equity group of students articulating from many sub-bachelor pathways are experiencing academic barriers to success. However this finding needs to be treated with caution, due to the low numbers of students transitioning via many of the sub-bachelor pathways.
  • Across all equity groups, students transitioning via the Associate Degree, Advanced Diploma and Diploma pathways generally experienced better success rates than those transitioning via enabling programs. However this finding should be treated with caution, due to the low numbers of students available for this particular part of the analysis.
  • Overall, students articulating via an enabling program expressed greater satisfaction with their experience in comparison with those using a VET pathway. This sentiment was more strongly expressed when participants were asked to consider how well the pathway had prepared them for university studies and whether or not it gave them the confidence to pursue, and a feeling of belonging in, these studies.
  • Almost two-third (66.2%) of surveyed students articulating via the VET pathway undertook the VET qualification for its own benefits, not as a pathway to university studies. Furthermore, greater proportions of equity-group students utilise the enabling pathway than the VET pathway. These findings further reinforce the reality that, by and large, the various sub-bachelor pathways serve distinct cohorts of students and act in a complementary, not contrasting, fashion.
  • The absence of fees encourages many students to enrol in an enabling program who might otherwise not have enrolled in a VET or other university pathway.
  • Enabling programs are currently limited in the extent to which they can both widen and deepen access to higher education because: generally higher education institutions recognise only their own enabling programs for articulation purposes; more than half of all enabling places available nationally are enrolled through only eight institutions; and most enabling programs place limitations on the courses to which the students can articulate to.
  • Diversity in the sector has led to a wide range of innovative enabling programs, whose overall success is evident in the national retention rates – and to some extent the success rates – of enabling graduates who proceed to undergraduate level. Further research is required to establish which types of enabling programs are more effective than others, and to promote greater consistency among programs to improve transparency, quality, student mobility, and equity.
  • The qualitative findings from the student survey indicate that enabling programs might be improved:
    • by better aligning course content, structures and processes with those at the institutions’ undergraduate level, so as to help acculturate students with their postenabling experience;
    • by ensuring that the enabling program provides the students with both generic and specific knowledge;
    • by enhancing the academic skills development aspects of the enabling courses; and
    • by providing clearer and more transparent information to prospective students who do not always understand what an enabling program is or does.

Continue reading: Pathways to Higher Education – The Efficacy of Enabling and Sub-Bachelor Pathways for Disadvantaged Students (7MB)

Pitman, T., Trinidad, S., Devlin, M., Harvey, A., Brett, M. & McKay, J. (2016). “Pathways to Higher Education: The Efficacy of Enabling and Sub-Bachelor Pathways for Disadvantaged Students”. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Perth: Curtin University.