Equity in Australian universities: ATAR is the elephant in the room

There are very few things for current and future university students to look forward to following the 2014 budget announcement. It has become quite apparent that university fees are likely to see a sharp rise, and leading economists like HELP system architect Prof. Bruce Chapman have expressed grave concerns about how much debt students look to be saddled with. Furthermore, there has been a lot of concern about how the uncapping of university fees may impact upon the ability of lower SES students to attend university – in particular the Group of Eight universities which are likely to see marked fee hikes.

University attendance in Australia is already heavily skewed toward the upper two SES quartiles, and at the elite Group of Eight universities this situation is at its worst. If you would like to see some data on this, I would encourage you to visit the website of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education; their reports are both highly revealing and deeply troubling.

The existence of the HELP system makes assessing the impact on lower SES students complex. On the one hand, HELP shields students from an upfront cost and thus reduces the entry barrier regardless of fee increases (for those interested in the technicalities look into the economic principle of ‘future discounting’). On the other hand, there are those who feel that debt aversion among those from families with low incomes will see them deciding against attending higher education institutions.

While these arguments are of importance, if we want to be serious about addressing equity issues in Australian universities we really need to talk about the elephant in the room: the ATAR entry system.

The simple truth is that the ATAR system, like almost any exam-based tertiary entrance ranking system, is systematically biased against those from lower SES backgrounds. In fact, one can state fairly confidently that ATAR scores are more informative about the SES background of a student than their academic ability. The figure below is from a couple of years before the introduction of ATAR, but I am fairly confident that the story it tells is still very much true. The relationship between higher SES background and higher tertiary entrance rankings is nothing short of alarming.



Teese, R., Lamb, S., & Duru-Bellat, M. (2007). Structural inequality in Australian education: vertical and lateral stratification of opportunity. In International Studies in Educational Inequality, Theory and Policy. v.2: Inequality in Education Systems. (Vol. 2, pp. 39-61). Netherlands: Springer.

So why do we see this? Well the low-hanging fruit is to do with schools – id est the children of wealthier families can be sent to better resourced schools – but this is not the whole answer. I am actually fairly skeptical of just how much ‘better’ the education provided at expensive private schools is – at least with regard to the scholarly aspect of schooling (you may ask what other aspects there are – look into the sociologist Bourdieu and what he calls the ‘hidden curriculum’). While better resources or smaller class sizes might indeed make a difference, there are plenty of other reasons that a higher SES background might bias one’s tertiary entrance rank upward. Social research has found again and again that the home environment has very important effects on educational outcomes.

So what do children of higher SES families have at home that those of lower SES backgrounds do not? To begin with, children from higher SES backgrounds are more likely to have one or more parents with a university education themselves. This means that there is a higher chance that valuable academic experience and advice is available on-tap in the home. Getting a little more into the sociology of things, there is also a higher chance that university attendance is considered a standard part of the life-path of higher SES families. This means that university attendance is considered absolutely normal or even necessary as a part of the family’s definition of success – one should never underestimate the power of the familial habitus in such things. This is, of course, not to say that lower SES families do not value higher education – this couldn’t be further from the truth – it is simply more likely that they will find a life-path that does not include it more acceptable.

There are also more practical differences between higher and lower SES families that are of relevance to student outcomes. Children from higher SES families are more likely to have access to their own computer, or tablet, or both, and are also likely to have their own internet connection on these. Children from higher SES families are also more likely to have access to a dedicated study space. Should children from higher SES backgrounds find particular subjects difficult, it is more likely that their parents will be able to both locate (via networks of other wealthy and well-educated friends or family) and afford private tutoring services. Importantly, teens from lower SES backgrounds are much more likely to hold down casual or part-time work during their secondary studies which necessarily impacts upon the amount of time they can spend studying.

This overview is by no means exhaustive. The cards are clearly not stacked in favour of students from lower SES backgrounds when it comes to secondary schooling and therefore ATAR performance.

The importance of the above is especially telling when one hears about lower SES students attending expensive private schools, or more wealthy students attending public schools. Katherine Wilson’s recent piece in The Age does a very nice job highlighting just how important SES background is in being successful in private secondary schooling. I will contribute something from my own experience here also. I attended a public secondary school in Western Australia, but came from a family that was of above average income. My father is university educated – as are most of his extended family – and I did not have to work when I was in secondary school, unlike the majority of my friends. I do not feel that it is an accident that I am one of the only one of my peers to have received an extensive university education at quality institutions. I feel that the benefits I experienced at home made a good portion of the difference here.

Getting back to equity in university attendance and worries about increasing difficulty of lower SES students gaining access, it is quite clear that access is already very limited by virtue of the fact that the primary mode of university entry so heavily favours those from wealthy backgrounds. Among the Group of Eight universities where the ATAR bar is set particularly high for entry, it is therefore unsurprising that the portion of lower SES students is frighteningly low. If we really want to address this, we need to focus on fixing the entry system. Or better yet, we need to focus on improving equity in Australian society generally rather than letting the likes of Abbott and Hockey set the socio-economic gradient to grow steeper. Throwing scholarships at lower SES students who make it into university will not solve this problem, as the scholarships do nothing to address the systematic ATAR bias against lower SES students getting in to begin with.

Solutions to this problem will not come easily, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from attempting to find them. After all, isn’t egalitarianism what Australians supposedly value most? The current system clearly reproduces social inequalities, as such addressing it should be something of a priority on the current higher education reformation agenda (yes, I’m looking at you Pyne). There are plenty of alternatives. The ‘Texas Top 10%’ system offers something promising in making sure that university entrance chances are scaled in accordance with the distribution of scores for a given school, therefore effectively buffering against SES differences among schools. Several Australian universities are also offering Associate Degree entry pathways which allow serious students who did not perform a well as they would have liked on the ATAR a chance at entering their chosen high-performance institution on something of a sink-or-swim basis (with some extra support of course – and having taught such courses they usually don’t sink). There are sure to be many other tenable ideas out there also.

Let’s not be complacent on this issue. I think it’s time for a serious public conversation on the lack of equity in Australian universities and its real primary cause.