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Research Developments from ACER

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Higher Education
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Increasing participation in tertiary education

ACER research has examined how Australia’s tertiary education system can increase participation and outcomes for young people, particularly those who are less well prepared for entry.

Following the introduction of a range of policy initiatives and programs to facilitate participation in tertiary education in Australia, research by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has shown that, while recent growth in higher education enrolment numbers has facilitated an increase in the number of disadvantaged young people accessing university, the overall share of students from disadvantaged groups has not changed substantially.

Through its work, ACER has sought to identify evidence of policy based solutions for improving participation of young people in tertiary education in Australia, particularly in higher education.

As the transitions and pathways of young people into and through tertiary education in Australia are varied and complex, ACER’s research has focused on transitions from senior school into higher education – the most common pathway for young people entering tertiary education in Australia – and first-year completion. Other pathways explored include school to vocational education and training (VET) Certificates III and IV, VET to higher education, and work (or non-engagement with study) to tertiary education.

After reviewing the existing research literature and examining case studies of programs and policies that are encouraging access to higher education, five factors that are key for raising participation have been identified by ACER researchers:

  • Enhancing knowledge of the experience of tertiary education and the benefits for career development.
  • Raising aspirations towards tertiary study, especially in areas of high concentration of disadvantage and where very low attainment levels exist in the adult population.
  • Improving selection to recognise educational disadvantage and identifying ways to select students based on future potential rather than just on demonstrated achievement.
  • Providing financial support for disadvantaged young people to reduce the real and perceived cost barriers to tertiary education.
  • Building partnerships between communities, schools, tertiary providers, employers, industry groups and social enterprise that aim to develop qualifications that will benefit the regions they serve.

ACER’s research derives a number of more specific actions from these five factors, for policy makers to consider when exploring options for improving access and participation in Australia’s tertiary education system.

In terms of building partnerships, the research proposes the facilitation of strong and sustainable partnerships that centre on raising awareness of tertiary education in the early years of schooling; developing aspirations in the middle years, such as through campus-based activities; and facilitating pathways in later years, including targeted scholarships, and selection practices that focus on recognition of potential rather than past achievement.

To address some of the real and perceived barriers to accessing higher education, the research suggests improved and targeted public transport to campuses in metropolitan areas.

In regional and remote areas, the research suggests the continuation and improvement of allowances to fund accommodation and the cost of moving from home, and higher education programs facilitated by other providers such as TAFEs or ‘university centres’. A further suggestion for regional areas is the facilitation of collaboration between education providers and employers, whereby courses and qualifications are jointly developed with a focus on enhancing existing industry strengths and developing a regional workforce equipped with skills to innovate for the future.

While the researchers at ACER highlight that different solutions often need to be tailored to suit specific geographical, cultural, financial or other contexts, the key factors and actions identified in the report indicate some of the broad ingredients identified as being important in improving access to tertiary education for young people. ■

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