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Higher Education

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Low SES student enrolment target may be within reach

New modelling by ACER shows Australia may be closer than previously thought to achieving its target of raising the proportion of undergraduate students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to 20 per cent by 2020.

In the latest ACER Joining the Dots research briefing, ACER Principal Research Fellow Dr Daniel Edwards explores the use of a new measure of socioeconomic status (SES) that is based on students’ prior residential address, rather than their address once attending university, to monitor the participation of underprivileged groups in higher education.

Using data from the 2011 Census, which includes information on residential location five years prior to the Census, Dr Edwards estimates that 18.5 per cent of domestic undergraduate university students were from low SES backgrounds.

In contrast, the current official method for measuring SES in Australian higher education, which factors in current residential address and any Centrelink benefits, estimates around 14.3 per cent of undergraduate students were from low SES backgrounds in 2010 (the most recent year for which this data is available).

Dr Edwards said a key explanation for the difference in the proportion of students from low SES backgrounds between the current and prior address calculation methods is that many students move home as they progress into university. Data from the 2011 Census show that university students were more likely to have moved in the previous five years (with 46 per cent moving) than the overall Australian population (38 per cent).

'While this exploratory measure is still a relatively blunt instrument, the findings here suggest that prior address may offer a more accurate indication of the SES background of higher education students, given that many of this cohort move house to attend university, and that the SES of their residential area once enrolled at university may not reflect their original SES background,' Dr Edwards said.

The target to raise the proportion of undergraduate students who are from a low SES background to 20 per cent by 2020 was set by the Australian Government in 2009.

While the prior address calculation method suggests Australia may be closer to meeting the target than originally thought, Dr Edwards’ research shows that, despite the large growth in university enrolments in recent years, there has not been any change in the proportion of students from low SES backgrounds since the 2006 Census.

Between 2006 and 2011, growth in the overall number of students from low SES backgrounds (24.7 per cent) was at about the same rate as overall growth in the sector (25.1 per cent).

'Despite significant recent growth in the sector overall, the Census data records no real change in low SES participation, suggesting that achieving the 20 per cent target by the end of the decade is still a big challenge,' Dr Edwards said. ■

Joining the Dots is a subscription-based resource provided by ACER to those with an interest in Australian higher education. Details for subscriptions are available at <> or by emailing

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