Informa Australia is part of the Informa Connect Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 3099067.


Boosting participation in the higher education sector for disadvantaged students

5 Sep 2023, by Amy Sarcevic

Despite being under a political microscope for decades, the issue of inequity in higher education has failed to see significant improvement, with disadvantaged students still underrepresented in the system.

Policies to improve participation from First Nations, low socioeconomic (SES), rural and remote students have led to stagnation and even a decline in enrolments among some groups, explains Nerida Bewick of the Universities Admissions Centre.

“We have seen some student cohorts go the opposite way and decrease their involvement in higher education programs in recent years,” she said ahead of the Disadvantage in Higher Education Conference.

“For example, from 2019, there were fewer remote students embarking on a higher education course than there had been in previous years. Meanwhile, participation from Indigenous students has remained largely the same.”

A stubborn issue

The issue of inequity persisted in the face of the Bradley Review in 2008 and during the removal of caps on government supported higher education places between 2010 and 2017.

The current Australian Universities Accord process will likely recommend even more ambitious targets for the sector in terms of student representation from equity groups.

“Some universities are not meeting the target set as a minimum for the sector in terms of low-SES participation” Ms Bewick said.

The issue has also held firm in spite of the continued academic success seen amongst students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“We know that people who are Indigenous, from a low SES background, or who live in rural or remote areas tend to do really well at university, but there continues to be barriers to their participation.

“Generally, people work to their ATAR. If you have a high ATAR but are from a disadvantaged background, you will continue to outperform an advantaged student with a lower ATAR. People’s disadvantage can sometimes even work in their favour, by giving them greater resilience.”

Participation is especially low among students with multiple disadvantages, many of whom are Indigenous.

“It is common for First Nations students to live rurally or remotely and also be from a low-SES background, which gives these students a major disadvantage in terms of entering higher education. The interaction of these challenges will be one of the hardest things to overcome.”

Simple solutions

Ms Bewick and team at the Universities Admissions Centre conducted research on behalf of the Commonwealth Department of Education to identify potential fixes to the inequity challenge.

Despite being a complex issue, Ms Bewick says there are some simple solutions.

“It can really be as straightforward as providing more scholarships,” she said.

“Unsurprisingly, finance is one the key barriers for people from a low SES background, but it is also a major incentive for other disadvantaged groups”.

“We hope to see some of the political dialogue turn towards the issue of funding. At this stage, we have heard aspirational statements, but not any formal financial commitments with a dollar amount assigned to them. In our view, scholarships should be a major component of any policy moving forward.”

Further discussion

Nerida Bewick is Chief Operations and Products Officer at the Universities Admissions Centre. Reflecting on research to date, Ms Bewick will ignite debate on this topic at the upcoming Disadvantage in Higher Education Conference.

Headline speakers include Associate Professor Wojtek Tomaszewski, Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland; Andrew Norton, Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy, Australian National University; and Professor Kerri-Lee Krause, Vice-Chancellor & President, Avondale University.

This year’s event will be held 26-27 September at the Rendezvous Melbourne.

Learn more and register your place here.

Blog insights you may like

Get all the latest on Informa news and events

Informa Connect Australia is the nation's leading event organiser. Our events comprise of large scale exhibitions, industry conferences and highly specialised corporate training.

Find out more

Subscribe to Insights

Join Our Newsletter
Informa Insights

Stay up-to-date with all the latest
updates, upcoming events & more.