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Equity in higher education begins with admissions

20 Sep 2023, by Amy Sarcevic

The higher education admissions process has come under scrutiny since the start of the Australian Universities Accord, with a submission from the Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) highlighting its role in a more equitable system.

In light of recent changes to the admissions landscape, HESP Deputy Chair, Professor Kerri-Lee Krause, says any proposed pathways should always be viewed through the lens of the country’s most disadvantaged students.

As well as ensuring standards and quality, admissions are equally about providing a fair and transparent system, she argues.

“We are seeing fewer and fewer students coming through the ATAR pathway, with universities now using a range of mechanisms – VET, previous experience, portfolios and other measures,” she said.

“It’s really important we understand the consequences of these from an equity perspective. I’m not saying they are right or wrong, but we need to make sure we aren’t disadvantaging certain people from certain backgrounds in the process.”

Prof Krause says it is important students with social and cultural capital don’t gain an unfair advantage with any of the newer pathways on offer.

“We need a transparent system whereby even the least advantaged students can navigate their way through the complex admissions process and be granted equal opportunity when it comes to university decision-making.

“If the system favours students with metropolitan experience, for example, then we are inherently disadvantaging rural and remote students.

“Likewise, if we favour students who have undertaken lengthy voluntary placements, then it may be unfair to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, who don’t have as much financial support to undertake unpaid work.”

Maintaining integrity

Prof Krause also notes the national debate about early or ‘at school’ offers and says there are various things to be mindful of.

“On the one hand, there is a view that at school offers alleviate the stress of the HSC and contribute to student wellbeing. If students know they have a university place, the removal of that uncertainty enables them to focus on their final school exams.

“On the other hand, some say early offers may undermine senior school learning outcomes by causing recipients to take their feet off the pedal and coast through their HSC year. This could create equity issues for students who rely on these certificates for the admissions process,” she said.

Equally, this approach could have an adverse impact on those who are not given early offers; or create complexities for those who are less familiar with the higher education system.

“During our consultation process, some parents, students and school stakeholders expressed concern about equity of access to at-school schemes. Students who don’t have family members that have been to university, for example, might be less aware of these options. It may also discourage students who don’t receive an early offer from working towards their HSCs.”

In its submission to the Australian Universities Accord, HESP also noted the potential for bias when admission arrangements move away from final senior secondary school achievement as a basis for selection.

“This bias may arise when such offers are based on recommendations and individual inputs – not on objective ranking,” Prof Krause said.

Indeed, these issues appear to have already created disparities in student representation. Analysis by HESP revealed that high SES students are over-represented in the direct applications admission pathway.

A measured approach

Prof Krause says three things are needed in the pursuit of a more equitable and transparent admissions system.

“Firstly, we need a cross-sectoral approach – one which hears the views of schools, state- and territory-based certification authorities, TAFEs, universities and, importantly, students.

“Secondly, we need to be learner-centred and seek to understand the experience of all types of student cohorts navigating the admissions process.

“Thirdly, we need an evidence-base to bring some objectivity and show us which pathways are actually working across demographic groups and over time,” she argued.

Sharing more expert advice on how admissions can be improved for a more equitable higher education system, Prof Krause will present at the upcoming Disadvantage in Higher Education Conference.

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

Headline speakers include Assoc Prof 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 Nerida Bewick, General Manager Operations, Universities Admissions Centre.

Learn more and secure your seat here.

About Prof Kerri-Lee Krause

Professor Kerri-Lee Krause is Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Higher Education at Avondale University. She is also Deputy Chair of the Higher Education Standards Panel and Honorary Professorial Fellow, Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne. She is recognised internationally for her contributions to higher education policy, research and practice.






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