NPP Projects

Pathways to Higher Education: The Efficacy of Enabling and Sub-bachelor Pathways for Disadvantaged Students

Lead University: Curtin University

Lead Researcher: Tim Pitman and Sue Trinidad

Research Team: Tim Pitman, Sue Trinidad, Marcia Devlin, Andrew Harvey, Matt Brett and Jade McKay

Year Funded: 2014

Funding Received: $155,785

DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.6474113.v1



This project investigated a review and analysis of enabling programs offered by Australian higher education providers focusing on domestic students from disadvantaged groups including low SES, Indigenous, students with disability, regional and remote students, and students from non-English speaking backgrounds. The report examined programs’ effectiveness and appropriateness as pathways to university, variability in program quality, and potential measures to improve their effectiveness.

Project Outline

  • The nature of socioeconomic disadvantage is shaped by unequal primary and secondary education, which in turn leads to inequitable access to higher education for some sections of the population, categorised as equity groups.
  • Among key equity groups, both participation and completion rates are consistently lower than national averages. To address educational disadvantage experienced by equity groups, policymakers have developed a suite of initiatives in enabling programs—referred to as the ‘five As’—with support provided around: awareness; aspiration; affordability; achievement; and access.
  • The project investigated a review and analysis of enabling programs and reported on:
    • the extent to which enabling courses offered by Australian higher education providers are an effective means of increasing access to, participation and success in undergraduate courses for domestic students from disadvantaged groups
    • the appropriateness of enabling courses as a pathway to university for disadvantaged groups compared to other pathways
    • the variability in quality between enabling courses that impacts on their effectiveness for disadvantaged student groups
    • what, if any, particular practices or means of delivery should be incorporated into enabling courses to enhance their effectiveness for people from disadvantaged groups.

Key Findings

  • There was a diverse range of enabling programs available throughout the higher education sector in Australia, including course length, content and mode of delivery.
  • There was a lack of transparency, transferability and information about enabling programs that is likely to hinder student take-up, mobility and progression. Greater consistency of program design would increase opportunities for institutions to recognise enabling programs other than their own for the purposes of admission to further undergraduate studies.
  • With the exception of programs designed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, most programs were relatively unrestricted in regards to access, both in terms of what types of domestic students can apply and their prior academic performance.
  • A greater proportion of students enrolled in, and transitioning via, enabling programs were from recognised equity groups than any of the other sub-bachelor pathways examined.
  • In terms of raw numbers, enabling programs were second only to Vocational Education and Training (VET) studies in transitioning more equity group students to bachelor-level studies than the other sub-bachelor pathways examined.
  • Students from recognised equity groups who articulated via an enabling program generally experienced better first year retention rates than those articulating via most other sub-bachelor pathways.
  • Across all equity groups, students transitioning via associate degree, advanced diploma and diploma pathways generally experienced better success rates than those transitioning via enabling programs. However, this finding should be treated with caution due to the low numbers of students available for this particular part of the analysis.
  • Overall, students articulating via an enabling program expressed greater satisfaction with their experience in comparison with those using a VET pathway. This sentiment was more strongly expressed when participants were asked to consider how well the pathway had prepared them for university studies and whether or not it gave them the confidence to pursue, and a feeling of belonging in, these studies.
  • Almost two thirds (66.2 per cent) of surveyed students articulating via the VET pathway undertook the VET qualification for its own benefits, not as a pathway to university studies. Furthermore, greater proportions of equity group students utilised the enabling pathway than the VET pathway. These findings further reinforce the reality that, by and large, the various sub-bachelor pathways serve distinct cohorts of students and act in a complementary, not contrasting, fashion.
  • The absence of fees encouraged many students to enrol in an enabling program who might otherwise not have enrolled in a VET or other university pathway.
  • Enabling programs are currently limited in the extent to which they can both widen and deepen access to higher education because: generally higher education institutions recognise only their own enabling programs for articulation purposes; more than half of all enabling places available nationally are enrolled through only eight institutions; and most enabling programs place limitations on the courses to which the students can articulate.
  • Diversity in the sector has led to a wide range of innovative enabling programs whose overall success is evident in the national retention rates—and to some extent the success rates—of enabling graduates who proceed to undergraduate level. Further research is required to establish which types of enabling programs are more effective than others, and to promote greater consistency among programs to improve transparency, quality, student mobility and equity.
  • The qualitative findings from the student survey indicate that enabling programs might be improved by:
    • better aligning course content, structures and processes with those at the institutions’ undergraduate level, so as to help acculturate students with their post-enabling experience
    • ensuring that the enabling program provides the students with both generic and specific knowledge
    • enhancing the academic skills development aspects of the enabling courses
    • providing clearer and more transparent information to prospective students who do not always understand what an enabling program is or does.

Summary prepared by the NCSEHE.


Posted 7 June 2018