Promoting low socio-economic participation in higher education: a comparison of area-based and individual measures

Written by Associate Professor Alfred M. Dockery, Richard Seymour and Paul Koshy, NCSEHE


Australian policy-makers have long recognised the need for Australia to increase the proportion of its population gaining a university qualification. The Review of Australian Higher Education (the Bradley Review) completed in 2008 argued that achieving this would require increasing participation rates among groups identified as significantly under-represented in higher education, including students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds. In accepting these recommendations, the Australian government imposed a quota under which universities were to source 20% of domestic undergraduate enrolments from the lowest 25% of households by SES measures before 2020, with individual institutions being set participation targets in view of the national target.

Some of the motivation behind the quota for low-SES households has been couched in terms of objectives of economic efficiency. However, it can be seen primarily as a policy designed to promote equity – to expand access to higher education to people who are otherwise disproportionately denied that opportunity given certain socio-economic characteristics that are not directly related to individual academic ability. Initially, the measurement of SES in Australia was based on the SES of the individual’s area of residence, as defined by a ranking of postcodes according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Socio-economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) Index of Education and Occupation (DEEWR 2009, ii). The measure was later refined to incorporate an institutional count of student recipients of student income support payments through the social security system, but the preferred measure has since reverted to a pure area-based measure.

The current area measure of SES in Australia is not a direct measure of a young person’s level of exclusion from education, but rather a proxy for SES adopted for the ease of implementing and monitoring the policy in the face of limited information. It is the efficacy of using an area-based measure as a proxy for disadvantage and of the quota as a means to achieve equity objectives that we explore in this paper.

Using data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, we first develop a model that provides direct estimates of the probability that a youth will go to university given the socio-economic characteristics of his or her family when the youth is 17 years of age. We use the results from this model to generate a family- or household-level measure of SES that is directly related to the educational opportunities of Australian youth. The correspondence between this direct measure and the area-based measure is investigated. We then explore the potential equity implications of the area-based SES quota under different assumptions regarding who it is from low-SES areas that enters university if the quota is met.

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Alfred M. Dockery, Richard Seymour & Paul Koshy (2015): Promoting low socio-economic participation in higher education: a comparison of area-based and individual measures, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1020777.

Posted 19 March 2015 By ncsehe