Equity off course: Mapping equity access across courses and institutions

Beni Cakitaki1, Michael Luckman2, Professor Andrew Harvey1

Executive summary

This report examines student equity stratification by field of education and institution. Unequal representation within selective institutions and disciplines carries consequences for individuals, universities, professions, and the broader society. For individuals, access to selective institutions and disciplines is typically correlated with higher incomes, and perceptions of a better fit between qualifications and employment. For universities, raising student diversity within selective courses is important for both equity and learning quality. At the broader professional and societal levels, research suggests diverse graduate cohorts are critical for maximising economic efficiency and social cohesion (Wakeling, 2010).

The report examines two key research questions:

  1. To what extent are equity group students underrepresented within selective study areas and institutions?
  2. What are the course choices of high ATAR students from equity groups, and how might these choices inform our understanding of equity within selective disciplines and institutions?

Our analysis uses national student enrolment data released to universities by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) under an agreement negotiated by Universities Australia. The study analyses patterns of course and institutional stratification for six equity groups, including Indigenous students, students from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB), students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, students from regional and remote areas, students with disability, and female students.

The sample is restricted to include only domestic students admitted on the basis of their secondary school results and commencing a bachelor course.

In our analysis of equity group representation across courses and institutions, our findings confirm ongoing challenges within the most selective institutions, with substantial access gaps between equity and non-equity groups. Relative to their overall representation in our sample, low SES, regional and remote, and Indigenous students were underrepresented at the selective Group of Eight (Go8) universities.

There is some variability between courses though, with some selective courses admitting larger shares of equity students than others. Students from low SES backgrounds were underrepresented in medicine courses. However, reflecting Government and institutional policies to improve the diversity of the medical workforce, medicine had good representation from regional & remote students, Indigenous students, and NESB students. Dentistry had above average representation for low SES and NESB students, and female students, yet Indigenous students, students with disability, and students from regional and remote areas were underrepresented. While high status allied health courses in rehabilitation and pharmacy had poor representation of Indigenous students, both had access rates for regional and remote students, and female students that were above the overall averages. Law, a traditionally high-status course, had relatively good representation for low SES students, regional and remote students, Indigenous students, and female students, while NESB students and students with disability were underrepresented.

Our study confirmed the long-acknowledged underrepresentation of women in male-dominated study areas. Despite accounting for 59 per cent of students in our sample, female students constituted just 15.6 per cent of students in computer and information systems courses, 16.8 per cent in engineering courses, and less than half of the share of students in architecture and built environment courses, and business and management courses.

Low SES students and NESB students were underrepresented in creative arts and communications courses. While those courses are less selective, they are often pathways to careers in arts, media, and cultural professions, and so this has implications for the lack of diversity in those industries.

We also investigated the enrolment patterns of students who we term as high achieving or high ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) students – those with ATARs higher than 90. Our reasoning is that at ATARs above 90, enrolment patterns are more likely to reflect course choices unconstrained by achievement. The study is therefore primarily focussed on school leavers, and those whose basis of admission is ATAR. Further research would be required to explore mature age access and patterns to selective courses, including the various contextual admissions offers made across the sector. Such research is critical given the prevalence and increasing number of both mature age students and contextual admissions schemes. Nevertheless, ATAR remains the primary admissions model for the most selective courses in Australia. Understanding the choices of high ATAR students is itself important to improving student equity and diversity within those courses. When we restrict the sample to high ATAR students we found that the enrolment choices students made across courses and institutions differed in interesting ways between equity and non-equity groups.

High ATAR students from all groups, equity and non-equity, were more likely to commence at Group of Eight (Go8) universities than other universities, yet we found interesting differences in the relative shares between equity and non-equity cohorts. Just over half of high achieving low SES students commenced at a Go8 university compared to more than two thirds of high achieving medium and high SES students. High achieving regional and remote students were much less likely to commence at Go8 universities than metropolitan students. Similarly, Indigenous students with high ATARs were much less likely to enrol at Go8 universities than non-Indigenous students.

Some high achieving equity groups were more likely to enrol at a Go8 university than their non-equity counterparts. Three quarters of high achieving students from non-English speaking backgrounds commenced at a Go8 university. High ATAR students with a disability were also slightly more likely to commence at a Go8 university than students without a disability.

Across courses, low SES high achievers were more likely to select health services and teacher education courses than their counterparts. Regional high achievers were also more likely to select health services and teacher education than their counterparts, as well as nursing. Indigenous high achievers were more likely than others to enrol in humanities courses, science and mathematics, law, and engineering. Equally notably, female high achievers and those with a declared disability are much more likely to choose humanities courses than their counterparts. In these patterns lie lessons for institutions, professions, and governments.



  1. That the Department of Education, Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) report equity participation and achievement data for the official “Fair Chance for All” equity categories, both by field of education and by the 21 QILT study areas.
  2. That, where the Department of Health has set equity targets for Indigenous and regional and remote participation in medical training and allied health courses, they also include targets for low SES students.
  3. That DESE reform the existing Access and Participation Plans by adopting the UK system of making institutions set equity targets and evaluate progress towards those targets. Such an approach could be connected to the Performance Based Funding for the Commonwealth Grant Scheme or the awarding of the Indigenous, Regional and Low-SES Attainment Fund.
  4. That the DESE commissions a review into the representation of women in male dominated study areas, with the object of setting participation targets in the terms of reference.


  1. That individual institutions monitor and track equity participation rates by course and discipline as part of their standard evaluation and monitoring processes.
  2. That institutions set themselves targets to increase equity participation in their most selective courses.
  3. Given lower achievement is likely to be a major factor in the underrepresentation of students, that institutions employ an achievement focus as part of their school outreach work.
  4. That approaches to outreach are cognisant of career stereotypes and expectation differences by class, race, gender and other categories. Effort is required to ensure that all students are receiving the information, advice, and guidance required to make an informed choice when applying for a course.

Equity researchers

  1. That equity researchers conduct further research on the course choices and motivations of high achieving equity students.

Read the full report: Equity off course: Mapping equity access across courses and institutions

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

1Griffith University, formerly La Trobe University

2La Trobe University

Posted 12 April 2022 By ncsehe