The Academic Performance of First Year Students at Victoria University by Entry Score and SES, 2009-2013
Written by George Messinis and Peter Sheehan, Victoria University
This report examines the impact of tertiary entry scores and socio-economic status (SES), together with other factors, on the performance of first year higher education students at Victoria University (VU) in Melbourne, over the period 2009-2013. This issue is important both for national education policy and in terms of the educational strategies of individual universities. Victoria University provides a unique base for studying these issues, because it draws students from many sections of the Victorian community, with a significant component of students from low socio-economic families and many with non-English speaking backgrounds.
The analysis is based on unit record data on first year students at VU. In common with other institutions, VU has a diverse set of pathways to entry, so that an ATAR score cannot be identified for all students. Even when there is an ATAR score, the role of that score in the admission process may differ for different pathways. Just over 50% of first year degree students at VU enter directly from high school, with most of the other students entering via a higher education course at another institution or a VET award course. In the latter cases, performance since achieving the ATAR score may be a more important factor in securing admission than the original ATAR score. For example, students entering through a VET award course have low average ATAR scores. The analysis is confined to first year students for which an ATAR score is available, about 20,000 students over the 2009-2013 period.
Victoria University has its main campuses in the western region of Melbourne, and its student population includes a strong representation from lower SES groups and from recent migrant families. For the first year students studied here: over 55% are female; the mean ATAR score is less than 60; about a fifth were born in non-English speaking countries and for about one third of the students English is not the language spoken at home; and over 90% come from either Government or Catholic schools. In spite of some of the challenges that this diversity poses, VU is thus an important case study for the impact of entry score and SES on student performance. It provides a distinctive laboratory in which to study the role of socio-economic and other factors in student performance.
There has been considerable debate about how SES status should best be measured. For this study, the addresses of the entering students have been geocoded to the 2011 Census at the Census Collector District (CCD) level, allowing the socio-economic information from the Census at that level to be linked to each student. It is recognised that there can be significant variations in SES status within the CCD level, which may be particularly relevant for analysis of educational issues. Here we adopt a hybrid measure of SES status, dividing the students into two groups, low and high SES. Low SES is defined as being those from the lower 50% of the distribution of CCDs on the ABS Index of Socio-Economic Advantage and Disadvantage for 2011 who attended government or Catholic schools, while all other students are classified as high SES. Thus we do not treat SES as a variable applying to each student in the regression analysis, but run the analysis separately for the low SES and high SES groups. However, the sensitivity of our results to this particular choice of SES measure is examined by also using a more traditional SES measure. We also make use of school rankings from the Better Education web site, which ranks schools in terms of the median Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) score.
 According to Koshy (2011), 21% of all VU students are of low SES on the basis of the official SES measure.