pathways to university

What we now know about the other ways to get into university

How do under-represented individuals use alternative pathways to university, and does this lead to student success?

Participation in higher education is on the rise worldwide. This has meant more support for some who traditionally did not attend higher education. One way that has helped has been introducing new pathways to enter higher education, other than the traditional route from secondary education. These pathways include students entering using a VET qualification, or transferring in from another higher education course. They could enter via an enabling program, where students complete a study program before their course, covering important academic skills, such as referencing.  Another route, often used by international students, is undertaking a Diploma with a pathway provider then transitioning into the second year of a degree course. There are other ways to enter, such as portfolio pathways where students access university based on accrued skills, knowledge and experience, or a professional qualification.  These can be popular with mature-age students. There are also access schemes for under-represented groups, such as regional/remote or Indigenous students, and mature-age entry provision which involves completing the Special Tertiary Admissions Test (STAT). 

Not much is known about alternative entry pathways into university. For example, we don’t know how many students have entered through these different routes over time, and how well used the pathways are by under-represented individuals. Also, we don’t know whether those entering via these different pathways do as well academically as those who enter via secondary education.

The study design

Our study focused on seven groups of under-represented students. These were: i) Indigenous students; ii) students with disability; iii) students from a low socioeconomic (SES) background; iv) students from regional and remote areas; v) students from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB); vi) women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses; and vii) mature age students (those aged 25 years and above).

We used a combination of data sources to look into these: i) administrative data on entry pathways from the Higher Education Student Data Collection, sourced from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, and linked data from unit records of Bachelor degree domestic students and the Student Experience Survey provided by the data offices of 16 participating universities in Australia.

Trends in alternative pathways

Secondary education was the dominant pathway at the start of our data series in 2011, with just over half of university students in Australia entering this way. Over the course of the next nine years, however, enrolment via the secondary education gradually declined to 45% in 2019. Contrary to this, higher education course transfers and VET/TAFE award completions gained popularity, increasing from 22% to 24% (higher education courses) and 12% to 13% (VET/TAFE courses) from 2011 to 2019. The group of ‘other’ pathways (pathway providers, enabling programs, access schemes, portfolio entry) increased the most over this time period, from 9% in 2011 to 14% in 2019. Interestingly, the use of mature-age entry provision halved from 6% to 3%, while the use of professional qualification to access university remained stagnant at around half a percent.

Alternative pathways were important to under-represented groups trying to access university. In fact, over half of all under-represented groups accessed university via alternative pathways. More than three-quarters of Indigenous students and nine out of ten mature-age students came through alternative routes. The use of alternative pathways by under-represented groups rose between 2011 and 2019. For example, for students of low SES backgrounds, this rose from 56% in 2011 to 62% in 2019, and for regional and remote students, this rose from 60% to 52% over the same period. We did find that Indigenous students’ use of alternative entry pathways fell from 79% to 75%, perhaps reflecting improvements in school achievement over the ten years. Alternative entry still remains, however, the most popular way for Indigenous students to enter university.

Student outcomes by university entry pathway

When we compared the academic performance of students from the various alternatives pathways to students coming directly from secondary education, we found some interesting results. Generally, students from alternative pathways had poorer academic outcomes. They were less likely to stay on after their full first-year of university study, or complete their course than those entering directly from secondary education. Students that performed the worst came through the VET and mature-age entry pathways, being the least likely to complete their course  compared to students from secondary education. Interestingly, students from pathway providers or enabling programs actually had stronger rates of retention and completion than secondary school entrants.

We also looked at the marks that students from different pathways achieved, in their first year and over their whole course. We found similar results to retention and course completion: those entering from VET and mature-age entry provisions achieved poorer academic results over their course, although less so in their first year.

What does this all mean?

Our study highlighted how entry pathway can make a difference to how well students do at university, both in terms of the marks they achieve, and whether they complete their course. Some alternative entry pathways – namely enabling programs and pathway providers – did well compared to the traditional way of entering university, via secondary education. Others, notably VET qualification and mature-age entry provision (including STAT), didn’t fare well against secondary education entry. Given alternative entry pathways are on the rise, and this growth is unlikely to slow given the ongoing push for widening participation, higher education institutions need to think seriously about how to better support students coming in through these diverse routes. Furthermore, students from under-represented groups (or ‘equity’ groups) are highly represented in alternative entry pathways, further bolstering the need for support.

Additional academic support may help alternative entrants to achieve better marks, particularly mature-age students and those coming from VET, both perhaps building practical experience and lacking exposure to academic skill development. Strategies to increase alternative entrants’ sense of belonging in higher education may assist with retention, and clearly this needs to extend beyond the first year of study. Given their positive results, strategies to expand enabling programs and upscale entry through extending current and building new pathway partnerships appear sensible strategies to widen participation.   

Ian Li is an economist based at the School of Population and Global Health, The University of Western Australia. He is interested in applied fields of health and labour economics, particularly on research on the determinants of well-being, economic evaluation of healthcare, graduate outcomes and higher education policy equity. Ian is a member of the UWA Academic Board, the Equity and Participation Working Group, and director of the Public Health undergraduate major. He is an editorial board member of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management and a co-editor of the Australian Journal of Labour Economics.

Denise Jackson is the director of Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) in the ECU School of Business and Law and researches student employability and career prospects through embedding meaningful work-based learning and industry and community engagement into the curriculum, as well as providing access to a range of employability-related activities. She sits on the National Board for the Australian Collaborative Education Network, the professional association for WIL in Australia, and maintains close links with industry through research projects, the WIL program and networking. She is also a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Changes to career advice needed now more than ever

The recently released report into post-schooling pathways in Australia has presented a challenging picture of how career advice needs to be reconsidered in the current employment and health climate. The Report of the Review of Senior Secondary Pathways into Work, Further Education and Training identifies that many career strategies used in Australian schools rely on old paradigms that are predominantly focused on supporting students in pursuing a single career or profession, rather than encouraging a broader career outlook. These problems were identified before the disruptive impact of COVID-19 on education. The pandemic makes changes even more urgent.

Addressing gaps in career planning and advice could yet be key to global economic recovery. It is estimated over 1.6 billion students are negatively impacted by COVID-19 world-wide. Significantly, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, warns us that because of the COVID-19 pandemic the world is facing a “generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities”.

Career education (also known as career advice, guidance or learning) for young people is largely offered within high schools in many countries around the world, including Australia. Both teachers and students in Australia report that current approaches to career education are both inadequate and inequitable.

The ‘narrowing’ of options by career education strategies was also a key theme that emerged from our current research in this field. We looked at identifying best practice career education for the post-COVID era and how this could be implemented in educational settings, particularly for students from diverse backgrounds who are currently underrepresented in higher education.

Our research

Limited options

Students and teachers who participated in our research said there was an expectation from the career advice they were given that just one overriding career or pathway could, or should, be chosen. For one student ‘picking’ a unique or sole pathway was difficult and confronting.

I was told on several occasions that a particular career path was over saturated and to ‘choose a different interest’ which was a bit shocking to me, how are you supposed to just pick something else? (Female, 21-25, PhD)

Indeed, students described experiences of being funneled into particular pathways.

my school… they have a lot of advice for people that had to do trade and all that stuff but for academic purposes, it’s not that good… (Liam, 17, Bachelor of Engineering)

Lucy, a work placement provider in a NSW regional town, witnessed the foregrounding of higher education pathways rather than supporting each persons’ exploration of multiple options and opportunities.

I think these days, the careers adviser’s role has changed so much that it’s more about university entry, preparing students for university, and the ones that are not going to go to university are left out (Lucy, CEO, Work Placement Provider)

We know that career education that supports the notion of a single career is old fashioned and out of step, and so too is the idea that there is one pathway into a desired field of work. Recent research by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research in Australia has shown that a pathway from school directly to university is experienced by few and mainly those who live in metropolitan areas and often from high socioeconomic status backgrounds.

The reality of interrupted and complex pathways

In contrast to a predefined pathway or linear journey into a predetermined job, participants in this research described diverse and individualised school-to-work routes. This visual map drawn by current university student Noah (31, Bachelor of Arts) depicts his complex journey since high school which has included switching between work, study and training in the fields of Hospitality, Information Technology, and Creative Arts across three states. Noah’s journey has been influenced by depression, a sleep disorder, and indecision about what job he would like to do in the future. Noah described it as

a very storied and long journey for me, not one that I would want to go back and do again, but… better late than never.

(Post-school pathway of Noah, 31)

Noah’s journey is one example of the highly interrupted and ‘swirling’ journeys experienced by students with pathways typified by ‘stepping stones’, ‘zig zags’ and ‘lurches’.

Key message about alternative pathways

Overwhelmingly, when asked what they had wished they had known in high school, current university students told us that they had wished they had known about alternative pathways and that

ATARs aren’t like, the be all and end all’ (Jasmine, 18, Bachelor of Information Technology).

Here Yolanda highlights the pressure that the notion that there is a singular pathway, for example, achieving the requisite ATAR, has on students throughout their schooling.

I think in high school, especially at the start of high school, I wish that I had known that there were so many more pathways available to me…it would have been nice to have that kind of at the back of my mind while I was studying so that I didn’t have to stress out so much (Yolanda, 23, Bachelor of Psychology).

Arielle, University Outreach Officer, suggests that students need to be told that

it’s okay to change your mind, or to change direction and that that’s really normal… (Arielle, University Outreach Officer).

A key message for career education of school students should be that alternative entry into courses and careers do exist, and that fluid pathways are not only possible, but normal. In the current climate, career advice can no longer be focused on guiding students in one direction but should aim to provide students with choices. Indeed, for students from diverse backgrounds, whose educations can be disrupted by caring and family responsibilities, disability and illness, or financial issues, having options is critical for educational access and career development. Career advice for these students is preparing the student for multiple possible pathways rather than trying to tie them to one journey.

Career Development Learning

This more encompassing and contemporary vision of career advice, which supports equity goals, we have called Career Development Learning (CDL). In its broadest form, Career Development Learning relates to learning about self, learning about the world of work and developing the skills necessary to navigate a successful and satisfying life. Our research indicates that Best Practice Career Development Learning involves the implementation of a ‘partnership’ approach between multiple stakeholders, including schools, universities, vocational education providers, community and industry to provide students with a wide variety of authentic career-related experiences which increase knowledge, alternatives and choice.

For example, High School Principal, Michael, highlights the benefits for students when they are supported to engage in Career Development Learning activities which broaden their options, such as HSC subjects with vocational accreditation.

We’ve got, I think, six or seven kids at the moment doing nursing as a vocational subject… They’ll walk straight into work almost anywhere on the globe and it counts for their HSC (Michael, Principal, Regional High School)

The uncertainty caused by the current health emergency combined with expected record levels of unemployment and changes to educational funding means that now, more than ever, the need for high quality and targeted career advice is needed.

Current work being completed in our two-year research project include a set of Best Practice Principles for career advice for students from diverse backgrounds which, together with our Guide to Partnerships, are practical resources which can help schools and other stakeholders provide quality career development learning activities for all students.

Prof. Sarah O’Shea is the Director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) which is hosted by Curtin University. Sarah has spent over twenty-five years working to effect change within the higher education (HE) sector through research that focuses on the access and participation of students from identified equity groups. Her institutional and nationally funded research studies advance understanding of how under-represented student cohorts enact success within university, navigate transition into this environment, manage competing identities and negotiate aspirations for self and others. This work is highly regarded for applying diverse conceptual and theoretical lenses to tertiary participation, which incorporate theories of social class, identity work, gender studies and poverty. Sarah has published extensively in the field and has been awarded over $AUD3 million in grant funding since 2009, she is also an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow (ALTF), a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA), and a Churchill Fellow (CF).

Dr Olivia Groves currently works between the School of Education and Outreach and Equity unit at University of Wollongong in teaching and research roles. Olivia has worked in HE for ten years teaching and supporting students, including those studying via distance and with language backgrounds other than English. Also, for the past two and a half years, Olivia has been involved in research activity focused on achieving equity in HE, including improving access, participation, and outcomes for students from diverse backgrounds.

We would like to acknowledge the other research team members Kylie Austin and Jodi Lamanna for their contributions to this study, as well as the National Centre for Student Equity in HE (NCSEHE) and the Department of Education, Skills & Employment (DESE) for funding this research.