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.