The SMH reports on the results of a study by ANU academics titled Why are high ability individuals from poor backgrounds underrepresented at university?
RESEARCH has exploded some myths about university entry and performance – including the notion that richer children and students from private schools get better marks. They do not, sometimes by a wide margin.
One study, based on research that examined the performance of 26,000 children, found that less well-off students often performed better at university than their richer or privately educated peers.
But the truth of some perceptions was reinforced: the research shows that far fewer students from less privileged backgrounds ever make it to tertiary study, and fall dramatically behind their richer peers in the final years of high school even if they have the same measured ability in year 9.
The study shows that HECS debts do not discourage disadvantaged students from university study if they have the entry scores to gain a place. Another study about to be published apparently shows that university results for students from less-privileged backgrounds average results higher by 3 percentage points than their peers from more-privileged backgrounds.
The ANU study found that the disparity in university entrance is enormous:
Dr Cardak and Dr Ryan found two out of three students from privileged backgrounds went to university; fewer than one in five disadvantaged students did so.
There appears to be a real problem with the way disadvantaged students fail to consolidate their academic skills in their final years of high school study.
The results were broadly unchanged even when the sample was limited to students who stated an intention to go to university in year 9 – which seems to rule out student motivation as the difference.
The study authors shy away from detailed discussion of the policy implications of their findings, but obviously such results demonstrate gross inequality of the sort that electorates despise. The low numbers of disadvantaged students in tertiary study also means that we must be missing out on advancing high-ability people to the professions, exacerbating our skills shortage. So what can be done?