Less privileged students shine at university

An ever-increasing proportion of Australian parents spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year enrolling their offspring in expensive private schools in the belief this will boost their academic performance and their chances of going on to university.

As well as the billions of dollars parents spend on putting their children through private schools, the federal government also spends billions that help boost the ‘profits’ that the top private schools generate.

In the five years to 2013, the federal government allocated more than US$36 billion to Australia’s non-government schools. Federal grants to high-fee private schools are six to 10 times greater than government funding to disadvantaged public schools yet every year, the top private schools increase the fees they charge.

Now a new study has uncovered an uncomfortable fact: whether or not students attend government or private schools, or how wealthy their parents are, does not affect how well they succeed in higher education.

Researchers Ian Li and Michael Dockery say Australia’s higher education system appears to level the playing field in terms of student achievement, regardless of family background or the school attended.

Their study focused on the socio-economic status of more than 8,000 students and its effect on their academic performance in their first year at university. While they found that prior academic achievement at school was a strong determinant of university performance, the researchers say how poor the students’ families were did not influence their university results.

They argue that increased participation by students from poorer families is possible without compromising academic standards. In addition, since students from low socio-economic status backgrounds make up only 17% of the undergraduate population, their participation should be encouraged and universities should favour them in their admission policies, they say.

Another key finding was that neither the school sector, nor the resources of the schools or parents, impact on the students’ academic scores. Female students do, however, strongly outperform males in their first year while older students also tend to achieve higher marks and students from co-educational schools perform better than those who had attended all-boys or all-girls high schools.

In a report of the study, Socio-economic Status of Schools and University Academic Performance: Implications for Australia’s higher education expansion, Assistant Professor Li from the University of Western Australia and Associate Professor Dockery from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University in Western Australia say their findings imply that increasing government spending per student is not being translated into better outcomes at university.

The study’s sample population consisted of 8,417 first-year undergraduates at an Australian university drawn from 183 schools. The research revealed there were no substantial differences in the way that schools transform prior academic achievement or socio-economic status into subsequent academic performance at university.

“The findings indicate that schools with higher socio-economic status inflate their students’ university entry scores and hence access to university,” Li and Dockery write in their paper.

“It is encouraging, however, that the effects of ‘privilege’ do not extend into university study where students from lower socio-economic status appear to face a level playing field in terms of academic performance.

“From a policy perspective, participation in higher education for students from low socio-economic backgrounds should be encouraged. The findings also indicate that university admission regimes could be restructured to favour students from low socio-economic backgrounds.”

Asked whether the results from one university would apply elsewhere across Australia, Li told University World News that the sample size used in the study “was rather substantial: we have three years of data and the results are consistent across years”.

He said a review of the literature undertaken for the research found that earlier Australian studies had findings consistent with the Western Australian investigation. Similar results had also been obtained looking at the performance of students in primary and secondary schools.

“The conclusions of these studies were all complementary: more privileged schools did not appear to have an edge in academic outcomes,” Li said.