Leap in indigenous access, general enrolment hits high

Australia has experienced the biggest jump in Indigenous higher education enrolments in nearly a decade and overall enrolment has reached a record high, according to new student data, with notable increases in enrolments of regional students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments at universities grew 7.6% in the first half of 2015 and the number of students from low socio-economic backgrounds rose by 3.8%.

Regional student enrolments are up by 2.6% and female student enrolments are up 2.9%.

Overall, more than 1.2 million students were enrolled in higher education in the first half of 2015, up 3.1% on the same period last year.

Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham said the Malcolm Turnbull government is committed to seeing more students enjoy the benefits of high-quality tertiary education, while ensuring the higher education sector remains “fair and affordable”.

“This data shows Australians are continuing to enrol in record numbers in higher education institutions, despite the Labor Party’s best efforts to scare students about the costs of higher education,” Minister Birmingham said.

“Instead we’re seeing more students enrol than ever before, with strong growth in enrolments from Indigenous students and students from regional areas – who together make up nearly one in five of all domestic enrolments.

“The value of higher education is clear as the new stats show university graduates have an unemployment rate of 3.4%, compared with an overall rate of 5.9%.”

Universities Australia, the vice-chancellors’ body, said the latest figures reveal that the removal of enrolment caps on university places for Australian students along with ongoing student support programmes continue to drive an expansion of access to higher education for traditionally under-represented groups.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson welcomed the strong growth in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student numbers and in regional and disadvantaged student numbers.

"While there is still a long way to go to close the gap, Indigenous students now represent 1.5% of all onshore domestic students, up from 1.1% in 2006," she said.

She said this had been helped by a shift away from reliance solely on Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, or ATAR, scores when choosing applicants for places. ATAR scores are designed to rank students relative to their peers based on performance at school and adjust for the difficulty of the subject undertaken.

Robinson said this ensured that students from more diverse backgrounds have the opportunity to transform their future through higher education.

"With multiple entry pathways, mature age enrolments and diversity of backgrounds and experience, university entry processes and requirements have necessarily become more complex.

"A university education is no longer the preserve of the elite. It is more important than ever that indicators of a student's potential to successfully complete a degree are taken into account alongside indicators of past performance at school," said Robinson.

Attrition rates

Minister Birmingham voiced concern, however, about the dropout rate of new enrollers.

“Recent attrition rates show that almost 15% of these Australians do not progress to their second year.

“Universities must take responsibility for those students they choose to enrol and ensure they have the capabilities and support to succeed.”

He said he is consulting across the sector, with MPs, students and their families to see how to ensure “more Australians who start a course, finish and end up in the workforce”.

While it was encouraging that the number of Australians who had attained a job in the first four months out of education had risen to 68.8%, the report had highlighted that one in three of those finishing an education did not immediately get a job.

“Australians must think carefully about the courses they enrol in to ensure they are entering a course that they are not only passionate about but that has a job at the end,” Birmingham said.

Higher education annual funding had increased over the past five years from A$12.5 billion (US$8.8 billion) to over A$16 billion (US$11 billion), he added.

Other key findings from the new enrolment data include:
  • • Strong continued growth in health-related courses, up 7.3% on the same period in 2014, and up 81.7% on same period in 2006;
  • • Mixed outcomes in students participating in STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – subjects, up 0.9%, while IT was down 0.4%.
Birmingham said the lack of growth in the number of students studying STEM subjects highlighted the importance of the Turnbull government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda.

“That’s why we are investing more than A$112 million in the education components of our National Innovation and Science Agenda to drive interest in digital literacy and STEM subjects so Australians are prepared for the challenges and opportunities ahead.”