Submissions and reports

Student Disadvantage and Success at University: UAC report

28 Sep 2021

Executive summary

Published literature and our own research have established that inequality exists in educational outcomes between advantaged and disadvantaged groups.

The definition of 'disadvantage' is often determined by the data available, and most research has focused on each disadvantage independently without accounting for the interaction between them.

Compared with their non-disadvantaged peers, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to progress to Year 12 or to attain an ATAR (on average a lower ATAR) and are less likely to enrol at university. However, this pattern is reversed once ATAR is considered. That is, given the same ATAR, lower-SES students enrol at a higher rate at university and, once there, generally slightly outperform their non-disadvantaged peers.

In this analysis, we used machine learning techniques to investigate the complex relationships between three types of disadvantage and their impact on school and university achievement: low SES, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status, and remoteness of residence (plus other related school-based factors).

Academic ability (or its proxy measures) has the greatest impact on success at high school and university, regardless of disadvantage; this is not to say that disadvantage doesn’t play a major part in a student’s previous academic development. A student makes many choices during education which affect the outcome (eg subjects studied or school attended) and, since disadvantage can limit a student’s options, a range of options and support must be available so students can achieve their potential.

We found limited evidence that disadvantage undermines student success during the transition from senior secondary study to university. Equity scholarships were found to be effective, furthermore, it is assumed that other programs to assist disadvantaged students are also effective – we found that, on average, disadvantaged university students slightly outperform their non-disadvantaged peers with the same academic ability.

The ATAR remains the best measure of academic achievement and predictor of university success, therefore it is the best tool for use in university admissions. However, it is important to recognise that the ATAR summarises a student's senior secondary school achievement and is one of many potential pathways to university. The ATAR and GPA are not the only measures of success, particularly if a student has no desire to attend university.

Download the full report [PDF]