The way students are streamed within Australian secondary schools limits the capacity to widen university participation. Policies to raise Year 12 completion rates, alongside increased provision of vocational education and training (VET) in schools, have led states and territories to direct many senior secondary students into non-ATAR pathways. In these streams, the subjects undertaken typically enable completion of the standard senior school certificate and/or a VET certificate  but not an ATAR.

Theoretically, the creation of streams supports student choice and enables those who are more vocationally minded to follow their interests. However, students who are Indigenous and/or from low socio-economic status backgrounds are highly over-represented in the non-ATAR streams, which themselves rarely lead to university. Increasing the proportion of low SES students and Indigenous students in higher education is thus unlikely to happen without school reform.

In Queensland, over 40 per cent of secondary students are enrolled in non-ATAR pathways. In Western Australia, only six per cent of Indigenous Year 12 completers receive an ATAR. In Victoria, the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) is being replaced by new non-ATAR steams – the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) Vocational Major and the Victorian Pathways Certificate. These changes arise from the Firth review, which also revealed that VCAL was undertaken by 14 per cent of Victorian senior students overall, but by 42 per cent of Indigenous students.

Non-ATAR pathways are highly correlated with non-university transition. In Queensland, only five per cent of non-ATAR students transition to higher education. In Victoria, fewer than one per cent of VCAL completers enrol in higher education. In effect, this means that nearly half of senior Indigenous school students are not in the potential university pool. Streaming also means that postsecondary choices are often made as early as Year 9, and these choices are both lasting and limiting.

There are merits to diversifying curriculum, increasing VET provision in schools, and reducing reliance on ATARs. However, much of the current streaming appears to be reducing rather than increasing choice, particularly for students already under-represented in higher education. With Labor governments in power across most of the country, new strategies and targets are required that move beyond the focus on Year 12 completions. The Universities Accord Panel, with its focus on increasing access and opportunity, will also need to consider the downstream causes of under-representation.

Andrew Harvey is a professor of Eeducation at Griffith University [email protected]


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education