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Increasing competition for university and the challenge of access for government school students--a case study.

There is a wide variety of universities, university campuses and university courses in Australia available to those interested in pursuing a higher education degree. This paper examines the impact of increasing competition for entrance to university on the educational outcomes for students from the government school sector. Using Melbourne as a case study, the research shows that, over a four-year period of increased competition, entry to some of the more academically accessible university campuses in the city became more difficult and this disproportionately affected the opportunities for university entrance among some groups. Despite the fact that there was no noticeable change in the academic standards achieved by government school completers, the rate at which government school students gained access to these universities declined noticeably during this time. These findings show how changes in supply of university places from year to year can have a profound effect on the opportunities of secondary-school completers--particularly those in more educationally disadvantaged settings.


university admission

university bound students


school systems




University study is a goal considered by many young people in Australia (James, 2002). Gaining access to the institutions that provide it is a process that culminates at the end of secondary school. The ability to access courses and universities of choice is generally dictated by the level of the tertiary entrance score students gain by completing secondary school. This paper shows that, in one metropolitan setting across a four-year time period, a shift in supply of university places had a profound effect on accessibility to individual universities. Entrance scores for some universities rose noticeably over this short period. This was particularly the case in universities catering to a substantial number of government school students. The result of these changes was a decline in educational opportunity for a large cohort of these Year 12 completers.

This paper highlights the unintended consequences that changes in supply and demand have on the composition of the student body within universities. The metropolis of Melbourne is used as a case study to illustrate these dynamics. While the institutional and geographical settings discussed in this paper are unique to this locality, there is scope for generalising these results across most mainland capital cities in Australia. As in Melbourne, the mainland state capitals of Australia all have a number of different universities and campuses, serving students from a range of social, economic and cultural backgrounds. The entrance process to universities across the country is relatively uniform, as is the structure of the school system. Thus the issues highlighted here remain pertinent--and could potentially be replicated--across all major metropolitan areas in Australia.

In the contest for university places, some students excel, while others struggle. Australian research has shown that success in Year 12 has much to do with intelligence (Marks et al., 2001). There are also other background characteristics and school factors that influence final outcomes in Year 12 (Edwards, 2007b; Edwards et al., 2005; James et al., 1999; Kirby, 2000; Lamb, 2007; Lamb et al., 2004; Rothman & McMillan, 2003; Teese, 2000; Teese & Polesel, 2003; Thomson, 2002; Vinson, 2002).

This paper does not aim to expand on the literature identifying the relative impact of background and school factors on educational outcomes. Instead, it focuses on the supply of university places across Melbourne and shows how changes in this supply over a four-year period had a severe impact on the educational opportunities of government school students. The findings show that the provision of university places can play a substantial role in determining which students gain an offer and which students miss out each year. Additionally, the paper highlights the profound effect that the dynamics of supply and demand can have on the composition of an individual university's student body.

In this paper, the outcomes of Year 12 completers between 2000 and 2003 have been used to illustrate the impact of increasing demand and decreasing supply on university access in a metropolitan setting. This time frame has been used because it was one in which there was notable change in these dynamics in Victoria; as Table 2 shows, during this time Year 12 enrolments in Victoria increased by 7.3 per cent, while the number of university places being offered to Year 12 completers in Victoria declined by 7.5 per cent (discussed in more detail below). The time series used here should be also viewed as case study that could be applied across any recent time period where notable supply--demand shifts in the provision of university places have been apparent. The substantial change in Victoria over the 2000-03 period allows for close examination of the impact of growing competition on the composition of university student bodies and the consequences for educational accessibility. In the years since 2003, there has been a slight increase in the number of places provided for school leavers in Victoria and a decrease in the number of Year 12 students applying for universities, thus lessening the impact highlighted here and making these more recent years less pertinent to the factors that are the focus of this paper.

Gaining an offer to university in Victoria

University places in Australia are fiercely contested by students in their final year of secondary school. The allocation of places, undertaken by individual tertiary institutions according to the number of funded positions they have been provided with, is an inexact science. In the case of Victorian school leavers, this process relies heavily on student's Equivalent National Tertiary Entrance Rank (ENTER): a ranking calculated according to attainment in a range of chosen Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) subjects. The ENTER is a critical benchmark for all Year 12 students who aspire to be offered a university place on completion of their schooling.

In order to gain a place at a Victorian university, Year 12 students are required to lodge an application for their preferred courses through the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC) in their final months of school. Those students who finish Year 12 and apply through VTAC are given an ENTER of between 30.00 and 99.95, compiled from their results in individual Year 12 subjects (see VTAC, 2002). The ENTER is the main method of selection for most university courses, although other criteria are sometimes also used by institutions to determine course offers. These other criteria can include the completion of VCE prerequisite subjects, interviews of potential candidates and folios of work (for example, in some fine art courses).

Australian and international research has shown that there are a multitude of factors that influence achievement in secondary school. The variety of research in this regard is far from uniform in its conclusions, with discrepancies in findings resulting from the use of various methodologies, different data, jurisdictional differences, dissimilar research focuses and the influence of political opinions. Individual effects such as intelligence (Marks, 2007; Marks et al., 2001; Saunders, 1995), parental income (Marginson, 2002), cultural capital (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Teese, 2000; Thrupp, 2001) and other measures of socio-economic status (Edwards, 2008; Machin & Vignoles, 2004) have all been found to have an impact on school achievement. School effects have also been identified as having an impact on final year achievement. Research examining the effects of school type (Edwards, 2005; Edwards et al., 2005; Marks, 2004), size (Lamb, 2007), location (Bell, 2003), funding (Burke, 2001), autonomy (Angus, 1994; Benn & Chitty, 1996; Caldwell, 1999), staff (Rowe, 2003) and curriculum (Edwards, 2007b; Teese & Polesel, 2003) has concluded that these factors can be influential on outcomes. Debate relating to the relative impact of each of school and individual effects on outcomes is ongoing (for a precis of this debate see Rowe, 2004).

Ultimately, all of these factors combine to contribute to student outcomes and the determination of whether a student receives an offer for a university place at the conclusion of their schooling. While the impact of each factor on outcomes is important and those factors that have greater impact demand the most attention from policy-makers, it is important to note that the difference between gaining a score that provides access to a university place and just missing out on a place can come down to 0.05 of an ENTER point. Every aspect of influence on student outcomes is potentially important.

In Victoria, as in other parts of Australia and indeed the world, the allocation of university places generally follows a hierarchy of prestige, whereby enrolment in the most prestigious institutions and courses is offered to the highest performing students; courses and institutions of lower prestige make offers to the next tier of performance; lower performing university aspirants are offered places in institutions with the least prestige and the lowest performers miss out on a place altogether.

The level at which universities set the ENTERs required for admission to courses is determined by the individual institutions but is heavily influenced by the amount of demand for each course. Some universities choose to set the entry requirements for their courses at a high level regardless of the amount of demand-this is generally the practice in the more prestigious institutions. Other institutions, without the luxury of being able to rely on prestige, have less control over ENTER cut-off scores for their courses, and supply and demand for each course act as the primary dictator of the ENTERs required for courses each year.

Yearly volumes of supply and demand can have a notable impact on the entry levels set for individual courses, particularly for courses in the less prestigious institutions. This paper shows how this process functioned in Melbourne for students completing Year 12 between 2000 and 2003 and the effect it had on the university aspirations of government school students.

Universities in Melbourne

There are eight publicly funded universities and numerous university campuses in Melbourne. Campuses vary in size, the types of courses provided, the geographic locations from which students are drawn, the ENTERs required for their courses and the backgrounds of students they enrol. This analysis primarily examines offers to the main university campuses in Melbourne. The location and size of these campuses are displayed in Figure 1.

As Figure 1 shows, there are a number of campuses based in the centre of Melbourne, while satellite campuses for various universities exist in the outer suburbs. Of those not located in the city and inner suburbs, Victoria University (VU) is primarily based in the west, La Trobe (Bundoora) is the largest provider in the north, Monash, Deakin and Swinburne universities have campuses in the east, and Monash is the only university presence in the south-east.

Table 1 shows the percentage of offers to Year 12 (2003) applicants made by the largest university campuses in Melbourne by ENTER, grouped in bands of 10 ranking points. As a benchmark for the figures outlined in the table, the median ENTER of all Year 12 VTAC applicants in Victoria in 2003 was 68.60. Among the universities, the University of Melbourne is by far the most 'exclusive'. Three-quarters of offers to this university in 2003 went to students with ENTERs above 90.00 and only 6 per cent of offers went to students with ENTERs below 80.00. Monash University's Clayton campus also only accepted students who achieved high ENTERs, with 88 per cent of offers made to applicants with ENTERs of 80.00 and above. The majority of other campuses in Melbourne mainly allocated places to students with ENTERs between 70.00 and 90.00.

Year 12 completers with ENTERs below 70.00 who wanted to gain a university place faced severe limits in their options for university if they wished to study in Melbourne. Only 11 per cent of university offers for places in courses provided by metropolitan campuses in Melbourne were made to students scoring below 70.00 (Table 1). This reflects a desire among universities for high quality candidates but, as discussed below, this system may also disadvantage some highly capable students.


While not the focus of this paper, university campuses in regional Victoria provide greater access for lower academic achievers. Table 1 shows that in 2003 slightly more than half the offers to university campuses outside the Melbourne metropolitan area were made to applicants with an ENTER below 70.00.

For those students with lower tertiary entrance results wanting to attend university in Melbourne, the best chances of entrance are provided by Victoria University, RMIT (Bundoora) and Swinburne University (Lilydale). But RMIT (Bundoora) and Swinburne (Lilydale) provide only a limited range of courses (nearly half of all places at RMIT Bundoora are in health and close to half at the Swinburne Lilydale campus are in management and commerce). Consequently, the best option for attending a university with lower entry levels that offers a wide spectrum of courses in Melbourne is Victoria University. While these specifics are unique to Melbourne, the wider context of hierarchy, course provision and geographical spread of universities and campuses are common issues within most mainland capital cities in Australia.

In the period between 2000 and 2003, the entry requirements for the most selective universities remained stable at high academic levels. Figure 2 shows that, over this period of time, the median ENTER of students gaining an offer for the University of Melbourne remained stable at about 95.00. Similarly, there was minimal change in the high median ENTERs gained by those receiving an offer at Monash University (Clayton).

The situation was different at some of the other universities. Between 2000 and 2003 there was a rise in the median ENTERs required for places in some universities that have in the past made offers to students with relatively low entrance results (Figure 2). The median ENTER required for access to the campuses of VU, La Trobe Bundoora, the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and Deakin Burwood increased substantially in this period. In particular, the rises at VU, ACU and La Trobe Bundoora were notable, effectively shutting out some middle and lower performing students who in the recent past would have gained access to these universities.

The median ENTER of students who received an offer from VU in 2000 was 62.00, notably below the median tertiary entrance score of all students (69.80). By 2003, the scores of those with VU offers had risen above the median score of all students to 73.30. The median score for offers to La Trobe (Bundoora) rose from an ENTER of 77.70 to 80.55 between 2000 and 2003. There was also an increase in the overall ENTER achieved by students gaining any university offer in Victoria with a rise in the median during this period from 80.60 to 83.50.


Explaining the rise in entrance levels

The rise in entry requirements noted here was primarily driven by an increase in the number of Year 12 applicants and a decrease in the overall number of university offers made during this period. Table 2 shows that, during this time, the number of people studying Year 12 increased by 3374 or 7.3 per cent but at the same time the number of university places offered to these students declined by 1844 or 7.5 per cent.

The effect of this decrease in supply and increase in demand was that competition for university in Victoria became more intense between 2000 and 2003. As shown in Figure 2, this increasing competition appears to have had a great impact on the entrance levels for university campuses that had the most academically accessible entrance scores for the 2000 Year 12 cohort. As a result, students with ENTERs close to the median for all Year 12s in 2003, and therefore at the lower end of the university entrance spectrum, were less likely to be able to gain access to a university course than students with the same relative score in 2000.

The growth in Year 12 numbers, coupled with the decline in university offers over this time, squeezed a substantial number of potential university entrants out of the competition for university places.

Consequences for Victorian students--school sector differences

Changes in entrance scores influence opportunities for some students more than others. As discussed above, between 2000 and 2003, the university aspirants who were most affected by the increased competition for university were those with ENTERs close to the median score for the Year 12 cohort. Figures relating to the entrance scores of students in Victoria show that government school students are much more likely to be in this group than those from independent or Catholic schools (Edwards et al., 2005).

Prior research has also shown that there are substantial differences in achievement within the government school sector in Melbourne (Birrell et al., 2002; Edwards, 2005, 2008; Edwards et al., 2005; Lamb, 2007; Teese & Polesel, 2003). The discussion below is an aggregate comparison of sector-wide differences within the Victorian education system. In interpreting these results, it is important to acknowledge that there are substantial differences in outcomes within sectors that are hidden in the larger scale aggregation of results. In particular, when considering issues of entrance into Melbourne's more academically accessible university campuses, the residential location of students in the government sector is an important factor. For example, those in the west of Melbourne are more likely to attend the local campuses of Victoria University and were therefore particularly likely to feel the impact of the increased entrance requirements at this university. Further analysis of this impact is explored by this author elsewhere (Edwards, 2007a).

For students in many government schools in Melbourne, the challenge to gain a high ENTER during Year 12 is far greater than for the majority of independent school students. While ability alone is a significant predictor of success (Marks et al., 2001), in the highly competitive market for university places, every point at the end of Year 12 counts. The difference between the resources offered by a government school and those available in the independent sector can be crucial in the final race to university. Government schools not only have the task of educating pupils in a wide range of curriculum areas, they also often act as a welfare provider and social counselling service. On the other hand, independent schools are generally able to focus solely on academic subjects and in many cases have the finances to lure the best teachers and to build state-of-the-art learning facilities.

As the entrance requirements for university creep further up, it may be the case that some of the students being squeezed out of university places are equally as capable as many of those who managed to gain a place. In a case study of Monash University undertaken by Dobson and Skuja (2005), government school students were found to perform at a higher level at university than their independent, Catholic and selective government school classmates. In particular, it was found that government school graduates with an ENTER below 80.00 achieved first-year university marks equal to those from the Independent school sector with an ENTER five to ten points higher. Similar findings are apparent in studies undertaken in Western Australia (Birch & Miller, 2006; Win & Miller, 2005).

The reduction in the number of university places offered between 2000 and 2003 had an impact on all school sectors. During this period, the proportion of independent school applicants gaining a university offer declined from 80 per cent to 77 per cent. The effects of this change were much more severe in the government school sector, which experienced a decrease from 57 per cent of applicants receiving a university offer in 2000 to only 46 per cent in 2003.

In particular, the changes in entrance requirements in some of the traditionally more accessible university campuses in Melbourne had a serious impact on the opportunities for government school students to gain access to university. Figure 3 shows that there was a noticeable decline in the proportion of government school students gaining an offer to both VU and Swinburne (Lilydale) between 2000 and 2003. In the case of VU in 2000, 59 per cent of the students receiving an offer were government school students. By 2003 this proportion had fallen to 49 per cent. The government school sector's loss has been the independent sector's gain. The right-hand side of Figure 3 shows a steady increase in the proportion of independent school students gaining an offer to VU and Swinburne. The trends at La Trobe (Bundoora) also tend to be in this direction, but not to quite the same extent.


It must be acknowledged that, despite these trends, in 2003 VU and Swinburne (Lilydale) were still making a significant proportion of offers to students with lower scores and consequently, to students from the government sector. But, if the trends identified here continue, one of the few entry points in Melbourne for students who achieve average or below average ENTERs as a result of disadvantage rather than lack of ability would be shut off.

'Standards', solutions and further research

The trends described in the previous section appear to have occurred solely as a result of changes in the supply and demand of university places made available for Year 12 completers. Data relating to the ENTER outcomes of students across the government, Catholic and independent sectors between 2000 and 2003 show that, while the gap in achievement between the sectors is relatively vast, there was no notable change in these outcomes over this period. Government school students' ENTER results declined only marginally between 2000 and 2003 (Table 3). During the same period, there was also a decline in the median ENTERs of independent school students. In essence, these figures show that there was no noteworthy decline in standards (as measured by the ENTER) within the government school sector during this time that could explain the large change in access to the university campuses noted above.

An obvious solution to the problems identified here would be to increase the number of university places available in the system. There is no guarantee that this would mean that disadvantaged groups would be the beneficiaries of such places but it would seem that easing the pressure on the system would be of most advantage to those who were squeezed out as a result of the tightening of place numbers. Such a suggestion does raise the issue of maintaining high standards within the university sector in Australia (Doherty, 2004; Gordon, 2004; Maiden, 2004). Given the research by Dobson and Skuja (2005) in Victoria and Win and Miller (2005), and Birch and Miller (2006) in Western Australia--who found that, once at university, government school students performed equally as well as (and in some cases better than) their independent school classmates who had achieved higher entrance scores--it could be argued that any increase in places that filters down to the educationally disadvantaged in the system is unlikely to result in a decline in standards.

This paper has explored how the dynamics of supply and demand had a detrimental effect on the university aspirations of government school students. There are many other disadvantaged groups within the Victorian school system that also felt the impact of these changes. Another key example in Melbourne is those students living in outer suburbia who became more isolated from university access during the 2000 to 2003 period. Further research into other disadvantaged groups and across other metropolitan areas of Australia is required in order to gain a broader understanding of the dynamics of university supply and demand in the Australian setting.

In addition to expanded research relating to equity groups within the school system, an extension of the time series used in this exploration could provide further interesting analyses of university education provision in Victoria. Figures indicate that the number of university places offered to Year 12 completers in Victorian universities has risen since 2003. Further analysis is required to ascertain whether this increase in supply has resulted in a reallocation of places to students from the government school sector.


This analysis has shown that the changes in opportunity that occurred for Year 12 students in Melbourne between 2000 and 2003 had a profound effect on access to university. The declines in supply within the university sector meant that, in 2003, the entrance requirements to a number of academically accessible universities were well above levels required four years earlier. Investigation has shown that this outcome had particularly negative consequences within the government school sector. It indicates that the decline in academic post-school pathways of government school students did not come as a result of a decline in standards or achievement of this Year 12 cohort but, instead, came as a result of a decline in provision of university places. Due to the fact that similar educational settings exist in all mainland state capital cities in Australia, the outcomes highlighted in this case study are likely to be pertinent to researchers, universities, governments and potential university students across the country.

Solutions to problems such as the one highlighted here could be as simple as increasing provision of higher education places but there are other quality and equity considerations that require substantial cooperation between universities and all levels of government before any meaningful solutions can be reached. In order to avoid such situations in the future, the current measures for allocating university places need to be revised so as to recognise the disadvantaged position of many students competing for courses. In addition, universities themselves need to provide greater opportunities for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. In conjunction with these changes, the provision of places needs to be balanced with the number of students within the system.


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Daniel Edwards

Australian Council for Educational Research

Daniel Edwards is a Senior Research Fellow in the Transitions and Post-School Education and Training research program at the Australian Council for Educational Research. He was appointed in January 2008 to develop ACER's higher education research.

Table 1 ENTER (by decile) of percentage of Year 12 applicants gaining a
university offer, main Melbourne university campuses, 2003

                              ENTER band (per cent of offers)

                                       60.00-   70.00-   80.00-
Institution       Campus      <60.00   69.95    79.95    89.95

Catholic          Melbourne        1        7       45       40
Deakin            Burwood          1        4       29       48
La Trobe          Bundoora         2       12       33       34
Melbourne         Parkville        0        0        6       18
Monash            Berwick          0        5       45       45
                  Caulfield        0        0       19       61
                  Clayton          0        0       12       31
                  Peninsula        0        3       53       36
RMIT              Bundoora         9       26       32       23
                  City             4       12       25       40
Swinburne         Hawthorn         0        2       16       62
                  Lilydale         4       66       29        1
VU                All             13       17       50       14
All metropolitan campuses          3        8       22       31
Regional campuses                 19       32       28       15
Interstate campus through
VTAC                              21       25       11       21
Total university offers (%)        6       13       23       28
Total university offers
(count)                        1 329    2 900    5 219    6 289

                              ENTER band (per cent of offers)

                              90.00-            Total
Institution       Campus      99.95    Total    offers

Catholic          Melbourne        6      100      421
Deakin            Burwood         19      100    1 559
La Trobe          Bundoora        18      100    2 036
Melbourne         Parkville       75      100    4 347
Monash            Berwick          6      100      282
                  Caulfield       20      100    1 039
                  Clayton         57      100    2 838
                  Peninsula        9      100      225
RMIT              Bundoora         9      100      813
                  City            19      100    1 760
Swinburne         Hawthorn        21      100      602
                  Lilydale         0      100      633
VU                All              6      100    1 364
All metropolitan campuses         36      100   18 477
Regional campuses                  6      100    4 062
Interstate campus through
VTAC                              24      100      204
Total university offers (%)       31      100   22 743
Total university offers
(count)                        7 006   22 743

Note: due to rounding, percentages do not always sum to 100
Source: VTAC (2003/04), unpublished

Table 2 Year 12 student numbers, compared with university
offers, 2000 to 2003, Victoria

                         2000     2001     2002

Number of Year
12 students            46 503   48 304   49 531

University offers
to Year 12 students    24 587   23 549   23 106

                                Change 2000 to 2003

                         2003   Number Percentage

Number of Year
12 students            49 877   3 374       7.3

University offers
to Year 12 students    22 743   -1 844    -7.5

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003), Schools
Australia, cat no. 4221.0; VTAC (2000/01 to 2003/04),

Table 3 Median ENTER outcomes by school sector,
Victorian Year 12 completers, 2000 to 2003

                2000     2001     2002    2003

Catholic       69.65    69.45    68.55   68.45
Government     63.10    62.10    61.05   61.05
Independent    84.40    83.35    82.85   83.55
Total          69.80    68.70    68.30   68.60

Source: VTAC (2000/01, 2001/02, 2002/03,
2003/04, unpublished
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Author:Edwards, Daniel
Publication:Australian Journal of Education
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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