1.3 Enabling programs

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Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enter university through alternative entry pathways such as special or alternative entry programs and enabling programs.

Special or alternative entry programs can be accessed by those who do not come directly from high school with an Australian tertiary admission rank (ATAR) score. A number of universities also provide this alternative pathway through differing modes, from taking tests, to interviews and essays.

Enabling programs are generally foundation courses of one or more units of study designed to get potential students ready for higher education by helping them to build the skills they need for university such as literacy, numeracy and critical thinking. They generally act as an entry point into a bachelor-level degree for those who successfully complete the course.

Current situation

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enter university through special entry or enabling programs

In 2010, only 47.3% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students entered university on the basis of their prior educational attainment54 compared to 83.0% of non-Indigenous students ( DIISRTE 2012a),55 meaning that over half of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who gained entry to university did so through enabling or special entry programs. At some universities this proportion is much higher.

Like its Go8 [ Group of Eight] counterparts it [ UWA] is seen to have relatively low enrolments but good success and completion rates. To achieve this success, UWA does not merely take academically advanced students, but provides multiple alternative entry pathways to all its courses including special ATAR [Australian tertiary admission rank] provisions, enabling courses, and course specific intensive preparatory courses ... Within the UWA Indigenous student cohort 75% of students have entered bachelor’s degrees through Indigenous special entry provisions and preparatory courses. For professional degree courses such as Medicine, Law and Engineering this rises to 80% or higher (submission no. 61, University of Western Australia, p. 1).

Enabling places are allocated

In December 2011, the Minister for Tertiary Education took a decision to designate places for sub-bachelor-level courses. This means that places for these courses will be allocated by the Minister rather than funded on a demand-driven basis. From 2012 onwards, the number of Commonwealth-supported places in enabling courses, diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees is determined in negotiation with each university as part of annual Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) funding agreements. Universities have less scope to independently increase enabling places than would be the case if these places remained completely demand driven as for bachelor-level courses.

For enabling courses, the government pays the normal contribution for Commonwealth-supported places through the CGS. Universities that offer Commonwealth-supported places in enabling courses cannot charge a student contribution. They receive the enabling loading instead. Enabling loading is a fixed funding pool, indexed annually. Total estimated CGS funding in 2010 for all enabling places was $66 million, with the enabling loading accounting for $14 million of this amount (Lomax-Smith, Watson & Webster 2011, p. 122).56

A number of submissions argued that the current enabling loading amount was not adequate for universities to deliver the kind of support required for students undertaking enabling courses. The Panel notes that in response to the 2011 Higher Education Base Funding Review, in the 2012–13 Budget the government announced that in 2013 the enabling loading will be increased from an estimated $1,833 to $2,500 per place, and then from 2014 will increase to $3,068 per place (with the rate indexed in later years) at a cost of $41.6 million for the period 2012–13 to 2015–16.

What needs to change?

Improve the reach of enabling programs

The Panel found most universities and students were supportive of enabling programs as a way to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to access university, with a number of university programs considered to be successful in achieving outcomes for these students.57

Indigenous-oriented enabling programs offer students the opportunity to transition to a degree course via a challenging academic program delivered in a culturally secure manner (submission no. 5, Murdoch University, p. 2).

However, some submissions58 argued that government should better fund enabling programs, with funding shortfalls in government contributions threatening the success of these programs. The Group of Eight noted ‘with concern and disappointment’ that funding for enabling courses has not been revised to fit the demand-driven system of funding Commonwealth-supported places in bachelor degrees.

We believe that this is short-sighted. Failure to resource foundation and enabling courses adequately will make it unnecessarily difficult for universities to increase enrolments of students from traditionally under-represented groups, and will disadvantage these students. As with other forms of disadvantage in access to university, this applies particularly to Indigenous students (submission no. 16, Group of Eight, p. 11).

This view is partly supported by the members of the Higher Education Base Funding Review Panel, who, in their final report to government, advocated funding for enabling places to be uncapped and demand driven (Lomax-Smith, Watson & Webster 2011, p. xv). The panel also argued for a review of the role of enabling courses in the tertiary education sector, including an assessment of their effectiveness, given they ‘seem not to have been subject to a targeted review of effectiveness despite having existed since 1990’ (Lomax-Smith, Watson & Webster 2011, p. 124).

The Panel agrees that government should better support universities to deliver enabling courses, given their apparent importance as non-direct entry pathways to university. The Panel also believes that universities need to better develop an evidence base for the profile and effectiveness of these courses to inform future policy and funding decisions.

Recommendation

Recommendation 8

That the Australian Government, VET providers and universities collaborate to improve the reach and effectiveness of enabling courses for disadvantaged learners, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, including:

  • reforming Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding so that it increases with the number of students undertaking higher education enabling courses
  • facilitating tracking of students who undertake enabling courses at one university and move to and enrol at a second university so that both universities gain recognition for success.

54 Prior educational attainment includes higher education course, secondary education, or VET award course.

55 Based on Table A providers and domestic students only.

56 It should be noted that despite being able to offer fee-paying enabling places, 97% of enabling students are in Commonwealth-supported places.

57 For example, Charles Darwin University, University of Wollongong and University of Newcastle.

58 For example, submissions by Murdoch University (no. 5); Group of Eight (no. 16).