Higher Education

, Volume 39, Issue 2, pp 223-247

First online:

Measurement of the socio-economic status of Australian higher education students

  • Julie McMillanAffiliated withSociology Program, Research School of Social Sciences, The Australian National University
  • , John WesternAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology and Sociology, The University of Queensland, s[QLD

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The underrepresentation of persons from socio-economicallydisadvantaged backgrounds in higher education in countries such as Australia isof policy concern. In order to be able to identify such individuals fortargeted interventions and to monitor their participation rates, it is necessary to havean accurate, simple to administer, and relatively inexpensive method of measuringstudents' socio-economic characteristics.

We demonstrate that the postcode methodology currently used bythe Australian Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) formonitoring purposes, while being relatively simple and inexpensive toadminister, is subject to considerable error. A student is allocated the `average'socio-economic status (SES) of all persons living within their residential postcode area, butareas can contain a mix of people from low, medium and high socio-economicbackgrounds. In order to identify more accurately low SES students, we develop measuresbased upon the characteristics of individual students, rather than thecharacteristics of the area in which they reside.

These new measures are based upon the results of theParticipation in Higher Education Survey. This survey was conducted in the second half of1997 and was based upon a sample of approximately 3000 first year studentsenrolled at a range of campuses throughout one Australian State. Our findings suggestthat individual-based measures relating to the occupation and education ofparents at the time when the student was in high school are appropriate for theclassification of both recent school leavers and mature aged students. Together, thesecharacteristics represent the family socio-economic situation while the studentwas attending secondary school.