In Australian higher education, meritocracy overlooks students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
According to the attribution hypothesis, individual expectations about what contributes to success or failure are strongly related to motivation and educational results (Weiner 1985, p.548). Numerous studies, however, have reported a self-serving tendency in academic settings, in which students assign performance to individual attributes or traits while attributing failure to external factors (ztürk 2007, p.2). This prejudice protects the person from negative consequences to their self-esteem. Meritocracy refers to a system in which people are promoted based on their skill and abilities rather than their social position or economic status so that hard-working individuals are equally rewarded (Mijs 2016, p.15). The idea that individuals may attribute failure to external factors confirms that there are indeed factors that might impair one’s ability to perform in an educational setting, even if they possess certain useful traits, or are motivated to learn. An individual’s socio-economic status, despite the self-motivation and hard work, could greatly influence a student’s performance in a higher education environment. Socio-economic status will not only determine entry but also lead to other distractions, for example, in having to work extra hours to raise money to support daily expenses, or even anxiety over the comfort of other family members in a remote place.

According to the Department of Education and Training of the Australian Government, in 2016, about 20% of all undergraduate applicants were of low socioeconomic status (SES), compared to 50% medium SES and 28% from high SES (Department of Education and Training 2016, p.29). Underrepresentation of individuals from low SES in applications translates into lower participation in higher education institutions. For instance, data from 2015 shows that students from low SES post-codes accounted for only 18% of domestic undergraduate student admissions (DET 2016, p.29). In addition, in 2016, the applicants from medium SES recorded a higher percentage increase in applications compared to low SES applicants, at 1.9% and 1.6% respectively (DET 2016, p.29). The offer rate for applicants from low SES backgrounds in 2016 was lower compared to that for medium SES and high SES applicants, at 82.7%, 83.7%, and 84.1%, respectively (DET 2016, p.30). In addition, low SES applicants who received an offer were less likely to take the offer compared to the medium and high SES categories, at 76.1%, and 76.8% and 77.1%, respectively (DET 2016, p.30). Socio-economic status also influenced the courses that individuals applied to. Low SES applicants gravitated towards courses associated with education and health. They are less likely to apply for commerce and management, society and culture, or natural and physical science courses, which appeal to the higher SES individuals (DET 2016, p.31). Furthermore, high SES individuals were more likely to apply to the Group of 8 (Go8) member universities when compared with the low SES individuals, at 35% and 14%, respectively. On the other hand, low SES individuals accounted for 15% of the applicants to Regional Universities Network (RUN), in comparison to high SES individuals who accounted for only 3% of the applicants (DET 2016, p.32).

Socio-economic status refers to a person’s overall social position, which is mainly influenced by both social and economic factors (Graetz 1995, p.209). The above application and acceptance statistics clearly demonstrate that the odds are stacked against applicants from low SES backgrounds. Socio-economic status, will not only determine whether an individual gets an offer, but also whether they will accept that offer. It also determines, negatively, which course the low SES background applicant will take, and in which university. Low SES background individuals are more likely to end up in regional universities with relatively less funding and attention, compared to the prestigious Go8 universities that are recognised worldwide for their work (Pham 2000, p.120; Anyanwu 2004, p.5). Australians seem to believe that there is equality of opportunity, and that the life chances of the citizens are hardly dependent on their birth circumstances and that class and social networks hardly matter (Argy 2006, p.11). However, based on the statistics on how socio-economic status influences admission into higher education institutions in Australia, the above claim is a myth, at least in higher education circles. Although there have been attempts to remedy the situation over a long time, there seems to have been no change, despite initiating programs where individuals from low SES backgrounds receive scholarships and are exempted from tuition fees (Western et al. 1998, p.38). Successive Australian governments have attempted to promote a fair and equal society through various policies that also address education. They have endeavored to promote equal access across socio-economic categories and regions to good education (Argy 2006, p.71). However, educational barriers, as observed in “Undergraduate Applications, Offers and Acceptances, 2016,” particularly for individuals from low SES backgrounds in Australia, could negatively affect their social mobility. Educational barriers will influence future income and status mobility, in addition to employment and health outcomes (Argy 2006, p.16).

Generally, individuals or students from low SES environments are likely to have lower literacy, numeracy, and comprehension levels. In addition, they are more likely to drop out of educational institutions, participate less, and exhibit problematic behavior. Besides, they are unlikely to study specialized subjects and could have more difficulty transitioning into labor markets (Considine and Zappalà 2002, p.130). Such issues do not occur in isolation and are likely to interact and present more complicated challenges for higher education students from low SES backgrounds. Although individuals from high and medium SES background in Australian higher education institutions can hope to achieve their goals by sheer hardwork and motivation, the individuals from low SES background still have much more to contend with.


Argy, F., 2006. Equality of opportunity in Australia. Australia Institute (April 2008).

Anyanwu, C., 2004. Challenges and prospects of internationalisation in Australia’s G08 and universities of technology. In Conference proceedings of the 18th IDP Australian International Education Conference International Education: The Path to Cultural Understanding and Development.

Considine, G. and Zappalà, G., 2002. The influence of social and economic disadvantage in the academic performance of school students in Australia. Journal of Sociology, 38(2), pp.129-148.

Department of Education and Training. (2016). Undergraduate Applications, Offers and Acceptances, 2016. Canberra, Australia: Department of Education and Training.

Graetz, B., 1995. Socio-economic status in education research and policy ‘in John Ainley et al., Socio-economic Status and School Education DEET/ACER Canberra. J. Pediatr. Psychol, 20(2), pp.205-216.

Mijs, J.J., 2016. The unfulfillable promise of meritocracy: three lessons and their implications for justice in education. Social Justice Research, 29(1), pp.14-34.

Öztürk, H., 2007. Self-serving biases of students and teachers. Sabancı Üniversitesi Uluslararası Yabancı Dil Eğitimi Konferansı.

Pham, B., 2000. Research at regional universities in Australia: visions and realisation. Higher Education Management, 12, pp.117-130.

Weiner, B., 1985. An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92, p.548.

Western, J.S., McMillan, J., Durrington, D. and Training, E., 1998. Differential access to higher education: The measurement of socioeconomic status, rurality and isolation. Canberra: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

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