OriginsInsight Edition 12

Cultural Dimensions of NSW High Performing Students

In New South Wales (NSW), the Higher School Certificate (HSC) is the culmination of a two-year study program to conclude secondary school education and provide a sorting and scoring mechanism for use by various tertiary institutions when selecting students for their courses.

Each student receives a score for each study area they choose. Any student achieving a score of 90 or more in any particular study area is added to the ‘Honour Roll’.  Of course, any one student doing well in several subjects can achieve multiple entries on the honour roll.

In September 2014, OriginsInfo worked with Fairfax Media to analyse the honour roll for those students who completed HSC in 2013.  The honour roll is published in the media and Fairfax Media obtained the honour roll from BOSTES, the NSW authority responsible for student assessment.  All students are published in the roll except for a small number who specifically request for this not to occur.  Fairfax Media published its findings and associated articles in December 2014 (see Asian Students More Likely to be in HSC Honours List and Top ATAR, HSC Performances the Result of Years of Achievement).

A total of 15,146 NSW students achieved at least one honours score in 2013.  We were interested to understand the cultural dimensions of those students achieving honours. Do students from all cultural backgrounds perform equally well in placing on the honour roll?  How does this vary by study area?

Measuring Cultural Diversity

The challenge that many organisations face in collecting appropriate data on cultural diversity is discussed in some depth in a previous edition of OriginsInsight .

OriginsInfo uses a robust name analysis methodology to infer the most likely cultural origin of a particular name combination.  Four pieces of validation work support the claim for around 85% accuracy at the individual level, when coded to Origins Type categories.  Click for further information.

With the NSW honour roll, we processed the names of 15,146 students and allocated each to one of 257 Origins ‘CEL’ codes to reveal the most likely cultural origin of that name combination.  For practical purposes, we grouped the 257 Origins categories into a smaller number of categories – Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, CALD1 – North West European, and CALD – Rest of the World.

Where statistically relevant we draw attention to particular features at a more detailed level.

We compared the proportion of honours students in those categories with the proportion of the NSW adult population in the same categories.  This approach was validated through an analysis of census data by single age group which revealed that there was a general alignment between the cultural mix of the HSC cohort (aged 14-16 in the census year of 2011) and the adult population.  This analysis revealed that here was no substantial impact on the key messages presented in this paper in using the adult population as a base for comparison.


When looking at the overall composition of high achieving students (see Chart), there are four key messages:

  1. Students of an Anglo-Saxon heritage are significantly under-represented
  2. Celtic (mainly Scottish and Irish) are under-represented but not to the same extent
  3. CALD – North-West European heritage students are very close to parity
  4. CALD – Rest of the World students are massively over-represented, comprising 47.8% of all honours students compared with 27.6% in the wider NSW adult population


Within the CALD – Rest of the World category, the highest achievers are East Asian (Chinese Mandarin at more than 4 times the expected proportion, then Korean and Chinese Cantonese).  These are followed by South East Asian (Vietnamese at almost three times as expected, followed by Indonesia and Malaysian Chinese), and then South Asian (Sri Lankan, India: Punjabi , India: Hindi, Pakistan and Other South Asian).

Notable under-performers within the CALD – Rest of the World category include students of Polish, Serbian, Croatian, South American, Filipino and Maltese heritage.

Clearly, this reflects significant differences between the relative performance of the host community compared with more recently arrived CALD communities.

Overall, the analysis shows that students with an East Asian background are 4.6 as likely as an Anglo-Saxon student to achieve an honours score in HSC.  More specifically, a Chinese Mandarin student is 6.2 as likely as an Anglo-Saxon student to appear on the honour roll.

When looking at individual study areas the results are even more striking.  We selected the 13 study areas containing over 1,000 honours students.


In all top 13 subjects, with the marginal exception of General Mathematics, the proportion of CALD – Rest of the World significantly out-performs their representation of 27.6% in the wider NSW adult community.  Most significant is Mathematics Extension 2, Chemistry and Mathematics Extension 1.

In fact, within the CALD – Rest of the World category, students with a Chinese Mandarin heritage are 13.6 times as likely to achieve honours compared with the overall population.  Even more striking, a student with a Chinese Mandarin name is over 60 times as likely to achieve honours in Mathematics Extension 2 compared with a student bearing a name originating in England.

Students with names of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic descent perform best in General Mathematics (the minimum Mathematics component of HSC), Visual Arts and Modern History.  Celtic students (mainly Scottish, Welsh and Irish) slightly out-perform their Anglo-Saxon schoolmates compared to their representation in the wider NSW population.  But even in these subjects, CALD – Rest of the World students tend to out-perform both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic compared with what would be expected.

The picture is clear.  Students of Anglo-Celtic heritage, relative to their presence in the NSW population, are substantially less likely to achieve the highest standards in the HSC assessment compared with students with a CALD – Rest of the World heritage, and particularly those from an Asian background.  Arguably, if we extrapolate from NSW, Asian students are the most talented in Australia.

Discussion – Underused talent? Or sit and wait?

In late 2013, OriginsInfo assisted Diversity Council Australia (DCA) to assess cultural diversity within the boards and senior executives of ASX200 companies.  Paradoxically, the outcomes were almost the opposite of the findings from the analysis of the NSW HSC honour roll.  (See report on DCA research).

The DCA research revealed a significant under-representation of Asian talent among Australia’s business leaders and led DCA to refer to the bamboo ceiling as a constraint on career opportunities.

One could argue that the mismatch between young talent and senior leadership is a time-lag feature reflecting the progressive integration of Asian culture into Australian society.  All we need to do is sit and wait for the skills to rise to the surface.

It is equally possible to argue that the barriers don’t just disappear of their own accord.  It requires a policy focus and a proactive effort of current leaders to challenge long-held assumptions about the profile of desirable candidates for leadership positions.  Unintended (and some intended) discrimination is rife and the momentum of these forces will persist in the same way that we experienced with gender.

Bold recruitment and promotion of talented potential leaders with an Asian background will provide the role models to encourage others to follow in their footsteps and aspire to leadership positions.

The under-utilisation of multicultural talent could be costing the bottom lines of organisations.  We recently reported research that showed diverse workplaces are associated with increased revenue, more customers, greater market share and more profit in relative terms. In fact, the research concludes that for every 1% increase in workforce cultural diversity results in 9% more sales.

There is no shortage of multicultural talent emerging from secondary education.  The arguments surrounding the benefits of a diverse workplace stack up.  The challenge for Australian tertiary institutions and business recruitment is to harness the abilities and give Australia its best chance of success in the Asia-Pacific region in the Asian century.

1 Culturally and Linguistically Diverse

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