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2019 Research Fellowship awarded to Professor Sarah O’Shea

‘Mind the Gap!’ Exploring the post-graduation outcomes and employment mobility of individuals who are first in their family to complete a university degree

We are pleased to announce that Professor Sarah O’Shea (University of Wollongong) will continue with the Centre in 2019, conducting a year-long Research Fellowship project.

Following on from the six 2016/17 Equity Fellows and 2018 Research Fellow Maria Raciti, Sarah will be supported by the NCSEHE to undertake research on post-graduation outcomes and employment mobility of individuals who are first in their family to complete a university degree. The project will be conducted in collaboration with the Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research (CHEEDR).

We look forward to publishing progress bulletins through the NCSEHE website and newsletter throughout 2019, with the final report scheduled for publication in early 2020.

Fellowship overview

Accessing university continues to be largely defined in terms of obtaining better employment opportunities and, also, a more secure financial future (O’Shea, & Delahunty, 2019, O’Shea, Stone, May & Delahunty; 2018, Marginson, 2016). However, how obtaining a degree actually translates into employability within an increasingly competitive labour markets needs further consideration. These markets are largely stratified and success within this context can be defined by existing social status and also, economic power (Reay, 2013). For many students, particularly those from more diverse backgrounds, the “relations between higher education and work are fragmented” (Marginson, 2016, p. 418).

This NCSEHE Fellowship will explore how learners intersected by a range of equity categories enter the employment market and how this ‘entry’ is experienced qualitatively at an individual level. Adopting a mixed-methods approach, the study will draw on statistics related to post-graduation outcomes for the general student population, comparing these to those cohorts from key equity groups. This comparison will focus particularly on salary levels, degree–career alignment and also, employment status (i.e. casual, contract, full or part time) and build upon Richardson, Bennett and Roberts’ (2014) NCSEHE funded project on graduate outcomes. This statistical analysis will be complemented by in-depth narrative biographical interviews (O’Shea, 2014) with students. Drawing on Bourdieuian concepts of capital and habitus, this Fellowship will deeply explore how learners negotiate existing and new forms of capital to achieve competitiveness in shrinking employment fields.

The focus of this Fellowship is deliberate and foreshadows the inevitable need to consider what happens to our ‘equity’ students after they graduate. The project also addresses a number of the key recommendations from the Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP, 2017) report on student attrition and retention including the need to ensure that students achieve a successful completion (which should include achieving preferred post-graduation options) and also, the recommendation relating to supporting students to make the right choices, which assumedly encompasses career choices. This is an international issue, for example, the UK Office for Students (OfS)  has recently announced that one of its key objectives will be to “... reduce the gap in progression to highly skilled employment … for students from underrepresented groups” (OfS, 2018).

The findings from this study will inform approaches taken by universities within a student life cycle model, which recognises that supporting students from diverse backgrounds needs to be ongoing and timed to critical phases within a learner’s higher education journey. The qualitative focus of this study will also allow students themselves to narrate their own unique experiences of moving into their chosen employment field and the types of capitals actualised to compete in this labour market, as well as the possible ‘gaps’ identified. Finally, this perspective will be further enriched by interviews conducted with key researchers and stakeholders across Australia and the UK in order to get a range of perspectives on how learners from diverse backgrounds can be supported in negotiating and succeeding within this global job market.


Marginson, S. (2016). The worldwide trend to high participation in higher education: dynamics of social stratification in inclusive systems. Higher Education, 72, 413–434.

O’ Shea, S. (2014). Filling up silences –first in family students, capital and university talk in the home. International Journal of Lifelong Education. 34(2), 139–155.

O’Shea, S. & Delahunty, J. (2019). “That working class ethic … where there’s a will there’s a way”: A strengths-based approach to developing employable scholars. In Diver, A. (ed) Employable scholars in HE: Challenges and choices in times of austerity. Springer, UK.

O’Shea, S., Stone, C., Delahunty, J. & May, J. (2018). Discourses of betterment and opportunity: Exploring the privileging of university attendance for first-in-family learners. Studies in Higher Education. 43:6, 1020–1033,

Reay, D. (2013). Social mobility, a panacea for austere times: tales of emperors, frogs and tadpoles. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34(5-6), 660–677.

Richardson, S, Bennett, D & Roberts, L (2014). Investigating the relationship between equity and graduate outcomes in Australia. Project report for NCSEHE. Available from

About Sarah O’Shea

Professor Sarah O’Shea has spent nearly 25 years working to effect change within the higher education sector through research that focuses on the access and participation of students from identified equity groups. Her institutional and nationally-funded research studies ($1.6 million) advance understanding of how underrepresented student cohorts enact success within university, navigate transition into this environment, manage competing identities and negotiate aspirations for self and others ( This work is highly regarded for applying diverse conceptual and theoretical lenses to tertiary participation, which incorporate theories of social class, identity work, gender studies and poverty.

In 2016, Sarah was awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project exploring the persistence behaviours of First-in-Family students and in 2017, obtained a Churchill Trust Fellowship to explore best practice in support strategies for students from equity groups, travelling to the UK, Canada and the U S. She is a Principal Fellow of Advance HE (UK), an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow, and was a 2017 Visiting Fellow and 2018 Adjunct Fellow with the NCSEHE.

Posted 11 December 2018 Posted in Editorial, General