News & Events

Challenges to access and equity in higher education across the world in the context of COVID: An Australian perspective

A new publication features the voices of leading international experts in higher education equity, addressing the challenges for disadvantaged and minority students in the shift to digital delivery during COVID-19.

Contributions have been drawn from World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) 2020, and include an article from NCSEHE researchers on Challenges to access and equity in higher education across the world in the context of COVID: An Australian perspective:

Sarah O’Shea, Paul Koshy & Cathy Drane
NCSEHE, Curtin University

In the last decade, Australia has channelled substantial resources into ensuring that higher education (HE) is accessible to students from a diversity of backgrounds. These efforts have been successful with almost 50 per cent of students enrolled in university classified as belonging to at least one of the major student equity groups1. However, whilst the numbers of equity bearing students entering HE has increased, their ongoing access and retention (attrition) is still of concern. This fragility of the widening participation agenda within Australia was further exposed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

Whilst recognising that the disruption generated by COVID-19 is a global problem, this editorial will focus on three key challenges that have particularly impacted on the HE environment within Australia, as follows:

  • Learning loss and admission
  • Distance and digital exclusion
  • Border closures and student markets

Learning loss and admission

Australia, like other countries, has experienced school closures throughout the pandemic with estimates that every week of school closures results in significant learning loss for students. For those individuals who were in the final years of schooling during 2020, not only was preparation for final examinations impacted, but equally for some, school closures may have severed an already tenuous link to formal education settings (UNESCO, 2020). Both factors, learning loss and early departure, particularly impact equity students who are at risk of seeing their positions deteriorate further relative to the general student population.

To ensure universities retained student numbers in the 2021 admission year, a number of Australian institutions implemented alternative entry and admissions processes. In some cases, students were offered university places based on previous year’s examination results, equally a range of alternative entry processes were introduced to bolster enrolments. Whilst these strategies arguably increased accessibility, there are concerns about the implications of this approach, recognising that such access needs to be accompanied by ongoing and targeted support. The necessity of this support is particularly key for students from equity backgrounds, many of whom may require additional assistance to attain the academic and cultural capitals needed to underpin a successful transition into the university environment.

Distance and digital exclusion

Geographic distance is a key equity mediator in Australia, with students from rural and remote areas having poorer educational outcomes compared to their urban counterparts. The onset of the pandemic introduced additional factors that have impacted on HE access for those who are located at a significant distance to university campuses. For example, the ability to travel between or within states can no longer be guaranteed, which can influence decision making for students who need to relocate due to study purposes.

Another factor that impacts on HE access for this cohort is the disparity in the provision of stable internet in locations outside of metropolitan Australia. The most recent Australian Digital Inclusion Index Report (2020) indicates a continuing and significant gap in the ability to access digital infrastructure, based on location. With the onset of COVID-19, this difference was thrown into sharp relief, the move to online learning and the closure of campuses meant that rurality was a key mitigating factor in learning loss for certain equity cohorts.

Border closures and student markets

Finally, Australia has relied on international student enrolments to bolster funding across the sector, in 2019 these enrolments were worth $39 billion, making international education Australia’s fourth largest export while also accounting for around $10 billion in fee income to universities. The recent, and projected ongoing, decline in international student numbers due to COVID-19 will have devastating long-term fiscal repercussions across the sector, and for higher education in particular (Universities Australia, 2020). The Australian HE system is expecting to have an estimated overall shortfall of $19 billion over the next three years.

The most immediate result of this restricted enrolment pattern is the decline in funding for staffing resources. Perhaps one of the hardest hit areas is the student equity field where staff are generally employed on recurrent funding, much of which became unavailable once international markets declined. Whilst the fallout from this financial crisis is still relatively unknown, a recent survey of 22 universities indicated that over half had experienced some decreases in equity staffing, whilst a third reported losing 50% of their staffing compared to pre-pandemic levels (EPHEA, 2021).

Final thoughts…

The challenges Australian HE is encountering right now, and those anticipated in the coming years, confirm that it is imperative that the HE sector deliberately move away from simply adhering to ‘the way things have always been done’. The ‘established’ ways of teaching, learning, working etc. have all shifted because of the health crisis disruptions. Yet, there is much to be learnt from existing research in the equity field, importantly as the HE sector moves forward, we need to bring an ‘equity lens’ to current decision making and those yet to be made.

This article was reproduced from Perspectives on the challenges to access and equity in higher Education across the world in the context of COVID edited by Professor Graeme Atherton (NEON). Read the full publication.

1In Australia there are 6 recognised equity groups namely students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds (low SES students); students with disability; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students; non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) students; students from regional and remote areas; and women studying in non-traditional areas (WINTA students)

Posted 27 September 2021 Posted in General