Disclosing Equity Status at Australian Universities
Students who are members of equity groups constitute a significant and growing population in Australia’s tertiary sector. These students often have special requirements, owing to physical, mental, socio-economic and cultural factors that present challenges and obstacles to their outcomes and achievements in the university environment.
This project summary was supplied by Lead Researcher Colin Clark (The University of New South Wales).
The Enhancing Self-Disclosure of Equity Group Membership study was an investigation into disclosure patterns of three equity groups:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians
- people with disability
- people from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB).
People in these groups are conscious of a history of discrimination and unequal treatment, and many have personally experienced discrimination. This results in reticence and resistance to providing information to researchers even among those who have disclosed group membership; it is particularly difficult to reach those who have previously chosen not to disclose.
Between 2008 and 2015, enrolments by students with disabilities nearly doubled, increasing by 94 per cent. In the same period, the proportion of Indigenous student enrolments increased by 74 per cent, from 7,038 students to 12,240 (Department of Education Employment and Training, 2015).
The purpose of this study was to estimate nondisclosure rates and inform future policy development by government and future equity practice by higher education providers. From this research, seven good practice guidelines to encourage self-disclosure are proposed. These guidelines are intended to encourage confidential self-disclosure of equity status build trust between students and educational institutions while encouraging inclusive practices that would reduce support services’ reliance on individual decisions to disclose.
The study adopted a mixed-methods approach, using a combination of surveys of equity unit staff and students of universities across Australia, in addition to interviews with students from the three equity groups who agreed to share their experiences.
When university students disclose their equity status to a university, it may be through a tertiary admissions centre before enrolment, on enrolment or after enrolment through an equity unit or support service. They may disclose for practical reasons, to access support, adjustments or various benefits. Disclosure by Indigenous students may stem from pride in cultural identity. Equity students (particularly NESB students) may also choose to reveal the information simply because they are asked, and they see no particular reason to conceal it.
The reasons for nondisclosure are more varied, and may be practical, personal or political. Practical reasons may be that students (particularly NESB students) see no benefit in disclosing, and in the case of students with disabilities this may even incur a cost. For example, one student with autism noted that her specialist charged A$480 for a report, in addition to the bother of attending a doctor’s office for a referral.
Personal reasons generally relate to a reluctance to be seen as requiring special assistance, and the perception that adjustments or support entitlements may cause resentment among peers and could devalue their qualifications. There were also examples of discrimination or prejudice from outside and within the equity groups: some students with disabilities were made to feel they were “not disabled enough” to qualify for support, and Indigenous students faced discrimination even from other Aboriginal students who doubted their heritage.
Finally, students in all groups resisted categorisation as people at risk or in need of special care. Many respondents were acutely aware of a political climate where diversity and inclusion have political currency and implications for university funding. Given the troubled history of state and federal bureaucracy in relation to Indigenous Australians, university concern for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island students was perceived by some respondents as hypocritical and self-serving.
Based on the findings of this study, the following guidelines are proposed to improve outcomes for equity students and increase rates of self-disclosure:
- Adopt inclusive university practices and procedures.
- Offer options of disclosure channels and times where students retain control over their information.
- Explain equity programs and services to students at university, with clear guidelines of benefits, confidentiality and the disclosure process.
- Adopt clear, consistent and easily understood definitions of equity groups for applications, enrolment and support.
- Encourage a wider understanding of equity group membership among staff and students.
- During application and enrolment, explain requests for relevant equity group information, and allow non-responses for students who prefer not to answer, with later follow-up.
This project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training under the National Priorities Pool (NPP) component of the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP). All of the completed NPP projects from 2014 onward are available here on the NCSEHE website.
Read the full report Enhancing Self-Disclosure of Equity Group Membership.