Equity in postgraduate education in Australia: Widening participation or widening the gap?
A report released today provides direction for the Australian higher education sector to improve postgraduate outcomes for equity group students, as higher degrees become an expectation of employment advancement.
The NCSEHE-funded study, led by Associate Professor Deanna Grant-Smith from Queensland University of Technology, indicated the need for greater research and policy attention on postgraduate students from non-traditional backgrounds. This includes a more nuanced understanding of the postgraduate cohort and their representation across the degree life cycle, as well as rigorous qualitative analysis at the institutional and university group level.
The research focused on students who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander; students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds; students with disability; students from non-English speaking backgrounds; students from regional areas; and students from remote areas. Student access, participation and completion was compared for undergraduate, postgraduate coursework and postgraduate research student cohorts, as well as by university group.
The Commonwealth provides funding to universities to improve the access, participation, retention, and success of identified equity groups. Referred to as the widening participation agenda, the explicit goal is to increase levels of university participation by students from these underrepresented social groups to levels which reflect their representation in the broader Australian population. This research was concerned with how well Australian universities have performed against the widening participation agenda in relation to the postgraduate cohort in the period 2006–16. The equity groups covered in the report are: Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students; low socioeconomic status (SES) students; students with disability; students from non-English speaking backgrounds; students from regional areas; and students from remote areas. Progress toward parity targets was compared across the stages of the degree life cycle—access (commencing enrolment), participation (continuing enrolment) and completion (graduation)—for undergraduate, postgraduate coursework and postgraduate research student cohorts. These outcomes were also considered by university group to identify the key trends in access to, participation in, and completion of postgraduate study by students from different equity groups and how these trends differed by university group and type of higher degree.
How well have Australian universities performed against the widening participation agenda for postgraduate students? The higher education sector has some work to do in reaching parity targets for enrolments and completions in undergraduate, postgraduate coursework, and postgraduate research for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students, students living with disability, students from regional areas, and low SES students. This research shows the pattern across Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students, students living with disability, and low SES students has been very similar in that there has been a slight improvement in commencing and continuing enrolments and completions for undergraduate, postgraduate coursework, and postgraduate research. However, this improvement has been gradual and coming from a low baseline. The result is the representation of these three equity groups has been well below parity targets. The only equity group to exceed parity targets for enrolments and completions was postgraduate research students from a non-English speaking background, while students from a remote area exceeded parity targets for enrolments but not completions. In undergraduate and postgraduate coursework these two equity groups met enrolment parity targets but fell short of those for completion.
There has been a slow improvement in access across the decade for most equity groups without a corresponding improvement in completion. Of concern is the low level of proportional completions, with completion rates for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students, students with disability, and low SES student equity groups stagnant in most cases, or marginally improving at best. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students, students with disability, and low SES students were three to four times less likely to complete their degree than students from a non-English speaking background. These equity groups require initiatives which not only support initial access, but which facilitate student retention and, ultimately, successful degree completion.
To understand the penetration and impact of the widening participation agenda, it is important to not only consider equity group performance at the sector-wide level but also to consider the extent to which representation has occurred across different university groupings. For example, the Group of Eight universities have the largest share of postgraduate students thus underperformance on equity parity targets by these universities has a considerable impact on sector-wide performance. Further, not all degrees are equal in terms of their employability-enhancing potential. If equity groups are comparatively overrepresented in certain universities—or groupings of universities—and underrepresented in more “prestigious” or elite universities, it may indicate a level of stratification and structural disadvantage within the sector. The data provide some support for this view with the Group of Eight, and to a lesser extent, Australian Technology Network university groupings performing comparatively poorly against parity targets, except in the case of students from a non-English speaking background. Further evidence of stratification can be observed in the comparatively strong performance by Innovative Research Universities and Regional Universities Network universities groupings on enrolments for most equity groups and, to a lesser extent, completions for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students and low SES students. The impact of this unequal representation between, and within, university groupings requires further investigation, as the data indicates regional and smaller universities may be carrying a disproportionate burden in supporting students from equity groups and may be making a greater contribution to remediating inequalities for low SES students.
Grant-Smith, D., Irmer, B., & Mayes, R. (2020). Equity in postgraduate education in Australia: Widening participation or widening the gap? Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University.
This research was conducted under the annual NCSEHE Research Grants Program. Reports from the 2019/20 funding round will be published on the NCSEHE website in coming months. Subscribe to our newsletter for updates.
Nina-Marie Thomas, NCSEHE Media and Communications Officer — firstname.lastname@example.org, 08 9266 3721 / 0488 346 235