2019 Research Fellowship Context Paper — 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
Professor Sarah O’Shea (University of Wollongong) is being supported by the NCSEHE throughout 2019 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 is being conducted in collaboration with the Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diverity Research (CHEEDR) at La Trobe University.
Context Paper: Executive Summary
Globally, the numbers of students accessing higher education is increasing; Marginson (2016) reports between 1970 and 2013, the worldwide number of tertiary students multiplied by 6.12. This drive to access university is 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 market needs further consideration. Labour markets are largely stratified and success within these contexts 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). The increasing costs of attaining a degree coupled with the limited guarantee of employment post-graduation (Ingham, Abrahams, & Bathmaker, 2018) suggests that we need to carefully examine whether higher education is delivering employment objectives for our diverse student populations.
This proposed project addresses a gap in our understanding about how learners, intersected by a range of equity categories, enter the Australian employment market and how “entry” is experienced qualitatively at an individual level. Adopting a mixed method approach, this Fellowship will combine statistical and qualitative data in order to address the following questions:
- How does obtaining a degree actually translate into employability within a competitive labour market?
- How do learners from intersecting equity categories enter the employment market and how is this “entry to employment” experienced at an individual qualitative level?
- How do learners negotiate existing and new forms of capital to achieve competitiveness within employment fields?
The findings from this project can usefully inform the Australian university sector in a number of ways, including:
- the types of supports and initiatives that can be implemented to support students from diverse backgrounds
- changes to policy foci or institutional discourses including the ways in which data on post-graduation outcomes is collected and analysed
- a more nuanced understanding of how students from equity backgrounds navigate and engage with the employment market post-graduation.
Feature photograph by Esther Tuttle