Higher education can overcome social inequity, but it takes time
A new report has revealed 15-year trends in equity students’ post-university outcomes, including measures of health and wellbeing, as well as employment and financial status.
The research, led by Dr Wojtek Tomaszewski from the University of Queensland and funded by the NCSEHE, found that most post-graduation trajectories converged over time, irrespective of equity group membership.
“The positive outcomes associated with tertiary education attainment are not confined to the labour market, with substantial research documenting influences on a range of non-market outcomes including mental health, general health and subjective wellbeing,” Dr Tomaszewski said.
“This report contributes to the Australian and international literature by expanding the focus from employment outcomes to broader measures of health and wellbeing, providing a more rounded picture of the benefits of education participation.”
The research also offered a more refined picture of post-graduation outcomes over time by drawing on data from Census and the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. Census data provided short- to medium-term evidence, complemented by innovative analysis of the HILDA survey, which enabled documentation of long-term trajectories.
“For most equity groups investigated in the research, the trajectories of equity and non-equity students converged over seven or eight years on average so there was little difference in the longer term,” Dr Tomaszewski said.
“While these trends are very positive, perhaps more could be done to prevent this seven- or eight-year-long catch-up period to give an equal start to all graduates, regardless of their backgrounds.”
Notable exceptions to these patterns included compromised health and wellbeing outcomes for graduates with disability and those from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.
“While based on a small sample and, arguably, reflecting broader underlying disadvantage for these two groups, the findings illustrate that disadvantage is not easily alleviated by a degree alone,” Dr Tomaszewski said.
“A sustained policy effort is required within and beyond the higher education sector, with a significant focus on graduates’ physical and mental health and wellbeing.”
Of particular concern was the apparent deterioration in health and wellbeing outcomes among Indigenous graduates, often declining post-graduation, relative to pre-university levels.
Literature review suggested the reasons behind this this may be associated with relocation for university and subsequent employment, and the resultant loss of connection to the land.
NCSEHE Director Professor Sue Trinidad commended the research and its scope beyond traditional indicators of “success”.
“Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often face complex personal circumstances impacting their participation and outcomes in higher education,” Professor Trinidad said.
“While a degree brings transformative promise, there are factors at play that may continue to challenge students post-graduation. This research highlights areas where broader supports could be beneficial to promote the best possible outcomes for all.”
This report was funded under the 2017 NCSEHE Research Grants Program.