‘Mind the Gap!’ — Sarah O’Shea Research Fellowship Literature Review
This literature review provides the context for the NCSEHE Research Fellowship by Professor Sarah O’Shea (University of Wollongong) entitled ‘Mind the Gap!’ Exploring the post-graduation outcomes and employment mobility of individuals who are first in their family to complete a university degree.
This one-year study will explore how learners intersected by a range of equity categories enter the employment market and how individuals experience this entry qualitatively.
Adopting a mixed-method approach, the study will draw on statistics related to post-graduation outcomes for the general student population, comparing these to those cohorts from key equity groups.
This literature review considers both the available scholarly literature and existing statistics to situate this study both within Australia and internationally.
The review has been divided into five sections. It commences with a background to the Fellowship project. Section 2 provides an analysis of the available statistics on graduate employment in Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States. Section 3 explores the research and scholarly writing on contemporary and global issues noted in the graduate landscape. The focus then narrows in Section 4 to specifically apply an “equity” lens to an understanding of this field, drawing upon sociological literature and foci. The review concludes with an overview of the key areas of interest that have been identified and recommendations for future research and scholarly attention.
Introduction and Overview
Background to the Fellowship
This Fellowship is focused on the post-graduation experiences and outcomes of students who are the first in their family to attend university. These “higher-education pioneers” (Greenwald, 2012; May, Delahunty, O’Shea & Stone, 2017) are a growing cohort of the student population (Spiegler & Bednarek, 2013), and are often collectively intersected by a range of equity categories or markers of educational disadvantage. Growth in the First-in-Family (FiF) cohort can be partially attributed to increasing activities designed to “widen participation” within the tertiary sector, including mandated government targets for participation rates amongst particular populations such as students from backgrounds of low socioeconomic status (SES).
The term “widening participation” has been used to describe activities designed to encourage or support learners from diverse backgrounds to consider university as an option in their post-schooling futures. This term has gained traction across the UK and Australia, featuring in policy documents and political polemic in relation to the higher education environment. Within the UK, this widening participation agenda was largely a response to New Labour’s objective of 50 per cent participation of all 18- to 30-year-olds in higher education by 2010. However, this concept already had some currency, reflecting a trend across OECD member countries toward wider access to university and, thus, increased participation rates (OECD, 2001).
While appearing to be embedded within social justice and equality discourses, widening participation is regarded as being contested and politically loaded. Stevenson, Clegg and Lefever (2010) describe it as a “contradictory and unstable amalgam of economic rationality and social justice arguments” (p. 105). Activities performed under the umbrella of widening participation are also incongruous, as higher education institutions are simultaneously inviting and encouraging students from a diversity of backgrounds to participate in further learning and expecting these individuals to both wholly fund this endeavour and adapt themselves to conform to institutional expectations of the “successful learner” (O’Shea & Delahunty, 2018). This assumption includes the expectation that if individuals are provided with educational access, this will in turn “translate” into positive achievement after graduation regardless of “prior educational or social disadvantage” (Pitman, Roberts, Bennett & Richardson, 2019, p. 46). Within the policy field this is clearly shown by the fact that while national targets have been set for higher education participation in both Australia and the UK, these are not matched by similar targets for employment. This is quite a discrepancy, as these students are exiting into a highly stratified employment market. This lack of focused attention seems to reveal an assumption that equality is achieved by getting students into higher education with little regard for the “uneven playing field” experienced as they progress out.
This literature review seeks to map this field by providing details of the international landscape before contextualising this to the Australian higher education environment. The review also narrows focus to explore the particularities of the graduate employment market from the perspective of students from recognised equity groups, with specific reference to those students who are the first in their family to attend university.
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