We struggled to make university more equal. Has that battle for equality worked now?
Ian Li, The University of Western Australia
Originally published on EduResearch Matters
18 October 2021
Australian education policy has really focussed on getting ‘equity groups’ into university and then onto completion with initiatives designed to improve access and participation.
Recent data indicate that there has been growth in the university enrolment of these equity groups in the past ten years. Published studies have also found evidence for comparable employment outcomes for university graduates from equity groups shortly after degree completion with favourable employment outcomes sustained at three years after graduation.
But what happens next and why does it matter?
Our study looked at postgraduate study outcomes in tandem with employment for graduates from equity groups in Australia. We found graduates from equity groups are afforded the same, if not better, opportunities to engage in further study after the completion of their bachelor qualification.
But we also discovered graduates from some equity groups, namely those from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, with a disability, or from non-English speaking backgrounds experience weaker employment outcomes including being in full-time employment and salaries.
Why is postgraduate study an outcome of importance?
The opportunity to engage in postgraduate study is an important outcome in its own right, especially from an equity perspective. University degree attainment is influential on social mobility and associated with higher earnings over a lifetime, with higher earnings found for those with postgraduate qualifications. Globally, bachelor degree attainment has been growing and arguably, postgraduate degree attainment is increasingly needed to gain a competitive edge in the workplace, and to provide greater opportunities for leadership roles. Moving beyond benefits at the individual level, there are also persuasive reasons for encouraging a diverse postgraduate student base. Encouraging diversity in postgraduate education will flow on to diversity in a nation’s leaders, educators of future generations and other important influencers of a country’s future.
Furthermore, finances are one of the greatest barriers to participation in higher education. Direct costs such as tuition fees are substantial, but are dwarfed by the opportunity cost of study – the missed earnings from time spent away from the workforce and in study. These costs are exacerbated for postgraduate degree study. It has been argued that social inequalities extend beyond first degrees into unequal graduate outcomes, including postgraduate degree attainment and occupational class.
Postgraduate study and work outcomes
Our study used data on over 40,000 Australian graduates sourced from the national Graduate Outcomes Survey, linked to data from 19 universities in Australia to examine work and further study for bachelor degree graduates. We considered employment and further postgraduate study outcomes for six equity groups: low socioeconomic status; with a disability; Indigenous; non-English speaking background; from regional and remote locations; and women in non-Traditional areas of study. We found that graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with a disability, and from non-English speaking backgrounds experienced lower rates of employment, particularly those from non-English speaking backgrounds whose prospects of being employed after degree completion lagged far behind those from English speaking backgrounds. Conversely, graduates from regional and remote areas had superior prospects of being employed.
Further study opportunity, however, were positive for all equity groups, except those from regional and remote areas. We found, however, that equity group graduates tended to be engaged in study of another bachelor qualification, and did not have comparatively higher rates of study in a postgraduate qualification. The one notable exception here was for women in STEM fields, who had markedly higher rates of further postgraduate research study.
We also examined the outcome of full-time employment for equity group graduates. Once again, the same groups of graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with a disability, and from non-English speaking backgrounds were found to be less likely to secure full-time employment. Separate analyses of hourly wages showed that these exact same groups also experienced weaker earnings.
What does these all mean?
The comparable or slightly favourable employment outcomes for three of the equity groups (regional or remote areas, Indigenous, women in STEM) are encouraging and suggest that higher education policy for these groups are achieving their intended purposes. However, given the weaker employment and earning outcomes for the other three groups (low socioeconomic status, with disability, non-English speaking background), there is still work to be done. Our study was not able to pinpoint the reasons for the weaker employment outcomes due to the nature of the data, but previous studies have noted the lack of social capital and/or labour market discrimination for these groups, and these might require policy intervention and development.
The finding that equity group graduates are more likely to be engaged in further study after their degree completion is interesting, but there remains some issues of concern. Firstly, a higher proportion of equity group graduates are engaging in further study at the bachelor degree level. This potentially limits any advantage that can be gained from further study and time further spent out of the workforce. Secondly, and related to the first point, it is possible that graduates from equity groups feel that they require further study to gain an edge in the labour market. It also raises questions on whether these graduates felt that their first degree did not adequately prepare them for work, and possibly concerns that they felt further investment in study is required to overcome labour market discrimination or other barriers. These important considerations will hopefully be the subject of future studies and action.
Ian Li is an economist based at the School of Population and Global Health, The University of Western Australia. He is interested in applied fields of health and labour economics, particularly on research on the determinants of well-being, economic evaluation of healthcare, graduate outcomes and higher education policy equity. Ian is a member of the UWA Academic Board, the Equity and Participation Working Group, and director of the Public Health undergraduate major. He is an editorial board member of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management and a co-editor of the Australian Journal of Labour Economics.