In the Read

Equity in higher education – still a long way to go

This week’s In the Read explores the issue of equity in higher education, and in particular highlights research around the challenges facing young people from disadvantaged backgrounds when accessing higher education. In a high OECD nation such as Australia, higher education access should be equitable to all. Yet, for young people from backgrounds that are low socioeconomic status (SES), non-English-speaking (NES), regional or remote, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, or students with disability, the literature shows that the decision to access university education is considered in light of perceived risks including poverty, accommodation insecurity and a lack of postgraduate employment certainty.

One study by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education identified ten types of risk that people from low SES backgrounds perceived as being associated with the decision to go (or not to go) to university within a University Participation Decision Making Model (pg 8). These risks included functional and future work prospects (for example forgoing alternative opportunities and committing extended periods of time to a degree with no guarantee of employment), financial and resource considerations, psychological and social risks such as exclusion from peer groups, time-loss and competency. The study found that functional and future work risk, social risk and overall risk can predict if a low SES secondary student chooses to go to university directly after school or at some time in the future. Furthermore, low SES secondary school students: are more likely to be risk averse than peers, and those who are risk neutral are more careful in their decision process than their peers. The study offered three recommendations for upstream stakeholders (for example, government) and downstream stakeholder (for example, universities, schools) to ensure the perceived risks young people experience are acknowledged in supporting them to make informed decisions.

Another study by Swinburne University of Technology found that of those attending university and on a government payment, 64% had an income level below the poverty line, with Youth Allowance being the most common type of payment. Youth Allowance is also the lowest income support payment, at $285 per week (including Rent Assistance) and indicates a policy view among government that even those young people identified by Centrelink as ‘independent’ are expected to rely on financial support from parents and family. Low SES students were significantly more likely to be on a low income, receive government benefits, and travel more than 40 kilometres (one way) to university or TAFE. Additionally, more than half (53%) reported a moderate to high level of financial stress in relation to being able to afford study and living costs. High levels of financial stress were significantly associated with receiving government benefits, having a disability, and being on a low income.

A third report by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education examined the trajectories of post-graduation outcomes of students from equity groups, and found relatively small but significant differences between graduates from equity groups and non-equity counterparts in relation to certain labour market outcomes. Key findings included: a lower likelihood of low SES and NES graduates to be in employment, to be employed in a managerial or professional occupation, and to have a high personal income if in full-time employment; and a lower likelihood of graduates with disability to be employed.

Clearly, tackling the different dimensions of persistent inequalities experienced by young people contemplating or accessing higher education requires  a sustained, integrated policy approach beyond just the higher education sector.

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