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You are reading: Fair connection to professional careers: Understanding social difference and disadvantage, institutional dynamics and technological opportunities

Written by Dr Erica Southgate, 2016 NCSEHE Equity Fellow, The University of Newcastle Australia

Over several decades there has been a ‘massification’ of higher education, both nationally and internationally. This phenomenon has seen an increase in students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds attending university. However, non-traditional students, particularly those from low socioeconomic status (LSES) backgrounds, older students, those from certain cultural backgrounds and those living in rural and remote locations, remain vastly underrepresented in high-status universities and high-status degrees both in Australia and globally.

While acknowledging the ‘hidden costs’ of social mobility for some, there are substantial social, economic and health benefits to individuals, their families, nations and the professions themselves, when high-status occupations become socially diverse.

Australia has relatively higher social mobility compared to some nations. Despite this, students from non-traditional backgrounds, especially those with substantial academic ability, are far less likely to apply for and participate in high-status degrees like Medicine, Law and Architecture. This pattern remains despite the provision of school-based career education, access to ever-expanding online information on university study and careers, and the considerable investment that universities have made in school-based outreach programs, and other interventions such as summer schools and e-mentoring.

While the issue of attainment as a barrier to university and particular degrees has been well documented, much less attention has been paid to how social differences can create cumulative disadvantage, limiting the educational and career horizons of Australian youth, particularly those who have demonstrated academic achievement and/or aspiration towards high-status professions.

The purpose of my NCSEHE Equity Fellowship project is it to provide a theoretically-informed and empirically-embedded investigation into the range of social and institutional factors that influence connection to high-status professions for young people (aged 12-25) experiencing disadvantage in the Australian context.

Specifically, my project provides a qualitative analysis of the aspirations of high school students from disadvantaged school communities and an investigation of the experiences of first-in-family students in high-status degrees, to identify socio-cultural factors that influence access to high-status degrees. It will also provide a ‘road map’ of existing and emerging digital technologies – including virtual, augmented and mixed reality – and their potential in offering an authentic connection to both the discipline knowledges and occupational experiences associated with high-status professions.

Finally, through a national consultation process, I will gather the wisdom of experts in the field of access to the professions, including representatives from the professions themselves, university equity practitioners and researchers, and community specialists.

Taken together, information from my Fellowship project will paint a comprehensive picture of the current range of factors affecting access to the professions for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and offer a range of tantalising possibilities for future career development using emerging digital technologies.

Read the final report here.