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You are reading: Equity at and beyond the boundary of Australian universities

Matt Brett, Naomi Tootell, Andrew Harvey, Buly A. Cardak and Peter Noonan

La Trobe University

Executive Summary

This report investigates the social demography, learning outcomes and educational experiences of students enrolled in two distinct modes of higher education delivery in Australia — university programs delivered through third party arrangements, and higher education courses delivered by non-university higher education institutions (NUHEIs). In short, the research examines equity at and beyond the boundary of Australian universities.

University courses delivered through third party arrangements—particularly those that involve subcontracting and franchising of program delivery—are not provided directly by public universities, and can therefore be considered as residing at the boundary of the public university. Programs delivered by NUHEIs are positioned definitively beyond the boundary of the Australian public university.

Our research examines the equity group participation, retention and success rates—as well as the educational experiences—of students within these two domains of delivery. While maintaining a particular focus on students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, we analyse and present data on five of the six nationally recognised equity groups within higher education, including Indigenous students, students with a disability, and students from low SES, regional and non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB).

Student equity in Australian higher education has been a national priority for many years. This priority is reflected in the collection of data, setting of targets, and specific allocations of funding for the six nationally-recognised equity groups (Harvey, Burnheim & Brett, 2016). However, understanding of student equity group participation and performance in Australian higher education is not ideally served by current approaches to the collection and distribution of data. Equity considerations remain largely limited to public universities, with statistics on the participation and performance of students in the six nationally-recognised equity groups routinely reported at the level of the university. However, the number of students enrolled in university courses delivered by third party providers is growing, and current data is not disaggregated to facilitate understanding of equity group participation and performance within university–third party arrangements. Concurrently, the proportion of higher education students enrolled in NUHEIs is also growing. Student equity data for these institutions is not routinely published, thereby limiting understanding of equity performance in this domain.

The absence of publicly available data on student equity group participation and performance at and beyond the boundary of the Australian university represents a significant gap in our understanding of the Australian higher education sector. Understanding equity group participation and performance within university–third party delivery and NUHEIs is critical to supporting student equity across the entire Australian higher education sector. It is important to know whether equity group students are participating, succeeding, and having positive educational experiences in these two domains of higher education delivery. It is also important to know whether universities are providing sufficient transparency to prospective students about third party course delivery, and whether such courses are of comparable quality—in terms of equity and other measures—to other courses delivered by the university. The extent to which NUHEIs and third party providers are committed to student equity is also of public interest, as is the question of whether there are exemplars of good practice within NUHEIs and third party delivery from which public universities could learn. Finally, we are interested to know whether national higher education policies are addressing student equity in a coherent and comprehensive manner across the sector.

Our report responds to the following central research questions applicable to domestic undergraduate students at and beyond the boundary of the Australian university.

  • Third party transparency: What information about third party delivery is publicly accessible?
  • Third party public interest: What equity performance is associated with third party delivery?
  • Equity beyond the university: What equity performance is associated with NUHEIs?
  • Learning from good practice: What can we learn from NUHEIs with good equity practice?

Addressing these questions is central to ensuring that student equity policy is consistent across the sector, informed by best practice, and transparent to prospective and enrolled students.

Access the full report: Brett, M., Tootell, N., Harvey, A., Cardak, B. A., & Noonan, P. (2019). Equity at and beyond the boundary of Australian universities. Report for the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. Melbourne: La Trobe University.

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