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You are reading: Investigating the Relationship Between Equity and Graduate Outcomes in Australia

Written by Dr Sarah Richardson (ACER), Professor Dawn Bennett and Associate Professor Lynne Roberts (Curtin University)

Australian higher education equity policy focusses mostly on access and participation with the implicit assumption that disadvantage will be ameliorated through educational achievement. Less is known as to whether patterns of disadvantage continue post-completion. In a context in which graduate employability is becoming an important yardstick against which to measure institutional effectiveness, this questions is of fundamental importance to higher education equity practitioners and policymakers.

This study employed Commonwealth graduate outcome data to investigate relationships between disadvantage and graduate outcomes in Australia, with disadvantage defined as a graduate belonging to one or more of the following groups – low SES. Indigenous, regional, with a disability, from a non-English speaking background (NESB), born outside Australia and female in a technical area. The study provided critical insights into how access to higher education does – or does not – lead to improvements in post-graduation equity.

The study utilised data from the 2014 Australian Graduate Survey (Department of Education and Training, 2014) which reported information on graduate outcomes from a total of 142,647 graduates who completed their studies in 2013 and 2014. The data was collected between four and six months after graduation at which time many graduates were simultaneously undertaking multiple activities such as working, studying and searching for work time. Mindful of this complexity the team employed five discrete categories for the data analysis, as illustrated at Figure 1. It is important to note that none of these categories excluded seeking work.

Figure 1: Discrete categories of graduate activities

Data analysis focused on the graduate outcomes of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. For the purposes of this study ‘disadvantage’ was theorised as constituting several independent, but potentially overlapping, characteristics, with varying numbers of graduates in each cohort:

  • Indigenous Australians (Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people) – 1,106
  • Graduates with a disability – 4,229
  • NESB (speaking a language other than English as their first language) – 39,408
  • Born outside Australia – 55,166
  • Regional (living outside the capital city of any state or territory) – 25,240
  • Low SES (from bottom socio-economic (SES) quartile) – 11,151
  • Female graduates from engineering, science and information technology fields – 8,603

Disadvantage by field of education
Graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds were clustered in particular fields of education:

  • Graduates from regional areas and from low SES backgrounds were particularly concentrated in the fields of medicine and related studies and education.
  • Indigenous and graduates with a disability were particularly concentrated in the field of society and culture.
  • Graduates born outside Australia or who spoke a language other than English at home were particularly concentrated in the fields of management and commerce and engineering and related technologies.

Beyond the breadth of the field of education categories, further nuances were seen, particularly in the broad areas of medicine and related studies and society and culture:

  • Graduates from many disadvantaged groups were clustered within the sub-fields of broad disciplines that are arguably regarded as lower status (and which are less well paid), such as nursing and teaching.
  • In the broad field of medicine and related studies graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds were clustered in the fields of nursing and midwifery and public health.
  • In the broad field of society and culture, graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds were clustered in the fields of human welfare studies.

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Richardson, S., Bennett, D. & Roberts, L. (2016) Investigating the Relationship Between Equity and Graduate Outcomes in Australia. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.
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