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You are reading: Meaningful jobs for students with disability: From luck to business as usual

NCSEHE Equity Fellowship final report

David Eckstein, Swinburne University of Technology

Executive summary

All people have the right to work and free choice of employment, but some Australians continue to face employment barriers because they live with disability. University students with disability (SwD) are disadvantaged in the job market. While universities have limited influence on the job market, there are opportunities for them to better prepare SwD to compete in it. This Fellowship sheds light on such opportunities, as well as the barriers which hamper university efforts to provide targeted careers support and the factors that create added complexity for universities in regional Australia.

The project used a mixed methods approach to gather data from SwD as well as staff working in disability, careers, other professional roles and academic/teaching roles. Data was gathered using the following mechanisms: a desk review of current university offerings; national surveys of university staff and SwD; staff focus groups; Regional Heads of Service email interviews; and a case study.

The objectives were to suggest ways of improving universities’ provision of careers services for SwD by identifying factors that drive targeted service provision as well as barriers to it.

Constructivist notions underpin the theoretical framework used for data analysis and discussion. While the importance of nurturing individual career management ability is emphasised, the centrality of SwD’s deep engagement with their academic discipline as well as systemic operational realities are also acknowledged.

The research indicates that despite recent progress, on-campus targeted careers support for SwD is available at just 24 of Australia’s 43 universities (55.8 per cent of all institutions). This growth is mostly due to the welcome arrival of university partnerships with Disability Employment Service (DES) providers. However, these partnerships present unique issues for the university careers or disability services that partner with them. Support from early adopter universities helps prospective university partners navigate potential issues, but others, in particular regional universities, face specific challenges. While some of these institutions have managed to initiate DES collaborations, other models of engagement are needed, particularly given the demand that the DES funding model places on providers.

A further complicating matter is that SwD’s experience of discrimination can lead them to concentrate on avoiding the inaccurate assumptions of others about their disability and inherent abilities. This can compromise their engagement with employability activities that develop their sense of themselves as emerging professionals. In turn this can also compromise the deeper engagement with their academic discipline that the career development literature indicates such activities nurture (Watts, 2006).

The key finding of this report is that overall, universities do not appear to understand how SwD think about their careers. Combined with the mixed understanding of employability among university staff that was also confirmed by research, the university system inadvertently conspires to perpetuate SwD avoidance strategies. The difficult truth is that instead of equipping SwD to better manage their own careers, they are being denied the means of doing so.

The encouraging news is that some disability and careers professionals are beginning to break through. A case study of Swinburne University’s AccessAbility Careers Hub (AACH or “the Hub”) identified the initiative as an emerging model of good practice. The case study identifies drivers of success, but professional staff training and support are required if the drivers of success are to be rigorously harnessed.

While employers’ disability confidence has been developing in recent years, they need support too. Their willingness to participate in disability–inclusive careers events contributes to shared understandings of disability inclusion among all stakeholders. If the university sector can take advantage of these kinds of opportunities, it will contribute to positive developments in the national recruitment landscape for SwD.


The following recommendations arise from the research to facilitate universities’ ability to provide careers support that targets the needs of SwD:

Recommendation 1: That the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) considers the practicality of:

  1. applying the disability variable to additional questions in the Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS), and
  2. further interrogating “long-term health condition or disability” responses to
    GOS questions

Recommendation 2: That the education sector, in collaboration with ADCET, the NDCO and the National Careers Institute (NCI) investigates the provision of a national SwD careers strategy to guide specialist services in the context of broader service delivery.

Recommendation 3: That the funded bodies: the Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET), the National Disability Coordination Officer (NDCO) Program and the NCI promote shared understandings about employability and the employability challenges SwD face through the development and rollout of a university version of its Vocational Education and Training (VET) Sector (Staff and Educators) Disability Awareness Training that includes information about employability and
Disability CDL.

Recommendation 4: That universities use their connections with national practitioner associations the Australian Tertiary Education Network on Disability (ATEND) and the National Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (NAGCAS), to develop national collaborative partnerships with employers to develop disability confidence and mutual understandings for the benefit of SwD.

Recommendation 5: That universities, NDCOs, Disability Employment Service (DES) providers, employers and Regional University Centres (RUCs) collaborate to investigate ways of providing cooperative career development support and identifying disability-confident organisations for the benefit of SwD.

Recommendation 6: That universities with DES provider partnerships contribute to the development of DES partnership guidelines for the benefit of the university sector. These guidelines should include DES provider perspectives.

Recommendation 7: That government review the current funding model for DES providers to investigate the provision of more timely compensation for their investment in supporting university SwD and enable their engagement with SwD from the first year of their studies.

Recommendation 8: That the Career Industry Council of Australia (CICA), the National Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (NAGCAS), the Australian Tertiary Education Network on Disability (ATEND), the NDCO, Australian Network on Disability (AND) support the development of specialist Disability CDL qualifications to develop the capacity of experienced practitioners to service the needs of SwD. It is recommended that this be done in consultation with SwD and GwD (graduates with disability).

Recommendation 9: That careers and disability professional associations such as ATEND and NAGCAS consider hosting a national Disability CDL Community of Practice to provide
a place for interested practitioners to learn from each other about Disability CDL and
related matters.

Recommendation 10: That the DESE considers supporting universities to add a collaborative metric to their institutional KPIs.

Recommendation 11: That university careers and disability offices collaborate on the creation of careers services that support SwD.

Recommendation 12: That universities investigate Universal Design Learning principles for in-curriculum Disability CDL to ensure that the presence of SwD is assumed during curriculum design.

Read the full report, Meaningful jobs for students with disability: From luck to business as usual

Equity Fellowship Snapshot — Meaningful jobs for students with disability: From luck to business as usual

This research was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

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