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You are reading: University responses to enhancing equity in the post-COVID landscape

Mary Teague1, Sally Baker1, Farhana Laffernis1, Katy Head1, Sonal Singh2, Carolina Morison3, Christine Johnston4, Jim Micsko4

Executive summary

2020 was a particularly challenging year for Australian higher education and student equity. The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant and far-reaching consequences for the higher education sector, and particularly impacted on students from equity cohorts. In addition to the initial impacts of the pandemic in 2020, the introduction of the Job Ready Graduates Package (JRGP) also had significant implications for universities in terms of responding to student equity. Given the widespread and deep impacts of these changes, it was timely to explore how universities responded to these challenges in terms of access and admissions, and participation and support for equity cohorts.
Using a mixed method, comparative approach, we sought to gain an understanding of the impacts of the pandemic by exploring how universities responded to equity considerations in 2020, specifically whether institutions developed admissions requirements and pathways, support services, and strategies to increase access for equity students into higher education. The project was designed to develop a broad national account of how universities responded to COVID in terms of equity in 2020, as well to develop more detailed accounts of the considerations and decision-making within institutions through:

  • A survey of equity practitioners across Australian universities.
  • Interviews with senior leaders who represent Australian university executive levels.
  • Development of institutional case studies, informed by interviews with university staff responsible for the implementation of their institution’s COVID response.

Key findings

Pathways and admissions programs

Alternative, non-ATAR, pathways to university proliferated in the advent of COVID-19, in many cases as a means to mitigate some of the impact on school leavers who experienced significant disruption to their education in 2020. Universities accelerated the implementation of admissions pathways (including School Recommendation Schemes, non-ATAR pathways, reduced ATAR pathways, and the expansion of enabling and certificate programs), and while there was no evidence to suggest any strong impetus to recruit from equity cohorts as a result of the sector’s precarious financial position, benefits to student equity from the expansion of these pathways is likely.

Support services and equity student retention

Although finances were concerning for Australian universities following the impacts of reduced international student revenue and a lack of access to the federal government’s JobKeeper package, many offered increased financial support for students. Our findings speak to the ways that universities responded to the needs of equity student cohorts, with the most prevalent forms of support being financial (scholarships, bursaries) and outreach to enrolled university students (phone calls, technology). Other supports included digital resource loans and wellbeing engagement to support students coping with increased stress. However, while many universities used a range of strategies to identify ‘at-risk’ students, our respondents also noted the difficulties of supporting equity cohorts because of challenges with identifying particular groups and/or reliance on self-disclosure of ‘equity circumstances’.

Flexibility

All respondents spoke to the large-scale shift with regard to online learning, support and resources for students adapting to a new way of being at university. With this urgent and unplanned shift, universities introduced new flexibilities to accommodate the needs of students. According to many of the senior leaders interviewed, some of the accommodations made, such as early conditional offer schemes for school leavers, had been planned before COVID, but they were accelerated because of the pandemic.

Partnerships and collaboration

Some respondents reflected on increased external partnerships, sector collaborations, relationships with student organisations and/or guilds. Other partnerships that began or were strengthened included those with governments, and with schools and teachers. For those institutions who sought to engage with stakeholders externally, these collaborations and partnerships appear to have been a significant enabler for the support of equity students during COVID.

Advocacy and awareness

While the pandemic in particular offered an opportunity to develop a broader awareness of student equity considerations in higher education, there was limited suggestion in the data that this opportunity had been harnessed by many institutions for promoting equity. At a national level, some respondents commented on the potential for lasting change in national acceptance of the ATAR as the most relied upon predictor of student success. There were suggestions of future advocacy for expanded admissions pathways.

Based on our findings, we make five recommendations for the higher education sector:

  • Recommendation 1
    Ensure consistency of advocacy for student equity (not equality) via an explicit university-wide student equity strategy which is embedded across the student lifecycle.
  • Recommendation 2
    Set key performance indicators regarding the access, participation and success of equity student cohorts with transparent data dashboards and regular internally circulated performance reporting based upon clear evaluation frameworks.
  • Recommendation 3
    Distributed leadership within higher education institutions to allow for transparent and collaborative processes for the decision-making regarding student equity admission and transition support.
  • Recommendation 4
    Adopt an intersectional approach to student equity admission and transition support that recognises how multiple forms of disadvantage cause compounded barriers and respond through the creation of a range of pathways and supports for engagement.
  • Recommendation 5
    Develop institutional COVID-response plans for equity cohorts that explicitly respond to key access, participation and success needs of equity cohorts during COVID, including potential utilisation of reallocated HEPPP funding across the student lifecycle.

Read the full report: University responses to enhancing equity in the post-COVID landscape


This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.


1University of New South Wales
2University of Technology Sydney
3Macquarie University
4Western Sydney University

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