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

NCSEHE 2016 Equity Fellowship Report


People from equity groups are underrepresented in university degrees associated with high-status professions. The reasons for this are complex and relate to poverty, familial and community norms and expectations, inequitable access to high quality and adequately resourced schooling which affects achievement, and continuing incorrect deficit assumptions related to people’s socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds The application of new and emerging digital technologies could improve equity students’ participation in these careers by motivating and enhancing disciplinary learning and creating authentic connections to higher education and the world of work.


Australian higher education participation data indicates that people from equity groups are underrepresented in university degrees associated with high-status professions, particularly at elite universities. Poverty, familial and community norms and expectations, inequitable access to high quality and adequately resourced schooling, and continuing incorrect deficit assumptions related people’s socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Career education in Australian schools is often of particular concern and can be a very marginal part of the curriculum.  Career advisors in low income school communities often have more limited capacity to assist all their students, with working class students mainly getting ‘working class work experience’.

New and emerging technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, may provide a solution for creating opportunities for students from equity groups for deeper disciplinary and inter-disciplinary learning and more authentic connection to post-school education and the world of work.

Objectives and Methodology

The project examined the underrepresentation of non-traditional students in high-status professions such as medicine, law, architecture, information and communications technology (ICT) and engineering, with a particular focus on students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds.

The Fellowship approached underrepresentation from different perspectives to provide a picture of barriers and enablers. It included:

  • a literature research
  • an analysis of 2015 higher education participation trends for high status Fields of Education
  • a case study of the post-school aspirations of regional youth
  • an analysis of first-in-family student experience of high-status degrees
  • a national consultation of experts in the field of widening participation, educational equity and high-status degrees
  • a primer on emerging digital technologies for deeper learning and career education.

2015 undergraduate and post-graduate enrolment data was analysed, including data from prestige courses (information technology; engineering; architecture; medical studies; physiotherapy; and law), provided for four equity groups (low SES; Indigenous; regional; and remote).These were categorised by university type: Group of Eight (Go8) or other universities.

The research project also provided an analysis of the Aspirations Longitudinal Study to produce a nuanced case study of the post-school education and career aspirations of regional youth experiencing disadvantage. The case study drew on focus group data from 77 high school students and 14 educators to explore the how post-school education is considered by young people and the marginalisation of career education in these schools.

In addition, interviews were conducted with 25 national experts in higher education, educational equity and high status degrees. This data points to both tensions that exist in ‘opening up’ prestigious degrees and potential solutions.

Key Findings

Research on connection to high-status professions

  • Research into social diversity in the professions largely focused on two arguments: social justice frameworks premised on the rights of individuals; and economic or human capital arguments based on a ‘social mobility dividend’.
  • Poverty and schooling were linked to educational outcomes:
    • An estimated 17.4 per cent of Australian children lived in poverty and a child’s earliest years shaped their life chances.
    • Research suggested Australia’s schooling system is ‘high quality, low equity’; government schools took more than their fair share of students from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds and independent schools took fewer than their fair share.
    • The average level of achievement of a child from a low SES background in a low SES school was roughly three years behind a high SES child in a high SES school.
    • Direct access to university was largely dependent on a student’s Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) score, but ATAR scores need to be seen in the context of curriculum options and resourcing available to students. Students from low SES backgrounds were 2.5 times more likely to undertake vocational education and training (VET) courses in high school than their high SES peers, and an ATAR score was more indicative of a student’s socioeconomic status than a student’s potential.

The journey to prestigious degrees for non-traditional students was challenging; research indicated that the residualisation of public education in this country adversely impacts on the ability of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to achieve the extraordinarily high Australian Tertiary Admission Rank  (ATAR) required for direct entry into prestigious degrees. Many low SES students had circuitous and protracted paths into  these degrees or sometimes encountered problems fitting into the culture if they did succeed. Some international research indicates that these students continue to encounter a ‘class ceiling’ once graduated.

Research on Australian equity group participation in high-status fields of education

  • There was a significant underrepresentation of students from equity groups in high-status fields of education.
  • Universities other than the Go8 had numerically more students from equity groups in high-status fields of education, attributed to the fact that they comprised more universities. However, data indicates that Go8 universities take considerably fewer students from equity groups as a proportion of their student cohort in high-status Fields of Education. This is in contrast to other universities where the proportion of students from equity groups is a generally a much higher proportion of the cohort for these same Fields of Education. Questions arise about why Go8 universities take proportionally less students from equity groups in these Fields of Education.

Case study on education and career aspirations in regional Australia

  • Students highlighted strong family and local bonds, although some students had an ambivalent attitude to the ‘Longahart’ community. Many students could only think of tenuous links between what they were studying and a career path.
  • Opportunities to undertake ‘taster’ work experience were very limited.
  • Career aspirations varied widely from the specific to the ambiguous, and; many were unsure of their immediate post-school destination, even in their senior school year.
  • While a few students had good knowledge about vocational and higher education, others admitted to knowing very little about post-school educational options.
  • Educators found their jobs in their ‘working class school’ to be ‘tough’ but rewarding.
  • The academic stream at the schools was small and teachers admitted that they needed to ‘do more’ to support the learning and aspirations of these students.
  • Schools had a big emphasis on a vocational curriculum which had been strengthened by the ‘learning or earning’ policy requirement facing young people to the age of 17. However, most students would leave school with a Certificate II, a qualification that would probably not make them competitive in the job market, locally or elsewhere. Most educators painted a varied picture of post-school education and career options for their students, with some emphasising a limited local job market and a psycho-social dynamic amongst some of their former students who ‘dropped out’ of university because of cumulative experiences of feeling disadvantaged.

National consultation

  • School was seen as both an enabler and a barrier to success for equity students.
  • Careers education was seen as important, but many commented on the lack of resources available for low SES, regional and remote school communities.
  • Participants all saw value in school-university partnerships that reached into the early years of high school.
  • Financial constraints were cited as an issue. The cost of deferring income from employment and accruing a debt from university study deter some students from pursuing higher education.
  • Participants concluded that learning in schools needed to be linked to real-world problem solving and a comprehensive curriculum that connected with the lived experience of students instead of reinforcing notions of deficit.
  • Participants grappled with the issue of the high ATAR scores required to be competitive. A number of approaches such as bonus points schemes, quotas, taster experiences, and pipeline and alternative entry programs were seen as important but not wholly adequate for increasing social diversity in high-status degrees.
  • While participants from law and medicine noted the conservative nature of the professions and ‘micro-class reproduction’, they also noted that the professions were changing as they diversified.

 Conclusions and Considerations for Policy

  • Continued scholarly inquiry and policy accountability is indicated, relating to the complex factors that inhibit students experiencing disadvantage from reaching their academic potential, including access to an academic curriculum, inspiring quality career education, and a broad range of authentic ‘taster’ work experience placements.
  • A more transparent and sustained tracking of participation rates by broad and specific Fields of Education, including those related to high-status degrees, would ensure that the issue of proportional representational of students from equity groups stays firmly on the agenda for universities and the professions themselves. This would include serious scrutiny of equitable access to high-status degrees in elite universities.
  • There is a pressing need to more fully understand and respond to the experiences of students from equity groups who, often against considerable odds, secure a place in a high-status university degree, including their post-graduation aspirations and pathways.
  • Now is the time to commit to innovation in education and career exploration using new and emerging digital technologies such as virtual and augmented reality. This must be done with low-income school communities and university students from equity groups so that authentic technological applications are developed to motivate and enhance disciplinary learning and understand its links to the world of work.

Southgate, Erica. 2017. Fair connection to professional careers: Understanding social difference and disadvantage, institutional dynamics and technological opportunities. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.

Southgate, Erica., Shamus. P. Smith, and Hayden Cheers. 2016. Immersed in the future: A roadmap of existing and emerging technology for career exploration. Report Series Number 3. Newcastle: DICE Research.