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You are reading: NCSEHE Student Equity Snapshots Forum — ‘There’s nothing inevitable about exclusion.’ Australian universities: choices and issues in careers support for students with disability

The NCSEHE hosted a series of lightning talks and online discussions presented by the 2019/20 Equity Fellows on 26–30 October 2020.

In this lightning talk, Mr David Eckstein (Swinburne University of Technology) shares a snapshot of his NCSEHE Equity Fellowship, investigating approaches to helping students with disability secure meaningful work after graduation.

David shares highlights from national staff and student consultation including students’ lived experience of disability and its impact on their career aspirations.

David is joined for Q and A by guest facilitator Mr Matt Brett (Deakin University).

Lightning talk recording

Full recording (including Q and A)

Full transcript (including Q and A)


#NCSEHE_Snapshots publication

Lightning talk transcript

There’s nothing inevitable about exclusion.

We make choices about how we prepare our students for life after university. Especially our students who live with disability.

And this idea that there is nothing inevitable about exclusion, is a key reason I work with people with disability.

AND it’s a persistent form of exclusion that prompted my research Fellowship. Because, compared to their mainstream counterparts, students with disability remain more likely to be unemployed after graduation.

If they do get work they’re more likely to be in jobs that don’t use their university skills or education.

AND they’re also underrepresented in employers’ graduate programs – they make up only two per cent of participants in these important employment pathways.

We know that more targeted careers services for students with disability are needed in Australia, and we know that universities continue to experience barriers to providing them, but we don’t know why these barriers persist. These barriers include things like scarce resources and lack of service integration, but we don’t know why, as a sector, these things continue to be barriers to service provision.

That’s what my Fellowship investigates.

And there is nothing inevitable about this state of affairs.

My Fellowship’s findings are drawn from national surveys of students and staff, online staff focus groups and organisational case study interviews.

Staff are clear about what they need. There’s a strong collaborative theme in the things that staff say would help them follow through on their desire to provide targeted careers services to students with disability. The top three things are:

  1. more collaboration with external stakeholders, followed by
  2. staff training, followed by
  3. more collaboration with internal stakeholders.

But there are things that complicate fulfilling these needs.

And a big issue is that students and staff see student careers matters differently. Of course, you’d expect that because our experience is different. The thing to note is that as a body, we as staff could be much better attuned to how students with disability feel about their careers. We’ll look at three examples for now: personal career goals, an example of a career challenge, and how students with disability feel about engaging with it.

So first, personal career goals. Survey feedback suggests that at this fundamental level, there is a huge difference between students’ careers thinking and staff perception of it.

For example, more than 70 per cent students with disability say YES, they know what work they want to do. But if you put the question to university staff — “in your opinion, do most students with disability know what work they want to do” barely 30 per cent of staff say YES.

And, when asked about the challenges students with disability face getting the work they want: students and staff agree on the number one challenge, which is people making inaccurate assumptions about their abilities.

But staff and students don’t agree on the second most important challenge. Staff nominate  unconscious bias, whereas students say it’s “being asked to share disability information with employers.”

Sharing disability information with employers is a terribly fraught issue for many students. Approximately one third of students with disability indicated they feel able to do this, but only 12 per cent of staff thought students with disability would feel able to share their disability information with employers. So, as a group, we underestimate students’ willingness to engage with this challenge.

One project-based example of this kind of service integration is partnership with a Disability Employment Service provider (or DES for short). Currently, universities can host a DES provider on campus through the NDCO’s Uni Specialist Employment Partnership (USEP) program, or WISE Employment’s GradWISE program. These arrangements have helped some universities facilitate students’ access to disability-confident employers, and facilitate closer collaboration between disability services and careers education in the process.

But entering into these arrangements can be complex for universities. There are 14 universities with DES partnerships. My Fellowship highlights there are key enablers that would help other universities develop relationships with DES providers, such as staff having access to:

  • information about partnership guidelines and choices, and staff having access to
  • precedent – examples of university collaboration with DES providers, and staff having access to
  • a safe place to discuss issues with colleagues from early-adopter universities.

The emerging opportunity that the higher education sector has is to reduce the barrier of service separation by taking a more integrated approach to supporting the career development of our students with disability.

And we can do this by tailoring activities that respond to the needs of each student. In the scheme of things represented by this picture, the student will occupy a different place in the support hierarchy depending on where they are at at the time, and depending on the particular careers issues they are dealing with. They might be using a little or a lot of support from different university areas such as the:

  • Careers office, Disability, Work Integrated Learning, Academic Skills support, faculty, employers.

But also each other. At Swinburne University for example, the students have been brought together to work in a student community of practice where they experience the benefits of belonging to a community of career development learners and the benefits of supporting each other.

This more collaborative approach puts students with disability in more control of their career management when they leave university because they’ve been given a broader, more-informed careers base from which to transition to the world of work.

And this brings me to the point I’d like to finish on. The question for us as a sector is, how do we make this happen?

Well, staff collaboration; enabling each other’s ability, sharing information and resources between universities, as well as departments, are key aims of the national Disability Career Development Learning Community of Practice that’s emerging from this Fellowship. You’re invited to come and experience this CoP online, at December sessions of the National Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (or NAGCAS) conference, and the Australian Tertiary Education Network on Disability (or ATEND) Pathways 15 conference. There’ll be tips, discussion, and information sharing, about the issues and choices that city and regional colleagues have engaged with to develop targeted careers services for their students with disability to help you develop your own strategies.

By working together we can improve students’ ability to identify and get work that’s meaningful to them. We’ll be doing this at a national level. We’ll be helping them understand—and be valued for—their skills, abilities and professional aspirations. We’ll be making their inclusion more routine. And we’ll be doing this for students that would otherwise remain marginalised. This speaks directly to the higher education sector’s mission to be a civilising influence in society. It comes down to making these kinds of choices.

They’re choices we need to make.

We can help each other in the process,

and that’s what it means to say that there’s nothing inevitable about exclusion.

Looking forward to seeing you in the Disability Career Development Learning Community of Practice. Thanks for listening.

Lightning talk slides (accessible)