Curtin University

BUDGET 2024: Why is the money for public schools still missing?

This is first in a series of posts on the 2024 Budget. Today: school funding by Curtin University’s Matthew P. Sinclair, a lecturer in education policy. Tomorrow: early childhood care and education by the University of New England’s Marg Rogers, postdoctoral fellow at the Manna Institute Monday: higher education by the University of Melbourne’s Abigail Payne, director of the Melbourne Institute.

This is beginning to feel like the “Gonski 3.0” phase of school funding policy reform that will yet again fall short for public schools

We’ve seen this movie before. This time the actors are different but the plot remains the same. 

Analysing Tuesday night’s federal budget was a timely reminder that fully funding the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) for all Australian public schools has been an unattainable goal since at least 2012—when the Review of Funding for Schooling’s final report [the Gonski Review] was publicly released. 

There’s nothing put aside

An analysis of the forward estimates for public schools beyond 2025 shows there’s nothing put aside by the federal ALP for New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria to help reach 100% of the SRS any time soon. 

Nor does the money appear for Western Australia (WA) or the Northern Territory (NT). Earlier this year they signed Statements of Intent to deliver an agreement to fully fund the SRS of public schools in the coming years—2026 for the former and 2029 for the latter—in a deal worth an additional $785.4 million and $737 million in federal money respectively over five years.

Regarding the signing on of WA and the NT, as Elisa Di Gregorio, Professor Jane Kenway and I pointed out earlier this year, WA was low hanging fruit given they funded more than 100% of the SRS in 2018, and the robust state of its economy— it delivered its sixth straight budget surplus last week. While the Northern Territory, in terms of its population of under 300,000, is much smaller than the eastern states who are yet to sign on.

Ongoing budget negotiations – but does that matter?

Of course, Minister for Education Jason Clare would point to the ongoing negotiations between the federal government and the unsigned states on coming to an agreement for public schools to begin a path to reaching 100% of the SRS. And the fact that the next set of bilateral agreements are set to be signed at the end of the year as part of the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA), and that the money is there and available.

In response, I would point out that the Gonski Review, which first recommended the SRS as a needs based funding framework, was commissioned in 2010 and delivered its final report to the federal government in December 2011. Furthermore, the previous set of national school funding bilateral agreements between the federal government and the states and territories expired at the end of 2023, and required a 12-month extension.

Almost 5 months later we still don’t have five states signed on for the next agreement that we’ve been promised will get all public schools to 100% of the SRS sooner rather than later. 

Memories of Gillard past

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this trajectory in school funding policy for public schools before. The Gillard government in 2013 put together a six-year funding deal that promised to get public schools to 100% of the SRS. The problem was that two thirds of the funding was to come in the fifth and sixth years of the deal, and had not been budgeted for in the forward estimates. 

At the time of the deal, the Gillard government was in a precarious political position and unlikely to win the two elections needed to deliver on the promise. Thus, when the Abbott government won power in 2013, they either had to find two thirds of all the funding promised by the ALP in two years, or take a new direction. 

As we know, they chose the latter, and this led to the ALP being able to use school funding policy as a political weapon against the Coalition, arguing they were cutting funding for public schools when in fact that money was only promised, and never budgeted for. The ALP made similar arguments during the Gonski 2.0 phase of school funding reform where they presented their unfulfilled promises as hard policy.

The ALP’s slim majority

This storyline came back to me Tuesday evening looking at the federal budget papers and thinking about the 12 month extension to the current funding agreements. After listening to Treasurer Dr Jim Chalmers’ speech, and looking at the forward estimates, my first reaction was to check the next election date. It is May 2025, at the latest, and the federal ALP sits on a slim majority of 77 of 151 seats in the lower house of parliament. 

Under the current extended bilateral agreements, the states and territories are meant to provide 80% of the SRS for public schools and 20% for non-government schools. While the federal government provides 20% to public schools and 80% to non-government schools. 

Well short of the budget mark

The reason public schools outside of the Australian Capital Territory are not consistently funded at 100% of the SRS is the states and the NT do not fully fund the 80% and in some cases are well short of that mark. 

Minister Clare knows this well and is proposing lifting the federal share of public funding from 20% to 22.5% in a deal worth an extra $6bn over five years, while the unsigned states want the federal government to lift its share to 25%, in order for them to contribute 75%. 

Minister Clare also wants funding tied to new reporting obligations that he argues will lift student outcomes; the states who are yet to sign on are arguing this is yet another level of compliance for schools and teachers. 

Meanwhile, the Australian Greens want more urgency from the federal government on reaching 100% of the SRS. 

History repeated

All of this feels like history repeated. The ALP makes promises about fully funding the SRS for public schools, the Greens call for fully funding public education, the money isn’t budgeted for across the forward estimates, and then political winds change, and the money never lands.

Is this the Gonski 3.0 phase of school funding policy? It is beginning to feel that way and the current trajectory suggests it may well end the same way as 1.0 and 2.0. 

Although, there is still a possibility that Minister Clare and the remaining states will come to an agreement and sign on to finally fully fund the SRS of all public schools during the next set of bilateral agreements, which provides hope. 

Indeed, Minister Clare has achieved positive results so far including much needed money for public school infrastructure (although much more capital works funding is required), putting together a national plan to address the teacher shortage, and paid school placements for some university students, and more.

We need a positive ending

However, he has a lot more work to do to deliver on his commitment to getting all public schools on a path to 100% of the SRS.   For our less advantaged students, for a change, we need a positive ending to this school funding policy story. 

Matthew P. Sinclair is a lecturer of education policy at Curtin University’s School of Education in Western Australia. His first book titled Equity and Influence in the Funding of Schools is on track to be published by Bloomsbury later this year.

School funding: Is this Australia’s most important moment for reform?

School funding policy burst back onto the national agenda last Tuesday. Federal Education Minister Jason Clare announced a ‘statement of intent’ had been signed with Western Australia to fully fund the state’s public schools by 2026.

This language is important. A statement of intent is not  a signed, five-year, bilateral funding agreement. There is still much water to go under the bridge.

Yet, on face value, the announcement is good news. It signals the federal government’s intention to boost overall funding for public schools in WA by an extra $777.4 million over five years. In doing so, lifting its share of public school funding from 20 percent to 22.5 percent. Importantly, priority is also given to the state’s most disadvantaged public schools to ensure they are the first to receive the new funding.

As part of the deal, the WA government committed to providing at least an equivalent amount over this period, or 77.5% of the SRS, bringing total additional investment in public schools to $1.6 billion.

In theory at least, this will bring all WA schools regardless of sector up to 100% of the Student Resource Standard by 2026, in school funding policy terms, a quick turnaround.

So why was WA the first cab off the rank?

A review of the annual reporting of states and territories concerning their bilateral funding agreements shows that in 2018, WA actually funded schools at 104% of the SRS, with the WA state government providing 84.43% of the SRS in addition to the federal government’s 20% contribution. From 2019, each year, WA has incrementally dropped its funding to the plateau in 2021, 2022 and 2023 of 75%.

In short, for the federal government to achieve a much needed political and public victory concerning school funding, WA was low hanging fruit. It was sitting on 95% of the SRS in 2023, and only years before schools had been funded in excess of 100%.

WA is also in strong budgetary position vis a vis the other states and territories with a $3.7 billion net operating budget surplus now forecast for 2023‑24.

Perhaps in a sign of things to come, included in the signed statement of intent was a no-disadvantage clause. This means the WA will net hundreds of millions more for education if the Eastern states secure a higher share.

Judging from the initial reaction from some eastern seaboard states, who rejected outright the federal government’s 2.5% increase in funding, Minster Clare faces a rocky negotiation path ahead.

Don’t get too excited

There’s a lot we don’t know. And a lot to worry about if history repeats itself. Our school funding history in relation to equity and needs-based funding is not reassuring.

Minister Clare obviously hopes that the WA agreement will set the scene for other state and territory agreements. He wants all parties to negotiate in good faith and with noble purpose.

But the much-travelled path of federal/state school funding negotiations is littered with disagreements —protracted and fierce. Their results have seldom been fair let alone noble. 

At this stage Victoria and Queensland are not agreeing to 22.5. In equally good faith they are pushing for 25% funding from the federal government.

The Australian Education Union concurs. Its Every school. Every child campaign has long made this clear. It also asks for 40% for the NT where public schools are in dire straits.

Funding war?

Some observers are foreshadowing another ‘funding war’. The exact strategies and tactics of the combatants remain to be seen. Or not. Wider publics are seldom privy to manoeuvres behind-the-scenes. 

The usual funding wars also involve the private schools. Independents, Catholics, the federal government and the states/territories all go into battle for self-interest.

These current negotiations are focused on  the needs-based funding of public schools. Yet Private schools may still enter the funding fray. They always have. 

Currently, for all schools, the SRS is topped up with ‘equity loadings’. We don’t yet know how these will be built into these new funding arrangements. 

There is also the 4% depreciation and other costs loophole that allows the states and territories to reduce their funding in real times. Without its removal, WA Public schools will receive 96% of the SRS rather than the suggested 100%. 

Will disadvantaged schools, with time poor teachers, be given additional support to claim such loadings.  

This federal money is to be tied to various ‘practical reforms’. The Improving Outcomes for All review is the touchstone. These reforms will, in the Minister’s words, ‘help children to keep up, catch up and finish school’.  

But we don’t yet know how these reforms will be rolled out. We don’t know how they will be devised and evaluated, or the assessment and accountability mechanisms involved. 

It is not clear if the Commonwealth has any claw back mechanisms if the states/territories don’t measure up.

Commonwealth accountability mechanisms are notoriously complex, obscure and unhelpful. Danger lurks here.  

Matters to keep in mind

These recent WA developments are an important starting point for the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) and the new bilateral funding agreements to be negotiated this year.

But, while the haggling over the percentage of government contributions toward the SRS continues, we urge all parties to keep in mind that the SRS represents the minimum standard of funding needed to meet the educational needs of students. 

The WA negotiations have also signalled the federal government’s capacity to move beyond the arbitrarily imposed 80/20% funding split that has shaped federal funding reform since 2017.

This is an important development. It demonstrates there is no constitutional or legislative reason why it can’t move beyond the 22.5% it agreed to on Tuesday, toward the 25% sought by other states.  

We also suggest that substantially strengthened transparency measures be built into the new NSRA and bilateral funding agreements.

Invisibility of funding data

At present, publicly available and easily comprehensible information on how money is spent by governments, and then allocated by schooling sectors is limited. Gaps exist in the visibility of funding data. This is especially problematic given that SRS funding from the federal government is not directly sent to all schools, but redistributed in line with state and sector-based funding models.

These gaps are even more worrisome when considered in relation to the additional government money allocated to priority equity groups (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with disability, students with socio-educational disadvantage, students with low English proficiency, small schools and schools in regional and remote locations).

On this, a 2023 Productivity Commission report established that there is ‘no publicly available data on school-level spending on students’ from these cohorts.

Bolster accountability

Enhanced transparency mechanisms would serve to curtail any potential ‘accounting loopholes’ or cost shifting that have historically beset funding agreements. They would also bolster accountability and enforceability in line with the needs-based principles of the SRS which should remain a central focus of any future funding reform.

There is much at stake for public schools and their students, teachers, and leaders around Australia in the coming months as the school funding negotiations ramp up.

Jane Kenway is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Australia, Emeritus Professor at Monash University and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her research expertise is in educational sociology.  

Matthew P. Sinclair is a lecturer of education policy at Curtin University’s School of Education in Western Australia. His research and teaching focuses on education policy, school funding, globalisation, education futures, and equity in schooling.

Jason Clare, Federal Minister for Education

Elisa Di Gregorio is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research focus is the sociology of education policy, with a particular interest in articulations of equity in school funding policy.

Disability: Let’s adjust learning design now for everyone

Bob Dylan’s classic Subterranean Homesick Blues goes:  “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Anyone teaching or working in higher education knows the number of students with disabilities is growing. The number and proportion of students disclosing disability has grown every year since data was first reported nationally in 1996.

The surge in the number of students disclosing their disabilities is the result of many influences. Reporting of disability status in student systems is on the rise for reasons including improved processes and a greater willingness of students to disclose. We also know that both incidences and reporting of some forms of disability – notably mental health conditions – are on the increase in broader society.

Are students with disabilities overrepresented in higher education?

The Universities Accord discussion paper presented data showing students with disabilities are now overrepresented in higher education. The reality is more complex and goes to the heart of how students with disability are defined and counted in higher education. 

We recently explored this in our article ‘Three decades of misrecognition: Defining people with disability in Australian higher education policy”. We want to use this blog to highlight opportunities to improve the learning environment and graduate outcomes for university students with disability.

First-year retention and success rates, and degree-completion rates for students with disabilities, remain well below those of other students. Almost two out of every three students complete their degree within six years, compared to around one out of every two students with disability.

Recognition-redistribution paradox

Universities are aware of this and have worked for many years to provide support to these students. But one unintended consequence of their efforts has been the creation of what has elsewhere been called the ‘recognition-redistribution’ paradox. In the context of disability, recognition means positively highlighting, or celebrating, what it means to be disabled. Redistribution, on the other hand, means acknowledging the disadvantage experienced by persons with disabilities when they encounter social and structural barriers, or even outright discrimination.

Consequently, this leads universities simultaneously saying to students with disabilities “we don’t define you by your disability” and “we can offer you support – but only if we define you by your disability”.

One reason for this paradox is, perversely, located in an important key protection for persons with disability that is found in both the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and the Disability Standards for Education (2005). This is the notion of the ‘reasonable adjustment’.

What is a reasonable adjustment?

A reasonable adjustment is an action taken by an institution to ensure that a student with disability can participate in education free from direct or indirect discrimination. 

These adjustments may include extra exam time, modifying the curriculum or presenting information in different formats. But to gain access to a reasonable adjustment, the student must a) identify as disabled, b) acknowledge a ‘deficiency’ and c) have their disability medicalised by a health professional.

One recommendation arising from the recent Disability Royal Commission is to remove the word “reasonable” from reasonable adjustment. This would be an important step, as it would effectively reverse the burden of proof from the student to the institution.Yet the paradox would remain. In addition, legal entitlement to a reasonable adjustment is restricted. Students who do not identify with disability, but who need some form of flexibility for health-related reasons, are thus ‘disabled’ by institutional processes if they request or are granted a reasonable adjustment.

In the future, support provision for students with disabilities will be thrust into the spotlight, for several reasons. As discussed above, general awareness around disability cultures is improving and with it, improved commitments to affirming the rights of persons with disabilities.

Universities must improve their outreach

Yet if we want higher education to achieve the ambitious growth targets proposed in the recent Australian Universities Accord Interim Report, universities will need to improve their outreach and engagement with groups of students historically under-represented in higher education. 

This includes students with disabilities.

How universities support these students need to shift – dramatically. It cannot put greater pressure on universities’ disability support offices.

A universal design for learning

The fundamental approach to disability support needs to move from the primacy of the reasonable adjustment to inaccessible curriculum to principles of universal design for learning (UDL) that reduces the need for adjustments by design.

UDL is an approach to teaching and learning that uses a variety of methods and approaches to teaching to remove unnecessary barriers to learning. Rather than just offering one way of students engaging with the curriculum, and demonstrating their understanding, UDL is about flexibility and adjustment to suit a variety of learners.

System wide implementation of UDL will reduce the burden on students disclosing and substantiating their disability to be eligible for negotiated changes to inaccessible curriculum.

This is a key issue at the heart of our recent paper where we argue current reporting mechanisms may not be fit for purpose. Personal information such as disability status should only be collected if there is a direct benefit to the student and/or a wider benefit in terms of institutional understanding and support for these students.

Ultimately, UDL challenges a university to reconsider almost every aspect of their operation, including:

·         Attitudes of all staff towards students with disabilities.

·         The development and promotion of polices to support students with disabilities.

·         Creation of a fully inclusive physical/built environment.

·         How information – both academic and non-academic – is communicated within the institution.

·         What software and hardware technologies are provided for students, and what types brought by students can be supported.

·         Wider social inclusion, including extra-curricular activities.

This is not to say that systemic adoption of UDL will completely replace the use of reasonable adjustments. It cannot fully resolve the recognition-redistribution paradox. 

But it can significantly improve the quality of the educational experience for literally thousands of students, both with and without disability.

From left to right: Tim Pitman is an associate professor at Curtin University, researching higher education policy and widening access and participation for groups of students historically under-represented in higher education, including those from low-socio economic backgrounds, Indigenous persons, people with disability, people from non-English speaking backgrounds and people from regional and remote parts of Australia. Matt Brett is Director of Academic Governance and Standards at Deakin University where he has oversight for academic governance, academic policy, course approvals, equity reporting, institutional research and surveys, quality assurance, and quality reviews. He is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA)  and began his career in higher education as a sign language interpreter. He has a sustained and multi-dimensional impact on student equity.  Katie Ellis is a professor and director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University  where she conducts disability led research into socially just digital futures. She also co-chairs Universities Enable.

So wrong: Inspirational campaigns will never work. Here’s why

The Federal government recently launched two high profile campaigns to attract people into the teaching profession. 

The first seeks to raise the status of teaching through a series of rather saccharine videos showcasing inspirational classroom teacher stories as “Be That Teacher” “Be That Teacher”. Costing a whopping $10 million this glossy marketing strategy aims to elevate the positive, that teachers are important and they can make a meaningful difference in the lives of young people. The second campaign provides significant scholarships for those undertaking teaching degrees, a response to the fact that university admissions for teaching degrees have slumped by 20 per cent this year. Only 50 per cent see the degree though.   

Both these initiatives are admirable. These campaigns are misplaced. I believe this both as a teacher educator in Western Australia and as an active researcher in the field of teacher wellbeing and retention.

These campaigns fail to address the specific issues which have led to the teacher shortage in Australia, of which the federal Education Department are conservatively projecting the country will be short an estimated 4,100 teachers by 2025. 

Stressed, demoralised, leaving the job

The facts are clear – teachers are feeling stressed, demoralised and many are leaving the job because their workloads are unmanageable. Teachers work excessively long hours and their overall health and wellbeing has hit rock bottom. Most teachers would tell you they have pretty poor work-life balance. Over the last two years I have noticed a substantial shift in the public discourse of teachers work. Both policymakers and media now acknowledge teachers struggle under the weight of unrealistic expectations and mounting responsibilities of modern teaching.

This shift in public perception about the work of teaching has been triggered by a labor force crisis in the school sector, with teacher well-being (or more commonly ill-being) becoming an important issue that needs addressing. What’s noticeable in both ministerial pronouncements and the media cycle is an acknowledgement that when teachers are persistently stressed and emotionally burnt out by their work, they leave. Consistent evidence about teachers’ feelings towards their work collected by education researchers, teacher unions and independent organizations are agreed — teaching is currently one of the most emotionally difficult professions and mirrors much of the service care sector, such as social workers and nurses.  

Our teachers are toiling away as security guards, counselors, data administrators, co-parents, citizen makers and babysitters for the economy. Teachers are at the material face of increasingly diverse communities, weaving learning conversations with an ever-expanding array of neurological, linguistic, cultural, gendered, social and behaviorally diverse young people. 

At risk of violence

At worst teachers and school leaders appear to be more at risk of becoming victims of – or intimidated by –  violence. A newly published report into the state of public education in WA by the SSTUWA, WA’s teacher union, reveals that in 2022, school based violent events are occurring once every forty-five minutes, or 11 times per day. These highly stressful events can involve assaults with weapons, and many require medical assistance or the police. These issues are exacerbated in schools that are socially and economically disadvantaged or in regional and remote locations. 

No wonder so many teachers describe their work as emotionally ‘fatiguing’, ‘draining’ or ‘exhausting’ and walk away from the profession. In Western Australia, the SSTUWA reports that as many as 86% of teachers are seriously considering leaving the profession. Policy makers have been slow to recognize that persistent schooling reforms focused on audit, accountability and data performance regimes have created the conditions for an unprecedent wave of teacher demoralization, burn out, attrition and psychological distress. Teachers feel untrusted by parents, leaders, and policy makers. Teachers’ professional autonomy has been eroded. This is why the “Be That Teacher” campaign has landed with a dull thud amongst some practicing teachers. 

What teachers say

One area of my research is examining the discussions of teachers on Reddit, specifically an online forum where Australian teachers can discuss issues related to their work. On the r/AustralianTeachers forum their comments demonstrate cynicism and derision at the campaign. One teacher comments:

“Oh look, teachers are so special, and they watched Dead Poets Society once, and now come to work everyday for just the love of children, so there’s obviously no need to pay them a decent wage and working conditions”

Another writes:

“Yeah, the whole thing feels like an event in the Martyrdom Olympics. Go for Gold! We don’t need better conditions and less admin, just stories that hit you in the feels”

And a third:

“Pay teachers more. Bring in nationally approved behaviour management systems. Reduce workload. Stick the smoltzy ad campaigns up the govt’s butt”

Fed-up and want reform

These comments show that teachers are clearly fed up and want tangible reforms in their sector. I read these comments as a powerful signal of professionals who are in a state of emotional crisis and we should pause to deeply listen to these people who perform a vital service in our communities. Overall, our public-school teachers are doing an amazing job in very challenging conditions. Despite these issues, they remain committed and caring professionals who desperately want education reform to ensure they can deliver high quality learning experiences to their communities and provide a strong foundation for the future of Australia’s young people.

In order to stem the tide the tide of teacher attrition, policy reforms must focus less on attracting newcomers to the profession and more on retaining those currently teaching. They can do this by radically rethinking teacher workload. As a starting point they must unburden teachers from unnecessary administration.  If we do not address the root causes of why teachers are leaving, even newcomers will not stay long in the job and the funds from these expensive government campaigns will be wasted. 

Dr Saul Karnovsky is a senior teacher educator and course coordinator at Curtin University, Perth which is located on Noongar Country. He is an active researcher in teacher wellbeing, attrition and retention taking an ethical and critical perspective on the profession.

The seven crucial ways university students think about getting a job

Now more than ever, success in the Australian labour market requires a post-compulsory education – either at university or TAFE – with the National Skills Commission estimating that nine in ten jobs created over the five years to 2026 will require a post-compulsory qualification. Increasingly, this entry level qualification is a bachelor degree, with 50 per cent of women and 39 per cent of men aged 25 to 44 years holding a qualification at this level or above in 2022. 

For this reason, the focus in higher education equity policy has shifted from widening participation, student retention and academic success, and towards student employability and eventual employment outcomes. However, while Australia collects official data on learning and student progress via the Student Experience Survey (SES) and employment outcomes via the Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS), very little data is collected on “employability thinking” among students, that amalgam of aspiration and expectation that shapes university student perceptions and decision-making in relation to their studies and thinking about future employment. 

Getting inside the black box of student employability thinking is important, both in addressing issues across the general student population and in specific discipline and vocational areas, but also in identifying differences between students in similar learning contexts and specifically in relation to equity status and academic background. 

What this study did   

Our study examined data on employability thinking among first-year domestic students at an Australian university. It used data collected using the online employ-ability measure (Bennett and Ananthram, 2022), a self-assessment tool grounded in social cognitive careers theory with which students self-assess their career- and study- confidence. Seven employability dimensions were analysed:

  • Self-awareness and programme awareness: Self-awareness is a metacognitive aspect of employability and impacts the extent to which students understand the relationship between their studies and their future careers. 
  • Career identity and commitment: Career identity and commitment in the pre-professional context relates to students’ identification with their discipline relative to career. 
  • Reconsideration with commitment: Reconsideration of commitment in the preprofessional context relates to the extent to which students would change their study choices if they could do so.
  • Self-esteem: Self-esteem is an inner-value capital and reflects a ratio of realisations to expectations. A realistic assessment of self-esteem is known to influence perseverance and resilience.
  • Academic self-efficacy: Academic self-efficacy refers to students’ perception of how well they expect to perform academic tasks and understand their subjects and whether they expect to succeed in their studies. 
  • Career exploration: Career exploration relates to decisional self-efficacy and encapsulates exploration and awareness of career. 
  • Occupational mobility: In the pre-professional context, occupational mobility relates to students’ ability to manage disappointment and generate alternative career pathways.     

These dimensions are measured using a Likert scale (1 to 5 or 1 to 7), with higher rankings associated with more positive outcomes in relation to employability. 

In addition to the collection of student responses on the employability dimensions, the study also linked student response sets to individual university records, including information on gender, age, field of study, mode of study (on-campus or online), enrolment (full- or part-time) and weighted average marks. Official measures of equity status were included, including low socioeconomic status (low SES), regional or remote location, disability status, and non-English speaking background (NESB) status. The study also used an identifier for first-in-family (to attend university) students. Although data for Indigenous status were available, the relatively small group of Indigenous students precluded an analysis of Indigeneity.    

A sample of 5,909 first-year students at a single Australian university was obtained and separated into sub-samples for school leavers (n=4,465) and non-school leavers (n=1,444). Data were largely collected in the years immediately leading up to the COVID pandemic year of 2020. The analysis used these three samples to explain student responses in relation to the seven employability dimensions, with a specific focus on the influence of equity group status

How did equity status affect employability thinking?

The broad findings of the study indicated quite consistent age and gender effects, with more confident responses across the employability dimensions seen among older respondents, with female respondents also tending to be more confident except in relation to Self-esteem and Occupational mobility, where negative effects were observed. Positive effects associated with better academic outcomes, as measured by weighted average marks, were observed, but these tended to be of lower magnitude and were overshadowed by specific effects associated with field of study. Other effects were intuitively explainable. For instance, part-time status was associated with strong negative effects on Programme awareness and Reconsideration of commitment, reflecting the impact of study and life responsibilities on part-time students’ immediate connectedness to study. 

In relation to equity group effects, the most striking finding of the study was the lack of any distinctive influence – positive or negative – of low SES or regional and remote status on responses across all employability dimensions. In contrast, disability status was associated with a statistically significant negative influence in relation to four dimensions – Self-awareness, Self-esteem, Academic self-efficacy and Occupational mobility (with disability affecting the last in the most pronounced way anywhere in the study). NESB status was associated with negative effects across six dimensions – Self-awareness, Identification with commitment, Reconsideration of commitment, Self-esteem, Academic self-efficacy, and Career exploration. In addition, first-in-family status was associated with negative effects across Self-esteem, Academic self-efficacy and Occupational mobility. 

The sub-sample analysis demonstrated that the NESB and first-in-family effects were largely confined to the school leaver sub-sample, while the effects associated with disability status were strongest in the non-school leaver sub-sample.  

What issues does this work raise?

The use of the employ-ability instrument enables academic teachers, administrators and researchers to gauge student thinking across important employability dimensions and key predictors of post-study success, but also provide measures for assessing the extent to which educational disadvantage impacts on study and eventual employment performance. 

Although this study was confined to one Australian institution, it has findings that are broadly applicable to the entire Australian higher education sector and which accord with other study findings. It confirms that support for students with disability is critical in ensuring they are able to study in a supportive and responsive environment. It also provides further evidence on the reduced post-study outcomes for students with disability and NESB students, and that these in part need to be addressed by specific interventions for these groups. 

Finally, the study points to the potential benefits of a nationwide use of the employ-ability measure and associated resources to generate more evidence on the role of disadvantage in relation to employability thinking, the link between employability thinking and graduate outcomes, the identification of field of study and institution effects, and the impact of initiatives to ameliorate disadvantage.  

Dawn Bennett is a professor and assistant provost with Bond University and is an expert on developing graduate employability. Paul Koshy is a research fellow at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), based at Curtin University. Ian Li is a professor and director of research at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University. Lizzie Knight is honorary senior research fellow at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University.