equity in higher education

Ten steps to student equity and success now

The inaugural Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success (ACSES) Student Equity Symposium took place over 21-22 May at the Western Sydney University (WSU), Bankstown campus, a week after the Federal Budget 2024-2025 was announced.

The program for the Symposium focused on the Australian Universities Accord recommendations impacting student equity in Australia. The Symposium featured keynote addresses from the Minister for Education, Jason Clare, Shadow Minister for Education Sarah Henderson, Dr Omar Khan, head of the UK’s Transforming Access for Students and Outcomes in Higher Education  (TASO), and Universities Australia head Luke Sheehy. 

Discussion of critical issues flowing from the Accord Review was promoted across four panels covering equity targets, student success (featuring a student-focused panel) and funding models, in addition to an opening panel discussing the importance of the Accord Review and its implementation.. Panellists include Professor Mary O’Kane, Chair of the Accord panel, Dr Barney Glover, an Accord Panel member and current Commissioner of Jobs Skills Australia and formerly, Vice-Chancellor of WSU. 

The Symposium covered a lot of ground and discussions between attendees and speakers. 

Here are ten observations from the event. 

Number one: the Roadmap

Over the course of the day various metaphors were used to describe the Accord Review, including ‘blueprint’ and ‘reference point’, but the term used throughout the Symposium was ‘roadmap’. The Minister for Education, The Hon Jason Clare also made it clear that nothing was set in stone, and the roadmap is subject to revision, particularly based on consultations and analysis undertaken throughout the current (May 2024) implementation phase. 

Number two: a long journey

The need for a roadmap is apparent given the Review’s strategic intent and outlining of structures and processes required to ensure 80% of Australians attaining a tertiary qualification by 2050, including 55% who attain a bachelor degree qualification. As Curtin Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Haynetold the audience, the university students (from school-leaving pathways) in 2050 will mostly be born after 2029. The Accord will guide both current and future actions of Australian governments. 

Jason Clare noted that ‘[f]unding it and implementing it is going to take more than just one budget. We have to do this in stages.But we have bitten off a big chunk, 29 of 47 recommendations, in full or in part’. 

Number three: Stewardship

However, this leaves work to be done in relation to the remaining 18 recommendations, much of which will be left to the soon-to-be-established Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC). It is ATEC who take on a ‘stewardship’ role, emerging as the central policy-making centre for Australian tertiary education and playing a critical role in equity funding, through the introduction of a demand-driven function for place allocation and the implementation of a needs-based funding (NBF) system.   

Number four: Whole-of-Sector Approach

Both the Minister and Shadow Minister of Education commenced their talks at the Symposium with references to educational challenges in the community of Western Sydney, particularly in shaping aspiration for higher education. Both of them emphasised a shared commitment to ensuring that from early education onwards, all Australians will have equitable access to educational opportunities that lead to post-compulsory participation. Speakers and attendees pointed to post-COVID declines in school retention in this regard, and its impact on higher education, particularly equity groups students. 

Professors Mary O’Kane and Barney Glover both reminded the audience that the Accord Review focused on tertiary education – both universities and TAFES – in addressing the skills challenges Australia will face to 2050. Sally Kift, the Chair of the ACSES Grants and Fellowships Committee noted that this extended to three critical areas: curriculum design to ensure universal access to course materials among students; recognition of prior learning; and the need to improve careers guidance material and programs.

Number five: You can’t be what you can’t see

Gains in post-compulsory education only follow gains made by students at school. This point was raised by students at the Symposium, both panellits and representatives, all of whom shared stories of aspiration (‘dreaming’ – Kathleen Nelly and  ‘dreaming big’ – Tayla Roberts). The students expressed the need to overcome geographic and social isolation to engage with universities, despite not having readily identifiable role models to do so. Current Curtin student and panellist Dylan Storer called on universities to work with underserved communities, pointing out that outreach did not happen at his high school in Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley. 

Number six: Meet the students where they are at

Another student panellist, Ebe Ganon, who focuses on disability rights and systemic advocacy, urged universities to become more receptive, flexible and responsive to student needs at all parts of the student cycle. Speakers across all panels all agreed that the appropriate use of technology and data analytics was needed for Australia’s relatively large universities to ensure that students are treated as individuals rather than as members of a set group. 

Number seven: Whole-of-Provider Approach (WPA) 

Meeting students will require a ‘whole-of-provider approach’ – from senior institutional leaders, to teaching staff, equity practitioners and strategic managers. This begins with raising awareness about equity and inclusion among staff and ensuring that the implementation of good practice, with a view to achieving good outcomes, is the responsibility of everyone at the universities, not just equity program managers. These sentiments were echoed by Omar Khan and Luke Sheehy who spoke of baking equity into the centre of thinking in higher education, including program design.     

Number eight: Cultural Safety and Awareness 

Most importantly, good equity practice follows from an aware and empathic consideration of the need to include students in a culturally safe space, both in terms of treating students as individuals, but also ensuring that discussion of equity concerns is directed by the student and not attached to stigma around an identity that is crudely shaped by policy or procedure.  

Number nine: Evidence-based policy making and Data Collection

Dr Omar Khan reported on his experience at TASO, emphasising the importance of designing interventions with a view to collecting and analysing data to evaluate them. This rule applies from institutional interventions, ranging from how universities approach students to program design through to systemic-wide changes to be undertaken by ATEC. All panellists agreed that the collection and use of data in higher education was lagging dangerously, to the extent that it constitutes a threat to good policy-making both across the educational life-cycle (aspiration through to post-graduation outcomes) as well as equity status discussions, notably in relation to disability.

ACSES Director of Research and Policy Ian Li shared that there is plenty of data already collected by universities, and which can be linked and harnessed to paint a rich picture of what goes on across the higher education life-cycle. However, at present there are barriers to data access and linkage, such as legislative ambiguity, which will require the resolve and unity of the sector as a whole to address. 

Number ten: Defining Success and Contextualisation

The other critical issue in program and policy responses to foster equity outcomes is the need to be precise about the definition of ‘success’ and the way it is rewarded in higher education. This is most apparent in the discussion about rewarding universities for meeting completion targets, when success can often mean introducing students to the higher education environment without them necessarily completing a course. 

In the overall context of national equity policy, ACSES Executive Director, Professor Shamit Saggar stressed the need for contextualised policy that reflected institutions’ locations and missions.   

The ACSES Student Equity Symposium stimulated rich conversations and discussion on progressing on an ambitious equity roadmap for the decades ahead. One key message that emerged from the discussion was the need to ensure that the talk translates into actions, and to avoid the pitfall of deferring action far into the future, such as by waiting for ATEC to be established before being spurred into action. We are currently at the beginning to landmark, multi-decadal reform in the higher education sector and would be well-served by taking a long-term view and action plan. 

Ian Li (left) is a professor and director of research at the Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success, Curtin University. Paul Koshy is a research fellow at the Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success, based at Curtin University.

Supplied: header image of student panel at the symposium . From left to right: Professor Maria Raciti, Tayla Roberts, Kathleen Nelly, Ebe Ganon, Dylan Storer, Professor Sally Kift

We struggled to make university more equal. Has that battle for equality worked now?

Australian education policy has really focussed on getting  ‘equity groups into university and then onto completion with initiatives designed to improve access and participation.

That worked. 

Recent data indicate that there has been growth in the university enrolment of these equity groups in the past ten years. Published studies have also found evidence for comparable employment outcomes for university graduates from equity groups shortly after degree completion with favourable employment outcomes sustained at three years after graduation.

But what happens next and why does it matter?

Education drives social mobility and levels the playing field for those with  disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our study looked at postgraduate study outcomes in tandem with employment for graduates from equity groups in Australia. We found graduates from equity groups are afforded the same, if not better, opportunities to engage in further study after the completion of their bachelor qualification. 

But we also discovered  graduates from some equity groups, namely those from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, with a disability, or from non-English speaking backgrounds experience weaker employment outcomes including being in full-time employment and salaries. 

Why is postgraduate study an outcome of importance? 

The opportunity to engage in postgraduate study is an important outcome in its own right, especially from an equity perspective. University degree attainment is influential on social mobility and associated with higher earnings over a lifetime, with higher earnings found for those with postgraduate qualifications. Globally, bachelor degree attainment has been growing and arguably, postgraduate degree attainment is increasingly needed to gain a competitive edge in the workplace, and to provide greater opportunities for leadership roles. Moving beyond benefits at the individual level, there are also persuasive reasons for encouraging a diverse postgraduate student base. Encouraging diversity in postgraduate education will flow on to diversity in a nation’s leaders, educators of future generations and other important influencers of a country’s future. 

Furthermore, finances are one of the greatest barriers to participation in higher education. Direct costs such as tuition fees are substantial, but are dwarfed by the opportunity cost of study – the missed earnings from time spent away from the workforce and in study. These costs are exacerbated for postgraduate degree study. It has been argued that social inequalities extend beyond first degrees into unequal graduate outcomes, including postgraduate degree attainment and occupational class. 

Postgraduate study and work outcomes 

Our study used data on over 40,000 Australian graduates sourced from the national Graduate Outcomes Survey, linked to data from 19 universities in Australia to examine work and further study for bachelor degree graduates. We considered employment and further postgraduate study outcomes for six equity groups: low socioeconomic status; with a disability; Indigenous; non-English speaking background; from regional and remote locations; and women in non-Traditional areas of study. We found that graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with a disability, and from non-English speaking backgrounds experienced lower rates of employment, particularly those from non-English speaking backgrounds whose prospects of being employed after degree completion lagged far behind those from English speaking backgrounds. Conversely, graduates from regional and remote areas had superior prospects of being employed. 

Further study opportunity, however, were positive for all equity groups, except those from regional and remote areas. We found, however, that equity group graduates tended to be engaged in study of another bachelor qualification, and did not have comparatively higher rates of study in a postgraduate qualification. The one notable exception here was for women in STEM fields, who had markedly higher rates of further postgraduate research study. 

We also examined the outcome of full-time employment for equity group graduates. Once again, the same groups of graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with a disability, and from non-English speaking backgrounds were found to be less likely to secure full-time employment. Separate analyses of hourly wages showed that these exact same groups also experienced weaker earnings.

What does these all mean? 

The comparable or slightly favourable employment outcomes for three of the equity groups (regional or remote areas, Indigenous, women in STEM) are encouraging and suggest that higher education policy for these groups are achieving their intended purposes. However, given the weaker employment and earning outcomes for the other three groups (low socioeconomic status, with disability, non-English speaking background), there is still work to be done. Our study was not able to pinpoint the reasons for the weaker employment outcomes due to the nature of the data, but previous studies have noted the lack of social capital and/or labour market discrimination for these groups, and these might require policy intervention and development. 

The finding that equity group graduates are more likely to be engaged in further study after their degree completion is interesting, but there remains some issues of concern. Firstly, a higher proportion of equity group graduates are engaging in further study at the bachelor degree level. This potentially limits any advantage that can be gained from further study and time further spent out of the workforce. Secondly, and related to the first point, it is possible that graduates from equity groups feel that they require further study to gain an edge in the labour market. It also raises questions on whether these graduates felt that their first degree did not adequately prepare them for work, and possibly concerns that they felt further investment in study is required to overcome labour market discrimination or other barriers. These important considerations will hopefully be the subject of future studies and action. 

Ian Li is an economist based at the School of Population and Global Health, The University of Western Australia. He is interested in applied fields of health and labour economics, particularly on research on the determinants of well-being, economic evaluation of healthcare, graduate outcomes and higher education policy equity. Ian is a member of the UWA Academic Board, the Equity and Participation Working Group, and director of the Public Health undergraduate major. He is an editorial board member of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management and a co-editor of the Australian Journal of Labour Economics.

First in family to attend university: latest Australian research findings

Over the past fifty years there has been a huge increase in enrolments in higher education in many countries, including Australia. Increases range between 15 to 50 per cent, and Australia is approaching the upper limits of that measure. This has resulted, in part, from a drive in countries such as the US, UK and Australia, to improve economic growth by encouraging students from backgrounds previously not attracted to university education, to gain a tertiary qualification.

The enrolment surge has raised many issues for universities as they deal with the influx of a new type of student. Having attracted these students into tertiary education, universities have a moral and ethical responsibility to identify and support them. It is unethical to invite students into university study for broad economic and corporate purposes without considering how participation affects the students involved.

In Australia, universities have particularly targeted students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. However there is now a stigma attached to this label, and it can lead to deficit approaches, where students are treated as being from problematic backgrounds, or needy communities, who are not likely to succeed without outside help.

In contrast, in the US there has been a focus on research around students who are first-in-family (FiF) to attend university. This category is more useful as far as education services and support goes, and students are more likely to be comfortable being identified as first in family to attend university. However this category of students does not appear in Australian policy.

Currently, FiF students are gaining increased attention from researchers and institutions around the world, including here in Australia. While some of these students may come from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, not all do. However, much of the research suggests that FiF students, if they do enrol, are more likely to struggle at university and to discontinue their studies.

Our research findings on first in family (FiF) to attend university in Australia

A group of colleagues and I conducted a study at a large regional university in NSW on first in family to attend university. Our findings would be useful for any university that is expanding its enrolment base, and should underpin future government policy-making in this area.

FiF are a diverse group with common aspirations

We discovered FiF students are a diverse group, in terms of age, life experience and expectations of university. However they share a common desire for a better life and hope that university will help them achieve this. Some are keen to gain financial freedom, and many older students are aiming to improve their careers. They all share an interest in the focus of their degree program.

Transitions are different but university is an alien place

The transition to and through university differs for every FiF student, but they share a need to overcome a sense of university as an alien place, and to develop a sense of belonging. This is especially true for those who were not high achievers in high school. Many struggle against the belief that ‘university is for really smart people’ and ‘not people like us’.

Most have to do paid work and study

Most FiF students have to undertake some level of paid work while they study. Students who have to relocate in order to study, and those with family commitments are affected most by finances.

There are costs for travel, books, printing, childcare and loss of income while undertaking professional experience placements.

Families can impact study

Family commitments can impact study in many ways. One student told us:

I am from a family of 11, so studying at home can be an issue most of the time. I don’t have many friends either, there isn’t much help around!

Dropping kids to school and driving to uni getting parking takes about an hour so if lecture begins before 10am then it has to be missed.

However family and friends are a major source of support for these students, even though those people may not understand what the student is going through.

Loss of social life, health and well being

FiF students also suffer from loss of social interactions and reduced health and wellbeing, especially during peak assessment times.

New friends

Making friends in their courses is also important. These students, in particular, need peers to discuss course content and assessment with.

Achievement gap

There remains an achievement gap for FiF students. Our study indicates that the achievement outcomes of FIF and non-FIF are similar in the first year of study, but that achievement decreases for FIF in subsequent years of study. Most support structures at universities are aimed at first year students.

Realistic expectations

FiF students generally have realistic expectations of university and work hard to achieve their goals. They do not take success for granted. They are aware of the changes made to their skills, lives and future opportunities because of their studies.

Overwhelmingly, FiF students find the struggle worth persevering. They cite benefits in terms of personal growth, social experiences and a better understanding of society, and feel this benefits other members of their families too. These students often pave the way for other family members. Many feel ‘lucky’ to have the opportunity to attend university, often underestimating the impact of their own hard work and determination.

Help from university staff is important

University staff and services (academic, medical and financial) can also be of help. One student said:

staff that smile and are always approachable. The resources available such as extended library hours and IT staff. The HUB. A psychologist. Meditation and relaxation classes. Utilising all the available resources in the first year from the learning support centre. A positive attitude. Helping others helps me. Persistence.

Despite the available support services, it can be difficult to navigate the landscape of university, especially for those struggling with family and/or health issues, or to understand language used by staff and requirements of enrolment and assessment. Time-poor students find it difficult to access services in addition to the demands of study and paid work.

More research and more support is needed

Although a number of universities, including the one where the current research was conducted, have a strong corporate commitment to attracting and retaining low SES and/or FiF students, the commitment is not always supported sufficiently to filter down in a practical way to the students involved. Many of these students do succeed, but all could be better supported.


A full report of the study can be found here

I would like to acknowledge the financial support for the study received from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.


Suzanne Macqueen1-1Suzanne Macqueen is a Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle teaching courses related to primary social studies curriculum, classroom management, literacy and professional preparation. She has a Master of Education (Research) on the topic of between-class achievement grouping for literacy and numeracy classes in primary schools. She is currently undertaking PhD research related to the impact of widening participation initiatives in teacher education. She is also involved in research projects studying equity in higher education and Global Education.

Suzanne would like to acknowledge the financial support for the study received from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.