Ian Li

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

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.


What we now know about the other ways to get into university

How do under-represented individuals use alternative pathways to university, and does this lead to student success?

Participation in higher education is on the rise worldwide. This has meant more support for some who traditionally did not attend higher education. One way that has helped has been introducing new pathways to enter higher education, other than the traditional route from secondary education. These pathways include students entering using a VET qualification, or transferring in from another higher education course. They could enter via an enabling program, where students complete a study program before their course, covering important academic skills, such as referencing.  Another route, often used by international students, is undertaking a Diploma with a pathway provider then transitioning into the second year of a degree course. There are other ways to enter, such as portfolio pathways where students access university based on accrued skills, knowledge and experience, or a professional qualification.  These can be popular with mature-age students. There are also access schemes for under-represented groups, such as regional/remote or Indigenous students, and mature-age entry provision which involves completing the Special Tertiary Admissions Test (STAT). 

Not much is known about alternative entry pathways into university. For example, we don’t know how many students have entered through these different routes over time, and how well used the pathways are by under-represented individuals. Also, we don’t know whether those entering via these different pathways do as well academically as those who enter via secondary education.

The study design

Our study focused on seven groups of under-represented students. These were: i) Indigenous students; ii) students with disability; iii) students from a low socioeconomic (SES) background; iv) students from regional and remote areas; v) students from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB); vi) women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses; and vii) mature age students (those aged 25 years and above).

We used a combination of data sources to look into these: i) administrative data on entry pathways from the Higher Education Student Data Collection, sourced from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, and linked data from unit records of Bachelor degree domestic students and the Student Experience Survey provided by the data offices of 16 participating universities in Australia.

Trends in alternative pathways

Secondary education was the dominant pathway at the start of our data series in 2011, with just over half of university students in Australia entering this way. Over the course of the next nine years, however, enrolment via the secondary education gradually declined to 45% in 2019. Contrary to this, higher education course transfers and VET/TAFE award completions gained popularity, increasing from 22% to 24% (higher education courses) and 12% to 13% (VET/TAFE courses) from 2011 to 2019. The group of ‘other’ pathways (pathway providers, enabling programs, access schemes, portfolio entry) increased the most over this time period, from 9% in 2011 to 14% in 2019. Interestingly, the use of mature-age entry provision halved from 6% to 3%, while the use of professional qualification to access university remained stagnant at around half a percent.

Alternative pathways were important to under-represented groups trying to access university. In fact, over half of all under-represented groups accessed university via alternative pathways. More than three-quarters of Indigenous students and nine out of ten mature-age students came through alternative routes. The use of alternative pathways by under-represented groups rose between 2011 and 2019. For example, for students of low SES backgrounds, this rose from 56% in 2011 to 62% in 2019, and for regional and remote students, this rose from 60% to 52% over the same period. We did find that Indigenous students’ use of alternative entry pathways fell from 79% to 75%, perhaps reflecting improvements in school achievement over the ten years. Alternative entry still remains, however, the most popular way for Indigenous students to enter university.

Student outcomes by university entry pathway

When we compared the academic performance of students from the various alternatives pathways to students coming directly from secondary education, we found some interesting results. Generally, students from alternative pathways had poorer academic outcomes. They were less likely to stay on after their full first-year of university study, or complete their course than those entering directly from secondary education. Students that performed the worst came through the VET and mature-age entry pathways, being the least likely to complete their course  compared to students from secondary education. Interestingly, students from pathway providers or enabling programs actually had stronger rates of retention and completion than secondary school entrants.

We also looked at the marks that students from different pathways achieved, in their first year and over their whole course. We found similar results to retention and course completion: those entering from VET and mature-age entry provisions achieved poorer academic results over their course, although less so in their first year.

What does this all mean?

Our study highlighted how entry pathway can make a difference to how well students do at university, both in terms of the marks they achieve, and whether they complete their course. Some alternative entry pathways – namely enabling programs and pathway providers – did well compared to the traditional way of entering university, via secondary education. Others, notably VET qualification and mature-age entry provision (including STAT), didn’t fare well against secondary education entry. Given alternative entry pathways are on the rise, and this growth is unlikely to slow given the ongoing push for widening participation, higher education institutions need to think seriously about how to better support students coming in through these diverse routes. Furthermore, students from under-represented groups (or ‘equity’ groups) are highly represented in alternative entry pathways, further bolstering the need for support.

Additional academic support may help alternative entrants to achieve better marks, particularly mature-age students and those coming from VET, both perhaps building practical experience and lacking exposure to academic skill development. Strategies to increase alternative entrants’ sense of belonging in higher education may assist with retention, and clearly this needs to extend beyond the first year of study. Given their positive results, strategies to expand enabling programs and upscale entry through extending current and building new pathway partnerships appear sensible strategies to widen participation.   

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.

Denise Jackson is the director of Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) in the ECU School of Business and Law and researches student employability and career prospects through embedding meaningful work-based learning and industry and community engagement into the curriculum, as well as providing access to a range of employability-related activities. She sits on the National Board for the Australian Collaborative Education Network, the professional association for WIL in Australia, and maintains close links with industry through research projects, the WIL program and networking. She is also a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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.