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.