Paul Koshy

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.