A cornerstone of Australian values is the idea of a ‘fair go’: equality of opportunity regardless of personal circumstances. However, when it comes to higher education, decades of equity data reveal how university systems have failed to ensure this ‘fair go’. Nowhere is this more noted than in relation to gaining employment post-graduation.
Getting a job after completing a university degree is rarely straightforward. Only a minority of students walk straight from the graduating stage into permanent employment. However, students from equity backgrounds experience markedly different post-graduation trajectories compared to their peers from non-equity groups. In Australia, students from a poorer background, living with a disability or with a first language other than English, consistently encounter ‘labour-market disadvantage’ with lower levels of employment 6 months after graduation. This is particularly noted for those living with disability, with a full-time employment rate of 68.4%, compared to 79.5% for those with no reported disability.
Statistics only tell one part of the story
Disparities in securing employment or job conditions are only some of the inequities experienced. Recent research indicates that those graduates from more diverse backgrounds also 1) have less opportunity to achieve ‘high status’ professional roles (e.g. medicine, law), 2) report differences in hourly wages and also, 3) experience more complex, interrupted pathways to employment.
There are many reasons for these differences not least of which is these graduates may not have access to necessary, but often obscure, networks or information needed to obtain professional roles. For example, graduates who were the first in their families or communities to attend university do not have a ‘guide on the side’ who can provide insight or advice about the fundamentals of job seeking. In recent research, graduates repeatedly told me how this was a hidden, but significant, barrier. For example, one survey respondent explained how seeking employment after graduation was like “navigating uncharted water”, another reflected on the difficulty of “understanding […] the white collar world” and sadly one defeatedly stated: “I was very ignorant in what came after.”
What’s the difference?
In their reflections, there was a perception of “difference” that was implicitly and overtly experienced within the workplace, tied up with their family background and biography:
Perhaps if someone else in my family had graduated and embarked upon a professional career they also could have given me advice about building the foundations early, such as doing internships and volunteering in places.
What this and other quotes indicated was that while these students had received a university degree, there was more practical and applied knowledges needed to achieve their end goals. Not only did they need to aim for good grades but also, participate in internships, gain volunteer experience, network with future employers and proactively engage with the careers services on-campus. As one student so eloquently summed up, many ‘assumed the degree would be all I needed’.
The promises of university education were not delivered for some and the frustration and anger of this situation was palpable in survey responses:
The universities just pretend that getting that piece of paper is all you need, like they are selling ice cream. (Female Survey Respondent)
We need to think about entry and exit
The last two decades have seen huge changes to the university sector with increasing numbers and diversity in our student populations. While policy and procedures have engaged with the implications of this as students consider and enter university, those who are exiting the higher education system have not attracted a similar level of attention. We are experiencing a highly competitive job market with a global oversupply of graduates and this, combined with the need to be ‘employable’ means that those students with less access to necessary material and personal resources may be at a marked disadvantage within the graduate employment market.
The recent Accord Interim Discussion paper proposes a range of actions designed to ensure that the skills and knowledge developed by students are readily transferable to the workplace. The paper calls for a ‘modular, stackable, integrated approach to course design’ complemented by a framework for coordinated work placements as well as ‘earn while you learn’ and other financial support for undergraduates.
What they need
But what the graduates in this study indicated was a need for more practical and applied careers-related support deliberately targeted at that final transition: the move between university into employment. Suggested initiatives included proactive careers advice contextualised to different stages of the degree journey; ongoing professional mentoring that commenced early in the degree and extended beyond graduation; opportunities to have meaningful contact with professionals with similar (equity) backgrounds to their own; and explicit teaching about protocols and expectations within a professional workplace environment. Those changes are not difficult but such initiatives do require a ‘shift’ in mindset across the university sector – to one that more readily embraces and desires a relationship with students that extends beyond the graduation stage.
Sarah O’Shea is the dean, graduate research at Charles Sturt University, a Churchill Fellow, principal fellow of the Higher Education Academy and leading an ARC Discovery Project exploring the persistence behaviours of first in family students.