Research to investigate the relationship between equity and graduate outcomes has found that patterns of disadvantage persist and paid work in the final year of study matters, Sarah Richardson reports.
Policies addressing equity in Australian higher education focus mostly on access and participation, with the implicit assumption that educational achievement will address disadvantage. But what actually happens when students complete their higher education? Do patterns of disadvantage continue after completion? What effect does completion have on employment? And what effect does completion have on salaries?
To find answers, researchers from ACER and Curtin University were funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) to analyse 2014 Australian Graduate Survey data provided by the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training.
Analysis of the outcomes of all graduates, published in the report Investigating the Relationship between Equity and Graduate Outcomes, reveals several employment patterns among graduates.
The impact of disadvantage
The research reveals that employment outcomes are affected by a graduate’s characteristics of disadvantage. ‘Disadvantage’ is defined in terms of independent, but potentially overlapping, characteristics of Indigenous background, disability, speaking a first language other than English (non-English speaking background or NESB), being born outside Australia, regionality and low socioeconomic status (SES).
The research reveals that possessing multiple characteristics of disadvantage has a negative effect on graduate employment, for instance:
- having a disability decreased the likelihood that graduates were working, for example, if they were Indigenous, from a regional area, NESB, low SES, born outside Australia or were women in a technical area
- coming from a low SES background decreased the likelihood that graduates were working if they were Indigenous, had a disability, were from a NESB, were born outside Australia or were women in a technical area
- being from a NESB decreased the likelihood that graduates were working if they had a disability, were from regional areas, were born outside Australia, were low SES or were women in technical areas, and
- being born outside Australia decreased the likelihood that graduates were working if they had a disability, were from a regional area, were from a NESB, were low SES or were women in technical areas.
Paid work matters
The analysis shows that multiple characteristics of disadvantage have a negative effect on graduate employment, but also that undertaking paid work in the final year of study strongly predicts whether a graduate will be employed, regardless of characteristics of disadvantage. More than 70 per cent of graduates undertake paid work in the final year of their study, with the proportion highest among graduates from regional areas, who are Indigenous or low SES.
Of those graduates who reported undertaking paid work during their final year of study, more than 60 per cent still worked for the same employer. Two-thirds of graduates who were still working for the same employer as during their final year of study were not seeking alternative employment. Less than a quarter of graduates who were still working for the same employer as during their final year of study were in a role for which their qualification was a formal requirement, and half reported that their qualification was only somewhat important or not important in their employment.
While employment is a measure of successful graduate outcomes, another good indicator is the salary that graduates earn. The analysis of salary differentials reveals that:
- graduates from the top and second-top SES quartiles earned more than those in the bottom SES quartile
- Indigenous graduates earn less than non-Indigenous graduates
- graduates born outside Australia earn less than those born in Australia
- graduates with a disability earn less than graduates without a disability
- NESB graduates earn less than those who speak English at home
- male graduates in full-time employment earn more than female graduates
- graduates from Australian Technological Network universities and International Research Universities Australia institutions earn less than graduates from Group of Eight universities
- graduates who had studied via a distance mode earn more than graduates who had studied on campus, and
- graduates who undertook paid work in their final year of study earn less than those who did not do so but were more likely to be in employment.
The analysis reveals that patterns of disadvantage persist after graduation in terms of salary in both full-time and part-time work.
Finer measures of equity
While graduate employability is a useful yardstick, alongside access and participation, for measuring equity and the effect of equity policy in higher education, the analysis also indicates the usefulness of more nuanced measures.
Among other recommendations, the report calls for:
- the development of a measure of post-graduation employment that distinguishes between employment gained as a result of graduation and employment as a continuation of paid work while studying, and differentiates between graduate-level and other work, and
- the collection of data from graduates at multiple intervals after graduation to identify the long-term contribution of university education to careers. ■
Funding for this research was provided by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University.
Read the report, Investigating the Relationship between Equity and Graduate Outcomes, by Dr Sarah Richardson, Professor Dawn Bennett and Associate Professor Lynne Roberts.