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Higher education trumps social inequity, but it takes time

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A degree evens the playing field but it does take time for the paths of the disadvantaged and the better off to converge, about eight years.

Tertiary institutions and other organisations could do more to give university graduates an equal start in the job market, according to a new report led by Dr Wojtek Tomaszewski from The University of Queensland.

The research, funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and supported by the Life Course Centre, drew on 15 years of data.

It found that higher education could overcome social inequity in time, but outcomes for Indigenous graduates and those with disabilities often lagged.

“The findings illustrate that disadvantage is not easily alleviated by a degree alone,” Tomaszewski said.
 He stressed that the research was based on a small sample and probably reflected broader underlying disadvantage for Indigenous people and those with disabilities.

“Regardless, a sustained policy effort is required within and beyond the higher education sector, with a significant focus on graduates’ physical and mental health and wellbeing.”

The research drew on Census data and the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey.

“The trajectories of equity and non-equity students converged over seven or eight years on average, so there was little difference in the longer term,” Tomaszewski said.

“While these trends are very positive, perhaps more could be done to prevent this seven- or eight-year-long catch-up period to give an equal start to all graduates, regardless of their backgrounds.”

Equity students are those under-represented in higher education, including students from regional and remote areas, from lower socio-economic or non-English speaking backgrounds, as well as Indigenous students and those with a disability.

Tomaszewski said  the research was among  the first in Australia to look beyond income and labour market measures in the context of equity groups.

“This report contributes to the Australian and international literature by expanding the focus from employment outcomes to broader measures of health and wellbeing, providing a more rounded picture of the benefits of education participation,” he said.

NCSEHE Director Prof Sue Trinidad said the research was commendable for its scope beyond traditional indicators of “success”.

“Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often face complex personal circumstances impacting their participation and outcomes in higher education,” Trinidad said.

“While a degree brings transformative promise, there are factors at play that may continue to challenge students post-graduation.

“This research highlights areas where broader supports could be beneficial to promote the best possible outcomes for all.”

The report, Beyond graduation: long-term socioeconomic outcomes amongst equity students is available here.

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