Support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education has rested on a fundamental assumed proposition – that if students gained access to university and were provided with relevant support, then successful outcomes in graduation and employment will inevitably follow. But “equity” and “success” are not occurring to the extent or ways intended. Our thinking requires recalibration.

A 2019 Productivity Commission report revealed that the “additional” students from widening participation had lower graduation rates, higher drop-out rates, are not well represented in Group of Eight universities, and enter lower status occupations that are generally less well remunerated.  A major reason for these outcomes was said to be that students enter university with poor standards of literacy and numeracy. School standards need to be raised.

Postgraduate participation is a particular hotspot that has received little attention. The future of work requires additional learning to re-skill and up-skill in response to job changes. A 2018 National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education report from the University of Queensland into postgraduate education found that equity students were lagging behind in higher degrees and that stratification and clustering were evident in university groupings; not all universities were making equal contributions to equity.

As technological change and economic globalisation re-define employment and the education required for occupations, we need to re-evaluate the meaning of equity and success in higher education by broadening equity indicators to include the quality of outcomes, postgraduate inclusion and the contributions of all universities.

It is vital that equity students are not left behind as we adapt to rapid change in education, skills and employment. People from disadvantaged backgrounds will always be the most easily disenfranchised. As the NCSEHE report The Best Chance For All (2019) noted: ‘Australia’s future depends on all its people, whoever and wherever they are, being enabled to successfully engage in beneficial lifelong learning.’


Paul Farnhill

Policy Analyst

National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education

Curtin University

[email protected]


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