Disadvantaged students take second degrees ‘in bid to close gap’

‘Equity’ students’ post-course outcomes slant towards further study rather than work, Australian research finds

October 22, 2021
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Students from disadvantaged backgrounds study for longer than their mainstream peers to compensate for their low standing in the socio-economic pecking order, research suggests.

An Australian analysis has challenged higher education’s image as an “equaliser”, finding that recent graduates from “equity” groups – such as Indigenous, poor or non-English-speaking communities – are less likely to be employed and well-paid than their “non-equity” counterparts.

But they are more likely to be back at university, often studying for second bachelor’s degrees.

The research, published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, contradicts a decade of findings that disadvantaged graduates generally experience similar employment, earnings and job quality outcomes as their peers from more privileged backgrounds.

The study found that graduates from socio-economically disadvantaged communities, students with disabilities and particularly people from non-English-speaking backgrounds fared relatively poorly. Those in the last group were 20 per cent less likely than non-equity Australians to have full-time jobs, and they earned about 8 per cent less for each hour’s work.

But like Indigenous Australians and people with disabilities, they were about 5 per cent more likely to be in further study – possibly because of workforce discrimination. “[Perhaps] these students feel as though their initial degree did not adequately equip them for the labour market,” the paper speculates. “Given the direct and opportunity costs associated with further study, this may have negative economic consequences.”

Corresponding author Ian Li proposed another explanation for non-English-speaking background graduates’ tendency to prolong their studies. “This could be a case of students being pressured to take courses that were not in their interests,” said Dr Li, an economist with the University of Western Australia’s School of Population and Global Health.

“The standard stereotype would be students who take law or commerce degrees to satisfy family pressures. Then they decide that’s not for them and take something they are more interested in.”

The analysis found that equity graduates progressed into postgraduate courses – master’s degrees in particular – at a comparable rate to their privileged peers. But their enrolments in second bachelor’s degrees were significantly higher, especially among Indigenous students.

Dr Li said it was reassuring that Australia’s system of deferred student loans made such choices viable for even financially disadvantaged people. “The first degree is not totally wasted,” he added. “It would still be of benefit to them in whatever career they chose.”

He said his analysis had reached different conclusions from earlier studies partly because it looked at graduate outcomes after six months – unlike other research, which had used a three-year time frame – and partly because his team had considered employment and further study outcomes in tandem. “That probably led to greater precision in the measurement of employment outcomes,” he said.


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