Graduate premium improves over time, Australian research shows

Data highlights career benefits of higher education amid pitch for more participation

February 22, 2024
A house made of Australian dollars
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Australian research has highlighted the slow-boil career benefits of degree-level study, amid a government drive to entice more people into higher education.

survey of more than 40,000 graduates has found that the job uncertainty confronting new graduates is often short-lived, with pay and employment rates increasing markedly within a few years.

Study leader Lisa Bolton said recent economic ups and downs had accentuated the pattern of improvement.

“The brunt of the impact of Covid-19 on graduate employment rates was felt by those who finished their courses during or immediately after the pandemic,” said Ms Bolton, head of the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (Qilt) programme at the Australian National University’s Social Research Centre. “However, these graduates have gone on to record the highest medium-term full-time employment rate for some years, mainly due to favourable labour market conditions since 2021.”

The findings come from a longitudinal survey conducted each year, in which graduates are quizzed within six months of completing their courses and again three years later. The full-time employment rate for domestic undergraduates had leapt to 92 per cent last year, up from 70 per cent soon after they graduated in 2019.

Median salaries for those employed full-time had increased from A$65,000 (£33,685) to A$83,500. Those with postgraduate qualifications had averaged even healthier pay rises, from A$88,700 to A$108,000.

The proportion of “underemployed” bachelor’s graduates – those seeking more hours – declined substantially, from about one in five soon after course completion to one in 15 three years later.

The improvement in fortunes was particularly evident among “first-in-family” graduates – those whose parents had not attended university. Their full-time employment rate skyrocketed from 58 per cent soon after graduation to 88 per cent three years later.

The results were published days ahead of the release of a major report from the Universities Accord panel of reviewers. The panel offered 47 recommendations to enhance the sector and boost participation, particularly among higher education’s under-represented groups.

Education minister Jason Clare has been stressing the individual as well as societal benefits, putting it plainly in media interviews. “If you go to uni, it makes you money,” he said. “You’re going to have a higher salary than if you don’t.”

The research also uncovered major improvements in the career outcomes of international students as time passed. Foreigners with freshly obtained Australian bachelor’s degrees were 35 per cent less likely to be in full-time employment than their domestic counterparts, but the gap closed to just 7 per cent after three years.

Medium-term employment rates of overseas doctoral graduates were almost identical to those of Australians.

However, foreign graduates’ median salaries trailed those of their domestic peers, particularly at master’s level. International master’s graduates were also substantially less likely to be in professional or managerial positions or to be in jobs that matched their skills.

The study uncovered substantial and growing gender pay gaps, with male bachelor’s students typically earning 2.4 per cent more than females soon after graduation – a difference that ballooned to 9 per cent after three years. It was even more pronounced for master’s graduates, with women pocketing 13 per cent or A$15,500 less.

The difference was not solely a result of women gravitating into lower-paid occupations, with men out-earning women within the same fields. Three years out, undergraduate study areas with large gender salary gaps included nursing, medicine and architecture.

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