Socioeconomic background and access to higher degrees by research in Australia

Year: 2021

Author: Batten, Lisa

Type of paper: Individual Paper

Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are significantly underrepresented in doctoral education in Australia.  Currently, only eight percent of all domestic higher degree students in Australia are from low socioeconomic backgrounds.  Research on the socioeconomic background of doctoral students in Australia is still relatively new and underdeveloped both empirically and theoretically.  To better inform future action, the Commonwealth Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE), has recently published a statistical report on student equity in higher degrees by research (HDR).  The past 12 months has also seen the topic of student equity in HDR pursued by members of the Senate. While these are welcome developments, there are clear limits as to what this additional data can reveal. We may learn more about the extent to which certain groups are underrepresented in research training in Australia, but not necessarily why. Against this background, peak interest groups such as the Council for Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) have underscored the urgent need for qualitative data which can help form the basis for future enquiry (CAPA, 2018).  It is this gap to which this research aims to contribute.This presentation draws on preliminary findings from my doctoral research that seeks to better understand the experiences of doctoral students from low socioeconomic backgrounds in the Australian higher education context. The purpose of the presentation is to sketch the key challenges that students face in applying for and gaining access to doctoral education and their experiences along the doctoral journey. A qualitative research design was adopted with collective case study as the strategy for inquiry.  In-depth life history interviews and documents were the primary tools for data collection. In total, nine students from low socioeconomic backgrounds were part of the study.  They were located across Australia and in a wide range of academic disciplines and university settings. Findings from the data are interpreted through the theoretical lenses of Pierre Bourdieu's thinking tools and Yosso’s model of Community Cultural Wealth.