Horizontal stratification in Australian higher education: Mapping equity groups by fields of education

Year: 2021

Author: Cakitaki, Beni, Luckman, Michael, Harvey, Andrew

Type of paper: Individual Paper

Since the Bradley Review, there has been a substantial policy focus on improving the participation rates of equity cohorts in higher education. The rapid expansion in the availability of places during the Demand Driven System years saw an increase in the participation rates of many equity cohorts (Koshy, 2019), but significant underrepresentation remains an issue. Addressing the achievement, expectations and university aspirations of disadvantaged cohorts remains a considerable challenge (Harvey et al., 2016). While equity group participation has improved in aggregate, students from disadvantaged cohorts remain significantly underrepresented in the fields of education which deliver the greatest private returns (Cherastidtham & Norton, 2014). Gender workforce inequalities, for instance, are aggravated by the fact that female students are greatly underrepresented in more lucrative STEM courses (Li, Mahuteau, Dockery, Junankar, & Mavromaras, 2016; Norton & Cakitaki, 2016). Regional and remote students and students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds are more likely to study vocational courses in education and health fields but are underrepresented in traditional ‘elite’ professions (Bennett et al., 2015). Students with a disability are less likely to enrol in engineering or commerce courses, and similarly so for Indigenous students (Bennet et al., 2015). Understanding equity participation across fields of education is even more important, given the Australian Government’s recent 2020 ‘Job Ready Graduate’ (JRG) reforms. The changes sought to alter student contribution amounts for domestic students to make study in humanities and social sciences more expensive, and incentivise study in STEM courses. Preliminary evidence suggests these changes have done little to shift overall enrolment shares across fields of education. More evidence is required to assess whether the reforms may have had a disproportionate effect on equity participation by field of education.Utilising national enrolment data from the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE), this paper will map equity access and participation by narrow field of education over time. Previous quantitative research shows evidence of horizontal stratification in Australian higher education – where equity groups are underrepresented in particular fields of education (Bennet et al., 2015). Our research updates and expands earlier investigations by tracking stratification over time using the most recently available enrolment data, and across narrow fields of education. We will also evaluate the effect of the Australian Government’s JRG reforms on course choice and equity.