Graduate Outcomes and Employment

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

  • Graduate outcomes (attainment) and employment destinations and earning potential are a growing area of interest in Australian equity-related higher education research;
  • Patterns of participation in disciplinary study according to equity groupings/ demographic profiles play out in employment trends;
  • Low SES are less likely to invest in higher education because they are more debt averse than the middle classes;
  • Low SES are less likely to complete their university studies, but for those who complete they are as likely to get work as higher SES graduates;
  • Doing paid work in the final year of university increases the likelihood of being employed after graduation;
  • Women earn less than men (especially in STEM fields); mature age students initially earn more than younger students but this difference levels out over time.

There is a growing body of work that examines the ‘transitions out’ of higher education, using the lens of equity to examine patterns in graduate outcomes and employment/ further study destinations of under-represented students in Australian higher education.

Graduate outcomes (attainment)

Lim’s 2015 NCSEHE-funded study of tertiary completions suggests that there is a 30% difference in university completions according to equity groupings. His work reports that low SES students are less likely to complete their university studies than their higher SES peers, which he argues is the result of patterns of disadvantage that originate early in schooling. Socioeconomic status is more likely to have an impact if the student is also Indigenous; Lim’s research suggests that low SES Indigenous students are 12 percentage points less likely to complete university than high SES indigenous students. Moreover, the field of study is also a significant factor when combined with SES, with low SES students in technical disciplines least likely to complete. Conversely, Lim’s findings suggest that the influence of field of study is less significant for high SES students. Other factors that impact on attainment include the type of school attended (with attendance at a Catholic or Independent school making completion more likely for low SES students), regionality (with regional students having lower rates of completion compared to metropolitan peers; see also the Annotated Bibliography on Regional, Rural & Remote students), and language background (students who come from ‘Asian language backgrounds’ are most likely to complete university[1]).

Pathways out: employment

The literature that explores the pathways of equity students as they move out of their undergraduate studies suggests that by and large, most of the social and cultural barriers that underrepresented students face are removed five years after graduation (Edwards & Coates, 2011). However, there are significant social differences that persist and these appear to be largely the result of schooling (see ‘Outreach’ annotated bibliography) and the disciplinary orientations of particular groups. In their 2016 examination of the relationship between equity and graduate outcomes, Richardson, Bennett & Roberts report that regional and low SES students tend to be concentrated in the broad fields of medicine, related studies and education, while Indigenous students and students with disabilities are concentrated in fields of study related to society and culture. NESB students are more likely to study management, commerce, engineering and related technologies. Richardson, Bennett & Roberts (2016) also note that equity group students tend to be in lower status courses (e.g. nursing, midwifery, public health/ human welfare studies/ teaching) and therefore take pathways into lower status professions.

Richardson, Bennett & Roberts (2016) also report on the employment trends of particular groups of students. They note thatindigenous graduates more likely to be employed by government agencies and not-for-profits, and are more likely to work in the public sector if they work in health or education. NESB graduates are more likely to work in retail, manufacturing, hospitality, finance, the insurance sector or as information and communication technology professionals. With regard to the types of contracts they hold, NESB graduates and those with disabilities are more likely to be on temp/casual contracts while low SES and regional graduates are more likely to be on fixed term contracts. This may be in part connected to the different approaches taken to gain work, with regional graduates most likely to approach an employer directly, NESB graduates drawing mostly on friends and family, and Indigenous graduates relying primarily on work contacts or networks.

The work by Richardson, Bennett & Roberts (2016) and Li et al. (2016) both strongly suggests that undertaking paid work in the final year of undergraduate studies increases the likelihood of being employed post-graduation, withthose graduates who reported undertaking paid work during their final year of study, more than 60 per cent still worked for the same employer” and two thirds continuing to work for same employer and not seeking alternative work (Richardson, Bennett & Roberts, 2016: 7). However, Li et al.’s (2016) research suggests that students who work in their final year are much less likely to be matched study-to-job (by 14%) and less likely to have a ‘quality’ job (11%). In terms of salary, Richardson, Bennett & Roberts (2016) report that high SES students consistently earn the most money and graduates of Group of Eight universities earn more than graduates from other university groupings. In contrast, indigenous graduates earn comparatively less than their non-indigenous peers, as do NESB graduates compared to native English speakers and students with disabilities.

Age also appears to be a significant influence on post-graduation pathways. The findings presented in Richardson, Bennett & Roberts (2016) illustrate that younger graduates are more likely to go on to further studies, while older graduates more likely to be working. Similarly, in their 2014 paper, Chesters & Watson argue that initially (first year after graduating) the returns of education are slightly better for mature than younger students; however, the benefits to mature age students, such as earning more than younger students in the first year after graduating, diminish over time and with less time available in the labour market than younger peers, Chesters & Watson suggest that the returns to education are lower for mature-age graduates compared to younger graduates” (p.1645). Gender also continues to be a significant factor in perpetuating inequality. Research shows that women have not gained parity in earning potential (Edward & Coates, 2011; Chesters & Watson, 2014; Li et al., 2016; Richardson, Bennett & Roberts, 2016).

Wheelahan et al. (2012) argue that patterns of disadvantage post-graduation are compounded by the fragmentation of educational pathways and labour market pathways, as a result of weak and partial policy attempts in Australia. While some fields have strong links to the workplace (for example, nursing), others have much weaker relationships with specific jobs, such as in finance and agriculture, as “most policies that attempt to improve pathways focus only on education and not on the structure of the labour market or the relationship between the two” (2012: 7). According to Wheelahan et al. (2012), this can be explained in part by the economic organisations of a country; they argue that Australia has an ‘education logic’, which means that vocational education and training is based on industrial models (workplace/ task-oriented), rather than an ‘employment logic’, which privilege more generalist and citizenship-orientations to curriculum and pathways. Wheelahan et al. argue weak pathways between study and employment are problematic in a context where students tend to stay within their initial field of education depending on how “narrowly vocational” the discipline/area is, leading to entrenched trends of employment in particular disciplines by particular social groups, thus fuelling existing patterns of inequity. To shift away from such reproductive educational models, Wheelahan et al. (2012) advocate for a capabilities approach to study-employment pathways, whereby “Capabilities are differentiated from generic skills, employability skills or graduate attributes because they are not ‘general’ or ‘generic’. Rather, the focus is on the development of the individual and on work, and consequently students need access to the knowledge, skills and capabilities so they can exercise agency in their vocational stream” (p.37).

Attending to the relationship between study and work pathways is of great importance when view alongside the policy imperative to raise aspirations, particularly when viewed through the conceptual lens of ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant, 2011; see the ‘Aspirations’ annotated bibliography). As part of the widening participation agenda, universities are both explicitly and tacitly selling a promise that university education will lead to better job prospects and better earning potential. However, the literature presents a mixed picture as to how that promise translates for students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. Li et al.’s (2016) research suggests that low SES graduates perform as well as their peers in the labour market after graduation, which is echoed in Lim’s (2015) findings as his research suggests that the disadvantage of coming from a low SES background is ameliorated through university study if they achieved highly in the NAPLAN test at age 15. However, Lim

’s work also illustrates the significant differences between high and low SES students with regards to the NAPLAN test, with high SES students substantially more likely to score highly than low SES in NAPLAN. Moreover, processes of admission and selection impact on the parity of entrance for different levels of SES. Worryingly, Li et al.’s research suggests that NESB graduates face significant disadvantage in the labour market; after controlling for explanations in human capital endowments, which explain for 25% of the difference between NESB and native English speaking peers, the other 75% of difference is unexplained.

[1] The category of ‘Asian language background’ needs unpacking

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.