Postgraduate Study and Equity in Higher Education

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.

There is a significant silence in the literature regarding equity at the postgraduate level, both internationally and in the Australian context. Instead, the focus on widening participation and supporting equity is almost exclusively located in undergraduate education, and this attention is also mirrored in government and higher education institution policy initiatives. In Australia, such practice-focused initiatives, predominantly funded by the Higher Education Participation Program (HEPP), are predominantly aimed at raising aspirations and engaging in outreach work earlier in students’ lives, or in supporting students to enter and remain in undergraduate study (see for example, Gale et al. 2010). This attention to equity in the undergraduate level is mostly focused on increasing access to higher education (Armstrong & Cairnduff, 2012), fuelled primarily by economic imperatives to enhance Australia’s future competitiveness and standing in the global knowledge economy, and by social-moral arguments about providing ‘fair’ opportunity for all to engage in higher education.

However, these arguments for widening participation and equitable access have hitherto not been reflected in the postgraduate domain. To date, the relatively sparse research that has explored equity at this level has predominantly uses the lens of work and employability (for example, Boden & Nedeva, 2010; D’Aguiar & Harrison, 2015). Moreover, the majority of this work has originated from the UK, and has focused more on Research Higher Degrees (RHD), rather on Postgraduate Coursework (PGCW) programs, despite PGCW being the bigger and more profitable of the two postgraduate qualification types in Australia. Indeed, as Gale & Parker (2013) assert, “Equity in postgraduate study in particular remains to be fully considered by policy” (p.54).

A key issue that serve to hide the equity agenda in the postgraduate context is that the collection of, and access to, basic and nuanced data about postgraduate students is also extremely limited (Wakeling & Kyriacou, 2010; Whitty & Mullan 2013; Gale & Parker, 2013), making it difficult to adequately represent the equity story in postgraduate education. This is underscored by Gale & Parker’s (2013) comprehensive review of widening participation in Australian higher education, which highlights how little data is available on participation of the six equity groups in postgraduate study. They argue, however, that the little data that is available strongly suggests that the inequities experienced by target equity groups at undergraduate level are more pronounced at the postgraduate level. According to figures obtained by Gale & Parker (2013) from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), only 10.5% of the Australian postgraduate cohort comes from low SES backgrounds, and they are more likely to be studying a postgraduate coursework (PGCW) which concurs with the 10% figure offered by Richard James in 2008. Harvey & Andrewartha (2013) add to this impoverished picture by citing a presentation by Margaret Heagney (2010), which claimed that only 11% of PhD students in Australia were from rural/remote areas. The lack of information about the demographic composition in Australia’s postgraduate students are makes it difficult to advance the equity agenda in the postgraduate level.

However, research from the UK indicates that there could be strong reasons for trying. For example, privately educated students are more likely to undertake PG study (Whitty, 2011; Wakeling & Kyriacou, 2010); suggesting that the egalitarian imperative behind the widening of participation in undergraduate education has led to a greater degree of elitism operating at the postgraduate level. Indeed, Whitty (2011) cites Alan Milburn (English government advisor on Social Mobility) saying that the lack of funding for postgraduate had serious implications for ‘social mobility’; as a result, Whitty argues that “postgraduate study [has become] an increasingly important social sorting mechanism” (2011, 100). A further element of the UK postgraduate-equity landscape is the high numbers of international students who are studying in English universities. Wakeling & Kyriacou note that growth in domestic research student UK   Whitty (2011) notes that a substantial number of postgraduate students are international students, reporting that only 70 out of 3825 postgraduate Engineering students were classified as domestic students in 2008. More recently, Strike & Toyne (2015) report that applications for postgraduate study by domestic (UK/EU) students declined by 15% in 2011/12.

One likely reason for the decline in domestic postgraduate student numbers in the UK is the cost of postgraduate study. In the UK and Australia, there is limited financial support for postgraduate study. In Australia, there are a limited number of Commonwealth-Supported Places (CSPs) for postgraduate places and these are irregularly dispersed between universities. Gale & Parker (2013) argue that the financial situation for postgraduate students is ‘prohibitive’. Firstly, the maximum limits of the federal loan scheme (FEE-HELP) exceed the costs of many postgraduate courses (see also Cervini, 2016), thus presenting “considerable participation limits for students from target groups if they cannot afford the fees or do not have the resources to fund the gap between FEE-HELP limits and what universities charge” (p.54). In the UK, the increase in student cost of undergraduate tuition fees to £9000 per year in 2011 meant that postgraduate issues “got lost” (Whitty & Mullan, 2013), with financial support packages “hit or miss” (Whitty, 2011). Similar to Australia, there are competitive studentships available, some students are sponsored by employers, students can access career development loans, and some students self-fund.

The literature points to three compelling reasons to address ‘the equity issue’ in postgraduate study. Firstly, there is the social justice angle. Given that there are particularly groups of students who are traditionally less likely to consider undergraduate study, it runs to reason that the same could be true of postgraduate study. Wakeling & Kyriacou (2010) argue that there “ensure that entry to postgraduate research is open to all regardless of gender, ethnicity, social class background or any other such characteristic and that none are unfairly disadvantaged in this pursuit”. Moreover, in the context of a massified higher education sector, where arguments have been made about the diminishing currency of undergraduate qualifications, and there is a stronger focus on employability as a key output of university education, there is a significant equity issue at play. Low rates of participation in postgraduate study by particular groups could mean that they are un(der)equipped to engage in the neoliberal logics of self-investment and building competitive advantage. Indeed, as d’Aguiar & Harrison (2015) note in their study of the impact of employment opportunities on choosing to undertake postgraduate study, there do appear to be patterns in participation (or not) according to social groups. They assert that their findings “add weight to the contention that women and those from ethnic minority communities are finding and/or perceiving it difficult to compete on a level playing field; this feature appears particularly strong within STEM subjects” (2015: 26). Moreover, the research undertaken by Strike & Toyne (2015) suggests that inequalities in postgraduate participation rates according to SES, ethnicity and gender are likely to be result of inequalities in good advice and attainment and some impact of SES on funding. This places the imperative on universities to address how implicit assumptions about what students know and how they obtain/ use information can impact on the diversity of their postgraduate student bodies.

Secondly, in addition to the significant concerns about equity and social mobility, Whitty & Mullan (2013) also highlight the need to consider how issues relating to equity in postgraduate studies will impact on the development of the future academic workforce. There is concern that the low participation rates of particular social groups, and indeed diminishing numbers of domestic postgraduate students, will lead to a smaller, less heterogeneous group of academics in the future. This imperative is echoed by Australia’s Group of Eight (2010), who argue that widening participation in postgraduate education is to meet Australia’s research, industry, academic and professional workforce requirements for its competitive standing in the global knowledge economy, and “to counter the ageing academic workforce” (p.2). Whitty & Mullen (2013) assert this concern is particularly salient in the context of the increasing proportion of international students in the postgraduate cohort, as these students are not necessarily going to enter the academy of the country of study. Moreover, if Whitty & Mullen’s argument that higher education, and postgraduate education in particular,  “feeds ‘cultural health’ of nation” (p.177) holds up, there is cause for concern if it is dependent on a large number of transient students, who may not be able to stay even if desired because of increasingly obstructive immigration rules.

Thirdly, there is a strong rationale for exploring teaching and learning practices in postgraduate study from an equity perspective. Firstly, the process of application for postgraduate study is open to contestation and subject to the abuses of privilege noted in other work that has explored admissions processes through the lens of equity (Burke & McManus, 2011). In their comprehensive overview of admissions and entry requirements for higher education study, Palmer, Bexley & James (2011) note that most postgraduate applications are managed by individual institutions at faculty, school or departmental level, which stands in contrast to the centralised system used for undergraduate applications. The criteria for acceptance are similarly idiosyncratic, with ‘prior academic achievement’ the most prominent criterion (p.31). Moreover, Palmer, Bexley & James argue that the “unduly narrow or strict application of criteria” potentially disadvantages students from under-represented groups for postgraduate study – with this being the case for both Higher Degree by Research (HDR) and postgraduate coursework (PGCW) programs.  However, Stagg & Kimmens (2014) note how some of the MBA students in their study entered via recognised prior learning (RPL) rather than undergraduate study, meaning that the MBA was their first experience of university. This highlights the highly problematic nature of making assumptions about what postgraduate students know, can do (have done) and familiarity with academic practices.

The work undertaken by O’Donnell et al. (2009) further adds to the need to unpack assumptions about postgraduate students, making the case that postgraduate study is underpinned by assumptions about a relatively homogeneous student body who have studied an undergraduate degree, in the same discipline, and who have familiarity with academic and technical practices. Their research into transitions into postgraduate study suggests that teaching and learning practices do not appear to do much to support students to become more independent learners, arguing “At present, participation, and so success, is undermined by university processes which do not account for individual knowledge and skill bases which serve to undermine successful postgraduate trajectories” (p.38). As such, their work provides strong support for the argument that university/lecturer expectations of postgraduate transitions and student realities are at odds in ways that foster disadvantage and challenge. As such, O’Donnell et al. argue that any implementation of a widening participation agenda for postgraduate study should explicitly recognise the heterogeneity of the student body, both in terms of what they bring with them to their studies, and what they don’t yet know.

In addition to these three motives for highlighting the equity-related issues that are at play in postgraduate study, there is also a need to consider how students move into postgraduate study. There is a small body of UK-based research on postgraduate study that uses widening participation as a conceptual/policy framework for undergraduate-postgraduate or study-employment transitions (see O’Donnell et al., 2009; Tobbell, O’Donnell & Zammit, 2010; Wakeling & Kyriacou, 2010; McColloch & Thomas, 2012). In Australia, a recent study by Stagg & Kimmens (2014) of PGCW students’ information seeking behaviours highlighted how the assumptions noted above are problematic in terms of addressing their “foundational skills for academic success”. Their study illustrates a significant lack of difference between undergraduate and postgraduate students in terms of how they locate information, with exceptions noted in preferred use of Wikipedia (undergraduate students) or preferred use of a librarian for support (PGCW students). Given that several of the participants had entered their PGCW program on the strength of their work experience, and had therefore never studied at university before, Stagg & Kimmens assert that ideas about the first year experience (FYE) being a fixed period of undergraduate study need to be reconsidered. Instead, they argue that support for coursework postgraduate students (just as it is for undergraduate students) needs to be asynchronous, just-in-time and situated within the immediate discipline context” (2014: 144).           

Similarly, although ‘the transition to’ is a popular way of conceptualising the movements that students make through educational systems, its adoption can limit the empirical gaze if the taken-for-granted assumptions that underpin transition are not unpicked. This project takes a view of transition as fluid, complex and individual, rather than the ritualised, linear and homogenous view indexed in the ‘transition as induction’ metaphor identified by Gale and Parker (2014). Such a view of transition is contradicted in the work of Tobbell, O’Donnell & Zammit (2010) who explored postgraduates’ student identities in the contexts of their transitions into postgraduate study in the UK. Their findingshighlight problematic assumptions about the ‘readiness’ of postgraduate students and noted that the staff participants generally did not acknowledge the complexity of the students’ personal lives, resulting in significant challenges for the students: “The silence surrounding their outside lives within the university, coupled with the emphasis on independent functioning, may result in identity shifts that do not facilitate learning” (2010: 277). This kind of nuanced and detailed discussion of the lived experiences of postgraduate students adds weight to the idea that transition is rarely a linear phenomenon, particularly for postgraduate students who are more likely to have lead complex lives, where study jostles against family, work, caring and other responsibilities.

In short, understandings of how equity policies, discourses and practices are relevant to and impact on postgraduate students, particularly in the Australian context are exceedingly limited. This makes equity and PGCW programs a key area that warrants further attention.


Boden, R. & Nedeva, M. (2010). Employing discourse: universities and graduate ‘employability’, Journal of Educational Policy, 25(1), 37–54.  

Cervini, E. (2016). Postgraduate course fees are regularly topping $100,000 – and with little scrutiny, The Sydney Morning Herald [01 May 2016]

d’Aguiar, S. & Harrison, N. (2015). Returning from earning: UK graduates returning to postgraduate study, with particular respect to STEM subjects, gender and ethnicity, Journal of Education and Work, DOI: 10.1080/13639080.2014.1001332

Harvey, A. & Andrewartha, L. (2013). Dr Who? Equity and diversity among university postgraduate and higher degree cohorts. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 35(2), 112–123.

Gale, T.; Sellar, S;. Parker, S.; Hattam, R.; Comber, B.; Tranter, D.; & Bills, D. (2010). Interventions early in school as a means to improve higher education outcomes for disadvantaged (particularly low SES) students, National Centre Student Equity in Higher Education, Underdale, S. Aust.

Gale, T., & Parker, S. (2013). Widening participation in Australian higher education: Report to the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) and the Office of Fair Access (OFFA), England. Leicester, UK: CFE Research.

Gale, T. & Parker, S. (2014). Navigating change: a typology of student transition in higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 39(5), 734–753.

James, R. (2008). PARTICIPATION AND EQUITY: A review of the participation in higher education of people from low socioeconomic backgrounds and Indigenous people, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne

McCulloch, A. & Thomas, L. (2013). Widening participation to doctoral education and research degrees: a research agenda for an emerging policy issue, Higher Education Research & Development, 32(2), 214–227.

O’Donnell, V.; Tobbell, J.; Lawthom, R., & Zammit, M. (2009). Transition to postgraduate study: Practice, participation and the widening participation agenda, Active Learning in Higher Education, 10(1): 26-40.

Palmer, N., Bexley, E., & James, R. (2011). Selection and Participation in Higher Education: University selection in support of student success and diversity of participation. Prepared for the Group of Eight. Centre for the Study of Higher Education: The University of Melbourne.

Stagg, A. & Kimmins, L. (2014). First Year in Higher Education (FYHE) and the Coursework Post-Graduate Student, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 40, 142–151.

Strike, T., & Toyne, J. (Eds.) (2015). Widening Access to Postgraduate Study and Fair Access to the Professions. The University of Sheffield: Sheffield.

Tobbell, J.; O’Donnell, V., & Zammit, M. (2010). Exploring transition to postgraduate study: shifting identities in interaction with communities, practice and participation, British Educational Research Journal, 36(2), 261–278.

Wakeling, P., & Kyriacou, C. (2010). Widening participation from undergraduate to postgraduate research degrees. Swindon, UK: NCCPE and ESRC.

Whitty, G (2011) 'Securing the future of postgraduate education.' In: Coiffait, L. (ed). Blue skies: new thinking about the future of higher education - a collection of short articles by leading commentators. Pearson: London, pp. 99–102.

Whitty, G. and Mullan, J. (2013). 'Postgraduate education: overlooked and forgotten?' In: Callender, C and Scott, P, eds. Browne and beyond: modernizing English higher education. Bedford Way papers (42). IOE Press, London, pp. 173–194.

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.