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 notable 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 concentrated on undergraduate education, and this is also mirrored in government and higher education policy initiatives. Attention to equity in higher education has been primarily fuelled by economic imperatives to enhance Australia’s future competitiveness and standing in the global knowledge economy, and by social-moral arguments about providing a ‘fair’ opportunity to engage in higher education. These arguments, however, have not been reflected in the postgraduate domain, with relatively sparse research even exploring equity on this topic.

A key issue that serves to hide the equity agenda in the postgraduate context is the limited amount of available data on postgraduate students, which makes it difficult to adequately represent their equity story (Wakeling & Kyriacou, 2010; Whitty & Mullan, 2013). This is underscored by Gale & Parker (2013) who highlight how little data is available on participation of the six equity groups in postgraduate study (students from low SES backgrounds, non-English-speaking backgrounds, students with a disability, those who live in regional and remote areas, students from Indigenous backgrounds and women in non-traditional areas of study). They argue, however, that the data that is available strongly suggests that the inequities experienced by target equity groups at the 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, only 10.5% of the Australian postgraduate cohort comes from low SES backgrounds. Furthermore, Heagney (2010) found that only 11% of PhD students in Australia were from rural or remote areas. The lack of information about the demographic composition in Australia’s postgraduate students makes it difficult to advance the equity agenda in the postgraduate level.

Research from the UK has found that privately educated students are more likely to undertake postgraduate 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. One likely reason for this under-representation of students from low equity backgrounds is the cost of postgraduate study, which Gale & Parker (2013) argue is prohibitive. Firstly, the maximum limits of the federal loan scheme (FEE-HELP) exceed the costs of many postgraduate courses, 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). Indeed, Whitty (2011) contends that postgraduate study is becoming increasingly used as a social sorting mechanism with serious implications for social mobility.


The literature points to three compelling reasons to address ‘the equity issue’ in postgraduate study.

Social Justice

Given that there are 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. Moreover, in the context of a massified higher education sector, where arguments have been made about the diminishing currency of undergraduate qualifications (Whitty & Mullan, 2013) and a stronger focus is on employability as a key output of university education, there is a significant equity issue a play. Low rates of participation in postgraduate study by particular groups could mean that they are underequipped to engage in self-investment and building competitive advantage within the job market. 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. Research undertaken by Strike & Toyne (2015) suggests that inequalities in postgraduate participation rates according to SES, ethnicity and gender are likely to be the result of inequalities in the attainment of good advice from university services 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.

The future academic workforce

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. Whitty & Mullan (2013) assert that 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. The authors highlight the need for diversity in higher education whilst raising concerns for the large number of transient and international postgraduate students. This places the impetus on institutions to ensure that postgraduate degrees are made available and equitable to a diverse number of students within Australia.

Teaching and learning practices

Thirdly, there is a strong rationale for exploring teaching and learning practices in postgraduate study from an equity perspective. The process of application for postgraduate study is open to contestation and subject to the abuses of privilege. This explored by Palmer, Bexley & James (2011) who 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. They further explain that criteria for acceptance is based on prior academic achievement, which may potentially disadvantage students from under-represented groups for postgraduate study.  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. Similarly, O’Donnell, Tobbell, Lawthom & Zammit’s (2009) work found that participation in postgraduate programs are generally undermined by “university processes, which do not account for individual knowledge and skill bases which serve to undermine successful postgraduate trajectories” (p.38). Their work provides strong support for the argument that university expectations of postgraduate transitions and student realities are at odds in ways that foster disadvantage.


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 postgraduate programs a key area that warrants further attention.

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.


See Annotated Bibliography Here.