By Fiona Zammit

Supporting and encouraging diversity in higher education is indeed an explicit goal of the Australian Higher Education system. The first objective of the Higher Education Support Act[1] which governs all delivery across the nation is to “support a higher education system that is characterised by quality, diversity and equity of access.”

Access and Equity has been a federal priority for decades and as far back as 1998 the West Review[2] concluded that   equity groups remained under-represented in Higher Education. At least 10 federal reviews later – the findings remain the same and the questions continue to be asked about how to expand access to quality higher education to ever greater numbers of students from ever more diverse social, economic and academic backgrounds.[3]

There is broad consensus across Australia on the legitimacy of policy attention on underrepresented groups and acceptance of the government designated (and reportable) equity groupings:  

  • Australia’s Indigenous People
  • People with disability
  • Low socio-economic status (SES)
  • People from regional and remote areas
  • People from a non-English speaking background (NESB)
  • Women in non-traditional areas

There is also growing attention to ensure there is no disadvantage or discrimination based on other such as religion or sexual orientation. 

At an institutional level, greater priority may be given to particular equity groupings. Table 1 shows which are monitored by equity indicators in federal reporting, which have federal funding or support programs to increase engagement and how universities prioritise these equity groups within their strategic plans or annual reports. Despite federal reporting requirements for most of these groups, in 2018 most universities seem to have focussed their attention Indigenous participation, followed by regional and low SES engagement.

Table 1- Australian Higher Education Equity Groupings [4]

So what is being done nationally to address equity and diversity in our universities?

At its core the higher education system in Australia reduces the financial constraints to equity of access through its student funding systems.  Domestic coursework students can defer the payment of their tuition fees through an interest free Higher Education Loan Program – with repayments only required when their (usually post-graduation) income reaches a certain level. The majority of domestic postgraduate research students have all of their tuition fees covered by the Research Training Program (RTP) and may even receive an RTP or university funded living stipend for the duration of their candidature.

There are also other programs that provide specific support to equity groups. The Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP)[5] aims to ensure that Australians from low SES backgrounds who have the ability to study at university have the opportunity to do so.

The Disability Support Program provides funding to eligible higher education providers to undertake activities that assist in removing barriers to access for students with disability and Rural and Regional Enterprise Scholarships[6]  support regional and remote students to undertake STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) studies.

Progress is being made across the higher education sector in Australia and the 2017 Higher Education Student Statistics showed that participation by all key equity groups had increased since the previous year, albeit some from a low base. Results for all course levels show that

  • Students from Low SES backgrounds comprise 15.8% of all domestic on-shore students. ▲4%
  • 1% of all domestic students are female. ▲ 1.7%
  • Students in Regional Areas comprise 20.1% of domestic on-shore students. ▲5%
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students comprise 1.7% of all domestic on-shore students. ▲3%

The Australian Council of Graduate Research (ACGR) is particularly focussed on the diversity of our nation’s doctoral and masters by research programs rather than postgraduate coursework programs. That is, any course of study that consists of 66% or more of research activity – known in Australia as Higher Degrees by Research (HDR). 

The national imperative for equity is as strong at the postgraduate research level. A recent national review of Research Training by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) entitled Securing Australia’s Future[7] clearly stated that:

Actively encouraging diversity within research training will produce a more equitable system, provide a greater scope for new knowledge, improve cohort experience, strengthen the research system, and will help advance Australia towards an innovative and prosperous future.[8]

2016 student data showed some improvement since 2015 in each category but the rates of engagement by indigenous and low SES research candidates are significantly lower than in coursework programs. Interestingly, students in regional areas are better represented in the postgraduate research population.

  • Students from Low SES backgrounds comprise 8.2% of all domestic HDR students. ▲2%
  • 6% of all HDR students are female. ▲ 0.9%
  • Students in Regional Areas comprise 14.4% of all domestic HDR students. ▲9%
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students comprise 1.2% of all domestic HDR students. ▲2%

The 2016 ACOLA Review of Research Training 2016 also concluded that participation levels for Indigenous people were in decline due to higher growth rates of overall research student enrolments. The subsequent Research Training Implementation Plan[9] detailed actions to be taken by key agencies including ACGR to address these equity issues.

Indigenous student recruitment and support is a priority issue for Australian graduate research education and specific measures put in place to incentivise and provide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander candidates are making a difference to the quantum enrolments and quality of the indigenous student experience. The ACGR has worked with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Council (NATSIHEC) to develop the ACGR Good Practice Guidelines for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Education[10]. The federally funded Research Training Program which funds graduate research programs is weighted to incentivise the enrolment and successful completion of indigenous candidates[11].  

Significant investment has also been made by the government in the Australian Postgraduate Research Intern program particularly targeting women in STEM.  Aiming to reverse the female STEM industry deficit, the program has specific female participation targets and placements priorities.

In summary, the Australian approach to supporting diversity in graduate education is distinctive because it is articulated and supported nationally but implemented and owned locally. This is not done by setting performance targets for each university nor mandating behaviour or programs for all. Rather the government ensures that equity groups are clearly defined, performance is reported and improvement is encouraged through effective nationally available funding schemes. This is supported by well-articulated statements of good practice and shared access to assistance programs. Each university then develops its own approaches to these issues, best suited to their circumstances and their diversity challenges.   

[1] Higher Education Support Act 2003, Australian Government

[2] 1998 Learning for Life: review of higher education financing and policy (West Review)

[3] Higher Education in Australia A review of reviews from Dawkins to today – Department of Education

[4] Equity Performance and Accountability, Matt Brett, La Trobe University, June 2018 







[11] Completions by Indigenous students are weighted at twice the value of non-Indigenous student completions to provide a financial incentive to boost the number of Indigenous students completing HDRs.