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More nuanced student equity measures needed
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More nuanced student equity measures needed

Comment 6 minute read

The Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment has published a report that cautions against using ranking systems exclusively to determine equity policy in higher education, due to the fundamental difficulty of finding agreement on what constitutes equity and how it should be measured.

The report, by researchers at the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER), Curtin University, and the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), investigated the feasibility of ranking Australian universities by how inclusive they are, and how well they support students who have been historically under-represented in higher education.

This research was originally undertaken in 2019-20, with the interim research findings published in the journal Higher Education in January 2020.

The world of higher education has changed considerably since the report’s completion, with the onset of COVID-19 affecting all aspects of university life, including: a shift to online lectures and tutorial participation; ongoing public health challenges; reduced international engagement and travel; and increased operational and financial uncertainty. However, the key observations of the report remain.

The researchers concluded that, while it is possible to construct a higher education ‘equity ranking system’ using indicators generated for the sole purpose of measuring equity performance, such an approach will only ever measure relative performance.

For example, the study identified an inverse relationship between certain measures of access and success. Generally, universities that enrol, proportionally, above-average rates of equity-group students tend to have below-average rates of first-year retention, and vice versa. This means that equity rankings are dependent on the choice of weighting given to indicators. In other words, a ranking system that prioritised access (getting students in) would rank universities very differently to one that prioritised completion (getting students through). 

Further, the study also found that a ranking system would be highly dependent on geographical location factors as most Australian students study at institutions in major cities in their home state or territory. Therefore, a ranking system that prioritised graduate outcomes like employment and income would be dependent in part on external economic and social factors shaping graduate experiences that are beyond the control of individual institutions. 

The experience throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of ensuring any ranking system is not only relevant but also essential to meeting the priorities of government.

For instance, the Australian Government’s current Job-ready Graduates Package prioritises work outcomes, with the government offering additional focused support for Indigenous, regional and low socioeconomic status (SES) students, via the Indigenous, Regional and Low SES Attainment Fund (IRLSAF). Therefore, any ranking system would have to give greater weighting to performance measurements that addressed the priorities of the Job-ready Graduates Package and IRLSAF. At the same time, it should control for ‘external drivers’ such as the health of local economies, shocks such as COVID-19, or the availability of equity students in proximity to their campuses.

In view of these considerations, the study also put forward suggestions for alternative, more nuanced approaches to measuring higher education equity performance, including a rating system or a data dashboard approach. For example, incorporating benchmarks and targets could encourage genuine improvement across the whole university sector in this area.

The task for policymakers now is to design a system that allows stakeholders to compare institutional performance, while acknowledging the diversity of missions and circumstances of different institutions, and supporting their ability to navigate current and emerging challenges.

Read the full report:
Pitman, T., Koshy, P., Edwards, D., Zhang, L., & McMillan, J. (2019). Australian Higher Education Equity Ranking Project: Final Report. Australian Council for Educational Research.

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