University students in Australia over 40 years

For the last few weeks I’ve been helping to prepare a speech on Australian higher education policy over the last 40 years (for Adelaide readers, you can hear Glyn Davis give it on Thursday, for others the final version will be published in Australian Book Review). As my memories of the 1960s consist largely of Humphrey B Bear and the milk bottles with yucky cream under the lid they made us drink in kindergarten, I had to do some historical reading.

I knew the broad outline, but the detail can still surprise. Even in 1970, an author writing on ‘access to higher education’ could start a sentence with ‘In an ethnically homogenous society like Australia…’. No essay written on Australian universities today could contain the phrase ‘ethnically homogenous’.

As the student statistics released last week record, 239,495 of the 957,176 people enrolled at Australian universities are overseas students. To these can be added 163,820 domestic students who were born overseas. Between them, they make up 42% of all students at Australian universities.

Previous, though now rather dated, research found that the Australian-born children of migrants were more likely to attend university than 3rd or more generation Australians. We’ll have to wait for the 2006 census results to confirm that this is still true, but given the selection effect (ie, the people who are ambitious for their offspring are more likely to migrate) I’d be very surprised if it was not.

Given that, and a large migration programme favouring people with higher education qualifications (who are likely to pass that preference to their kids), it won’t be long, if it hasn’t happened already, before 3rd or more generation Australians make up a minority of university enrolments.

Another huge change has been the percentage of female enrolments. In the mid-1960s it was just under a quarter, only slightly higher than it had been in the 1940s. The professions were still dominated by men. In 2005, enrolments were 54.4% female (and about 57% of domestic enrolments). Partly this is due to ‘female’ occupations like nursing moving into the higher education system. But in almost every discipline, female enrolments now outnumber male. Back in the 1960s, this is an outcome nobody would have predicted.

The smallest change has been in the occupations of students’ parents. A study published in 1970, covering engineering, law, medical and teaching students in 6 universities, found that 50% had fathers who were professionals or managers. In the 2001 census, data on 18-19 year olds living at home showed that 52% of them had fathers who were professionals or managers. There has been a massive change in the proportion of young people of all social backgrounds going to university, but the relative enrolment shares have been quite stable.

It suggests that broad changes in women’s aspirations, work requirements, the ethnic composition of the population, and the number of university places have had their effect on higher education, but all the programmes specifically targeted at increasing the share of low SES people at university have had little observable effect.

11 thoughts on “University students in Australia over 40 years

  1. I’m not aware of any programs aimed at parental expectations – which your data seem to hint at being an influential factor: more migrants and professionals expect their children to become professionals, while the low SES Australians don’t. The Government has instead talked up the virtues of trades and down the need to go to uni – we need trades of course, but they always seem to be a good idea for other people’s children.


  2. Having a trade is the best option at the moment – tradies in the North and West are earning big bucks directly or indirectly from mining operations. In Darwin a person who’s just finished an apprenticeship in anything can pretty much write their ticket. Working at the NT News I get a weekly tidal wave of trades jobs, most of them repeated for weeks, and all the firms complain that their staff keep moving on to still higher-paying work.

    It’s really quite a phenomenon. I don’t know how long it can last – give it 5 to 10 years and we’ll probably have an embarassing oversupply of boilermakers and diesel fitters.


  3. Matt – The later data is based on ABS classification of jobs, so self-assessment should not be an issue. I’m not sure how the early research was done, but they compared it to the ABS data of the time, so perhaps they used the same classifications.

    While I doubt self-assessment is much of a problem, the vast expansion of the professional workforce (including the ‘upskilling’ of some occupations) suggests that relative to their share of the population these groups may have lost some ground since 1970.

    This is probably because in the upper SES groups uni participation is so high already that it’s hard to get extra growth, while there is still scope in the lower SES groups for the brighter kids to pursue higher-level jobs.


  4. Andrew, as you note in your comment, the vast expansion in the percentage of professionals or managers in the workforce means that the figures you cite in the post could actually be consistent with quite a bit of change in educational outcomes at the low end of the socio-economic spectrum. Have you got any way of looking at that statistically? You could probably get some of the type of information you’d need out of the labour force survey, if you can get access to household linked files. I should actually get to and do this for Canada, really. I do know that for kids living at home, enrolment rates in Canada have been pretty stable by parental education, with a recent uptick among kids from less educated families, but haven’t done socio-economic status/occupations.


  5. Christine – ACER has some work showing large increases in the percentage of low SES young people going on to universty, nearly doubling between 1980 and 1994. I don’t think – but you will have to ask someone more expert than I am – that Australia’s labour force data asks the right questions to analyse this point. That’s why a previous researcher went to the census, and used students living at home so that we could also see what their parents did. I updated their work with the 2001 census, and will do so again for the 2006 census when it comes out if I can get someone to pay for it. It would be good to get the 1986 census results as well if possible.

    Unfortunately the trend I have identified in other posts of students starting their uni studies at a slightly later age may lead to misleading results. However, given the slow growth in student numbers since 2001 compared to previous census intervals I would expect little change.


  6. You’re right that students starting at later ages might complicate things, if they’re less likely to live at home. But so could a general trend to youth living with their parents for longer even if they’re working (this is very much the case in Canada, and I think I’ve heard it said of Australia too). If that’s split along SES lines – say the youth who were most likely to work were those from low SES families and the group that’re working is more likely to stay at home now, then you’ve got a bigger observed denominator (all youth living with their parents) for low SES groups now than 10 years ago say. So might actually see smaller growth in the Prob(attend Uni | low SES & living with parents) than in Prob(attend Uni | low SES).

    But figuring out who’s moved out of home is tricky. Really almost need longitudinal data so you can track everyone back to a time when they were living with their parents. Mick Coelli at Melbourne Uni did this for Canadian data, but I don’t know exactly what the results were.


  7. i sm a student in iran but i am from afganistan and my mother laguge is persian but i can speak english. now i am studing middle school(last year).now for some special problom of iran government i want to came in australia and complete my education.can you guide me.
    thanks from M.G/
    my course is ecology


  8. problom about that the iranian do not accept the afganistan student in their college.i want to come the other country


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