During the past decade, increased participation by equity groups has been one of the primary, underlying narratives behind growth and public investment in the higher education sector.
Improving social mobility while enhancing economic and social benefits are all important reasons why taxpayers fund universities. There is plenty of evidence to suggest intergenerational gains in education levels contributes to more cohesive and economically successful societies. Since 2001, enrolments in HE in Australia have doubled reaching 1.5 million in 2017. Equity enrolments have outpaced the overall increase, particularly since 2012.
Are the numbers undercooked?
According to a new paper for the National Centre for the Study of Equity in Higher Education, between 2008-15 there was a 94% increase in students with a disability enrolling in university, a 74% increase for indigenous students and 50% increase in students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
But the paper by University of NSW academics Colin Clarke, Matthew Wilkinson and Rita Kusevskis-Hayes suggests that these figures – impressive though they seem – might actually be undercooked because of high levels of non-disclosure among some equity groups.
The researchers looked at three of Australia’s six formal equity groups: indigenous; disability and non-English-Speaking background. (For the record, the other three are socioeconomic disadvantage; rural and regional; and women in non-traditional disciplines. Of course, a good many students tick multiple boxes).
The researchers surveyed 1108 students (436 NESB, 253 students with a disability and 73 indigenous) and found on average 11 per cent did not disclose their equity status to their university while around 13% were unclear as to whether they had disclosed or not.
Identity itself is fluid. For example, the researchers note a 2015 study which found only 50% of children identified by their mothers as indigenous, self-identified 30 years later.
Reasons not to disclose
Unsurprisingly, the reasons for not disclosing are complicated and caught up in a raft of issues around self-identity, autonomy, privacy and the perceptions of others.
The researchers found that students who chose not to disclose were concerned about “stigmatisation and differential treatment; lack of confidence in a university’s handling of private or sensitive information; fears of repercussions in their post-university and professional lives, and a lack of knowledge about the presence of assistance programs or benefits associated with disclosure”.
Of course, trying to track down non-disclosers is not without its difficulties. While indigenous students were the least likely to respond to the survey (only 73 responses out of the total of 1,100) they were the most likely to disclose their indigenous status at enrolment (59%) and also more likely to disclose as part of the application process (47%) or through an indigenous support unit (41%). Only 6% of indigenous students chose not disclose their equity status.
The reasons are not completely clear given the ongoing debate in Australia about racism, but the researchers felt that it was because indigenous students were aware of the benefits from targeted access schemes and support units within their institutions. However, light-skinned indigenous students who were “not black enough” were concerned about in-group discrimination and were less likely to self-identify.
Students with disabilities were most likely to disclose once enrolled via a support unit, usually when a crisis or critical juncture hit, such as missing deadlines for assignments or exams. About 6% of enrolled students currently identify as having a disability.
The researchers note that the most significant factor in disclosure is the “visibility” of the disability. They point to a 2016 study that found of eighteen nursing students diagnosed with dyslexia, six decided not to disclose, six disclosed only when they needed to access support and six disclosed their condition from the outset.
“Overall, disclosure involves considerations of privacy, fears of discrimination, and differential treatment, weighed with considerations of responsibility and best practice. Some students also suggested disclosure was associated with admitting a problem existed, and shame,” they write.
Students from NESB backgrounds reported little concern about prejudice, stigma or differential treatment and they were also more ambivalent about any benefits that may be associated with their equity status. (Separately, there is another debate going on about whether NESB and women in non-traditional disciplines should continue to be counted as equity groups or whether the six formal categories need to be refreshed and updated – some studies show NESB students access HE at higher rates than non-NESB, for example).
A lack of trust
“Overall, this study found that each of the three equity groups had different rates of disclosure, different reasons for disclosing and different anxieties and fears surrounding disclosure,” the paper says. And while there was a low response rate to the study, it’s hardly surprising given that it was investigating non-disclosing students. And the lack of trust in what universities might do with private information should raise a few alarm bells.
There’s a new national discussion about equity in HE fermenting away in the background. It’s much needed and overdue. And this wonderful paper makes a small and important contribution into understanding how and why equity students engage with their institutions – and why a rather large proportion don’t.
I can’t help but go past the case study of Anna, outlined on page 19 of the report. Anna suffered from post-brain tumour related seizures and she made the decision not to officially disclose her condition to her university, for a number of reasons, but revealed her situation informally to individuals. However, on applying for postgraduate study, she was rejected by all the institutions to which she had disclosed her condition and accepted only by the one she currently studied at – and had never formally disclosed.
There’s a lesson in Anna’s story.