COVID-19 presents opportunity to re-think diversity in Australian HE

As universities across Australia look to enrol more domestic students in 2021, trends indicate that female students are likely to dominate first year intakes across the country.

A total of 58.74% of domestic students enrolled in Australian universities in 2018 identified as women, compared to 41.17% of male students. In contrast, the gender of international students is more balanced, with 49.57% women and 50.42% men. The percentage of domestic university students in 2018 recorded with gender unknown (no information) was 0.09%, and 0.01% of international students provided no information on gender.

Only four of Australia’s 42 public universities enrolled more domestic students who identified as men than those who identified as women in 2018: RMIT, the University of New South Wales, the University of Western Australia and the University of Adelaide.

The proposed measure to increase fees on selected higher education courses will have a disproportionate impact on disciplines which tend to be female-dominated and will likely affect the percentage of women students. Disciplines which are male-dominated include the natural and physical sciences, while humanities, education and health tend to have higher numbers of women enrolments.

Analysis of the diversity of student enrolments from the latest 2018 Department of Education, Skills and Employment higher education statistics by Dr Katie Wilson, Research Fellow with Curtin University’s Open Knowledge Initiative (COKI) Project, indicated that there were many key differences between higher education cohorts.

The impact of COVID-19 on international enrolments in the university sector has been widely publicised, but while overseas students made up 30.72% of the total university student population within Australia in 2018, non-university higher education institutions and private universities had much larger proportions of international students – averaging 51.14%.

Victoria had the most international university and non-university/private students of any State or Territory in 2018 with 40.23%, while the Northern Territory had the fewest at 17.39%.

While COVID-19 will have significantly changed the demographics of enrolment in 2020, this analysis of past trends indicates there will be a change in the proportions of Australia student gender enrolment as it recovers. The proposed fee increases may contribute to this change.

Data source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment – Higher Education Statistics Data Cube (uCube)