No one escaped COVID’s impacts, but big fall in tertiary enrolments was 80% women. Why?



Ersin Tekkol/Shutterstock

Brendan Churchill, University of Melbourne

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been so profound, particularly for women, that it threatens to upend the progress on gender equality in recent years. During the lockdown, women were doing more of the unpaid labour – care and housework. They were also more exposed to the risks of coronavirus either as essential workers or working in industries, such as retail, hospitality and accommodation services, that were forced to close.

There is evidence also of significant impacts on men’s labour force participation. In some cases men’s job losses early in the pandemic have not been recovered.

The impacts of COVID-19 on women and men extend beyond work and home to education, particularly tertiary education enrolments.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ latest data, 112,000 fewer students were enrolled in tertiary education in May 2020 – at the height of the first wave – compared to a year earlier. This is the largest drop in enrolments in over 15 years.

Like other aspects of COVID-19, the impact was gendered with a far greater decline among women. There were 86,000 fewer women enrolled to study in May 2020 than in May 2019, compared with just over 21,000 fewer men.

Big fall was for women over 25

What do these data tell us about COVID-19, education, work and potentially the future?

These data tell us COVID-19 has not only severely disrupted the lives of women in the workplace and the home, but also in education.




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The biggest decline in tertiary enrolments was among women over the age of 25: 60,000 fewer women over 25 were enrolled in university in May 2020 than in 2019.

This steep decline in enrolments is particularly surprising given Australia’s success in educating women and potentially puts the nation’s reputation at risk. Australia is ranked equal first in the world in terms of educational attainment for women, according the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index. The country has been atop the list for well over a decade.

Juggling caring roles with study

These data remind us caring responsibilities not only affect careers or work-life balance, but also education. The sharp decline in female enrolments over the age of 25 suggests it was likely because of caring responsibilities.




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Many of these women with caring responsibilities, for either young children or older family members, were likely forced to make a choice between caring and studying. And for those combining work and study on top of family commitments, many elected not to continue studying.

Mother seated on floor and comforting baby while working at laptop
Many women have been forced to choose between family caring responsibilities and study.
Standsome Worklifestyle/Unsplash

For many mature-aged students (those over 21), undertaking study is challenge, especially for those combining study with work and/or care. Previous research has shown a number of gendered expectations are put upon mature-aged students and their time.

For many of these mature-age women who are combining work and study, they increasingly do it flexibly or online and schedule it around other commitments. Others give up their leisure time for learning.

COVID-19 made that near-impossible. The loss of both family and formal childcare increased the burden of unpaid work for women at home. It was extended far into the workday and into the evenings where mature-aged women might ordinarily find time to study.




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Enrolments rose for men over 25

The data also highlight the gendered complexities of COVID-19 on education. Women’s enrolments were disproportionately affected, whereas the data showed significant increases in men over the age of 25 enrolling in university in May 2020 compared with 2019. Male enrolments in this age group increased by about 26,000.

This increase suggests men were either “forced” into tertiary education because of a lack of opportunities, or it was a deliberate strategy on their part to upskill so they could be more competitive for jobs once the economy recovers. In this way, older age groups of men have shown themselves to be similar to young people who tend to go into education during times of recession. This is perhaps in contrast to previous recessionary periods where the participation rate of older men declined considerably.

All of this has implications for the future, particularly for women. These data are worrisome because, even though the returns from education for women are poor, many women obtain a number of qualifications just to get on an even keel with men in the labour market.

These latest trends might make it harder for women in the long run. However, it is worth noting these data capture enrolments at a point in time – during the first wave of the pandemic. Things might have changed significantly since then.The Conversation

Brendan Churchill, Research Fellow in Sociology, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Six things Labor’s review of tertiary education should consider


Geoff Sharrock, University of Melbourne

In March, Shadow Minister for Education and Training Tanya Plibersek outlined Labor’s plan to review the architecture of the post-school education sector if elected next year. She said they would look at whether current qualification structures, the mix of institutions, and financing models are still fit for purpose.

The Mitchell Institute has highlighted incoherent policy across the higher education and VET sectors – a legacy of short-term fixes and poor state/federal co-ordination. The latest fix is last year’s freeze on teaching grants in the higher education sector. Meanwhile, the VET sector has seen falling TAFE enrolments and VET FEE-HELP loan rorts.




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A Labor review would seek to “put TAFE and unis on an equal footing” while restoring demand-driven funding. What should it consider?

1. Look beyond a 2020 vision

Any “2020” vision shaped by near-term budget or electoral considerations risks (at best) partial policy fixes. Earlier reform attempts have mixed subsidy cuts, fee hikes and Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) changes, many of them rejected as unfair.

A 2030+ vision is needed to reset post-secondary education as a platform for knowledge-era nation-building. In this future, most Australians will need to up-skill and re-skill across their working lives. And as now, the sector will serve many related aims: as a booster of innovation, an export industry and a channel for global engagement.

2. Work back from the future of work

Recent reports conclude that Australians aren’t facing an “end of work” future where robots take our jobs. Instead, we are seeing old job destruction, new job creation and (mostly) the transformation of existing jobs to focus more on non-routine tasks, both manual and cognitive.


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Meanwhile, post-school credentials, especially bachelor degrees, are becoming mainstream pathways into the Australian workforce. The authors of this recent future of work report conclude that:

Education and skills remain essential, as partial insurance against technological unemployment, as a basis for innovation and competition, as a contributor to individual resilience and adaptability to change, and as a bulwark against further deepening of inequalities in opportunity.

3. Learn from other systems

But what kind of education and skills is less clear. In international comparisons, Australia looks strong in bachelor degrees. But some systems, such as Canada with its large community college sector, are stronger at the sub-bachelor level. A review should test whether we have the right mix for our future labour market, which types of qualifications should be demand-led and how these are to be financed.


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Some systems focus more on upper secondary vocational credentials. Offering these on a demand-led basis implies a different profile of post-compulsory provision, perhaps with a more diverse mix of institutions.


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Some systems have strong industry and government support for a broader vocational sector with clearer pathways into work. In Australia, post-school pathways should be clearer into initial credentials and jobs, and into flexible “lifelong” learning for mid-career up-skilling.


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4. Consider new types of credentials

Since 2012, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms have promised mass scale yet personalised degree level learning, at very low cost. At the same time we’ve seen wide experimentation with new types of micro-credentials. These represent the accomplishment of short study, training or project assignments, often focused on enterprise skills. Small and stackable units of learning may count for credit towards a degree. Or supplement one by certifying wider sets of capabilities valued by employers.

As portfolio careers become mainstream, a subset of the emerging streams of micro-credentials that specify what learners know and can do in more detail will gain wider acceptance.



The Conversation, based on The Future of University Credentials by Sean Gallagher, 2016, CC BY-ND

A formalised system could offer more portable credit across education sectors and providers, and wider recognition across employers and industries. This may be a better fit for the idea proposed by the Mitchell Institute in 2015 for the government to provide younger cohorts of students a standard entitlement for upper vocational as well as degree level programs.

Or the idea proposed by the Business Council of Australia last year to provide every Australian a capped Lifelong Skills Account that could be used to pay for courses at approved providers across the tertiary spectrum over the person’s lifetime.

In each case a key aim is to ensure that young people in particular choose post-secondary courses and skillsets with clear aims in mind, without being diverted or disadvantaged by funding anomalies.

5. Learn from mistakes

Along with lessons from VET FEE-HELP, Australia may learn from the UK experience with big funding cuts combined with big fee hikes in 2012. This lifted university revenue per student but also landed many graduates in major debt for decades. This has raised serious questions about value for money at English universities.

In 2014, plans to deregulate uni fees in Australia assumed competition would limit price hikes while HELP loans kept study costs fair. This “market” solution failed to see how open-ended loan entitlements in Australia can lead to major debts where much of the cost is eventually met by taxpayers.

6. Settle structure, then governance and who funds what

RMIT’s Gavin Moodie has argued a joint review by state and national governments is needed to integrate VET and higher education policy. Industry engagement is needed also, to help define future needs and support more work-integrated learning.

A Labor review should rethink the future structure of post-secondary education then reconsider who finances what level of qualification.

The ConversationFinally, we’ll need an independent body to oversee tertiary education, and plan for the long term.

Geoff Sharrock, Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Vocational and Educational Policy, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.