Gender, Citizenship and Discipline Trends in Australian Higher Education Research Training
28 August 2012, by Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins
Frank Larkins is Professor Emeritus in the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. His current interests are in research, education and energy policy developments. He has recently published a book entitled Australian Higher Education Research Policies and Performance 1987-2010 (MUP 2011).
The changes in the Masters by Research and PhD enrolment and completion profiles for domestic and overseas students during the period 2000 to 2010 were examined in an earlier article (Larkins 2011). A more complete analysis is reported in this paper using the alternative data sets sourced from a DIISRTE Higher Education Statistics Data Cube (uCube) website (DIISRTE 2012a). Statistics were available for the years 2001 to 2010 for postgraduate research enrolments and completions, but the data was not disaggregated to the Masters by Research and PhD levels. The information for enrolments and completions was available by gender (male and female), citizenship (domestic and overseas), level of attendance (full-time and part-time) and field of education (10 fields).
This study has focussed on the two years 2001 and 2010 for enrolments and the whole period for completions to analyse the major trends that have occurred in research training during the decade.
Postgraduate Research Student Enrolment Numbers
The number of full-time and part-time postgraduate research students for male and female domestic and overseas students for the years 2001 and 2010 are presented in tables A & B, appendix 1. The total number of students increased from 43,433 to 55,869* – a 28.6% increase**. During the same period the increase in all coursework student enrolment numbers (i.e. postgraduate research enrolments excluded) was greater at 42.3%, from 798,751 to 1,136,788 students. In 2001 the postgraduate research student mix was 85.7% domestic and 14.3% overseas. By 2010 the percentage of overseas students had increased to 26.8% with domestic students representing 73.2% of the cohort. The distribution between male and female students for 2001 and 2010 is shown in Figure 1. In 2001 48.4% of enrolled students were female, while for 2010 the percentage of females had increased to 50.5%.
* It should be noted that the data contained in the DIISRTE uCube is slightly different from the data published on the DIISRTE website (DIISRTE 2012b) that was used in earlier work (Larkins 2011). The differences are not significant when considering the general trend conclusions that can be drawn.
** EFTSL values are also available on uCube. Numbers are appropriate for the present analysis.
In 2001 the number of domestic male and female students was very similar at 42.8 and 42.9 % respectively. By 2010 there were more enrolled domestic female (39.2% of the total) than male students (34.0% of the total) because female student numbers had increased by 17.4 % in the decade while male numbers had increased by only 2.3%. These figures are well below the coursework growth figures for the same period of 20.7% for domestic males and 30.3 % for domestic females. The low growth in domestic male students is a cause for concern with respect to the provision of the higher level skills base Australia requires to be an internationally competitive trading nation. Overseas male students outnumbered overseas female students throughout the period, but both have shown very significant increases during the decade – overseas males by 126.3 per cent and females by 165.8%. In 2010 15.5 % of postgraduate research students were males from overseas (compared with 8.8% in 2001) while the number of females was 11.3% (compared with 5.5% in 2001).
Enrolments by Field of Education
The student enrolment data are available for 10 fields of education. For the present trend analysis the 10 fields are clustered into three discipline groupings – science and technology (S&T), health sciences (HS), humanities and social sciences (H&SS) – as shown in Appendix 2. The detailed relevant enrolment data are presented in Appendix 1. A summary is given in Table 1.
In 2001 the overall student discipline profile was 36.9% S&T, 12.6% HS and 50.4% H&SS. By 2010 the profile had changed to 41.4% S&T, 13.5% HS and 45.2% H&SS. While all discipline groups have increased in numbers of enrolees the proportional shift from H&SS to S&T is quite significant. Proportionally enrolments have increased the most over the decade for the S&T disciplines with a 44.2% increase. The H&SS disciplines increased the least with a 15% growth but this discipline group still had the largest number of enrolees.
The citizenship and gender profile for each discipline group in presented in Figure 2 for the absolute numbers. The corresponding percentage contributions are given in Figure 3.
Male and Female Overseas students increased in both absolute and proportional terms for all three discipline groups. The change for S&T is most marked with the percentage of overseas students increasing from 18% to 36% over the period 2001-10, while for HS the increase was from 11% to 18% and for H&SS from 13% to 21%. The proportion of domestic male and female students declined in each of the three discipline groupings. The S&T discipline group is the only one where there are more male than female research students, but the proportion did decrease from 64% in 2001 to 61% in 2010. The small increase of less than 400 students in the number of domestic males undertaking S&T research is of concern (see columns 8&9 in table, Figure 2). The only decline in absolute numbers undertaking research over the decade was for domestic males in the H&SS disciplines (see columns 6 & 7 in table, Figure 2). Females represent the majority of the student enrolments in the health sciences (65% in 2010) and in the humanities and social sciences disciplines (57% in 2010).
Enrolments by Gender and Discipline Group
It is of interest to understand the discipline choices that the different student cohorts are making to undertake research training. The choices for the years 2001 and 2010 are shown in Figure 4. Domestic males enrolled in approximately equal numbers (45%) for S&T and H&SS research training with only a slight trend towards S&T disciplines towards the end of the decade (columns 1 & 2, Figure 4). Domestic female students have a very different choice profile with the majority (58% to 54%) selecting H&SS disciplines with a slight trend towards increased participation in the sciences by 2010 (columns 3 & 4, Figure 4). Overseas males have a strong preference for the sciences with the participation in science-related research (S&T and HS) increasing from 56% in 2001 to 68% in 2010 (columns 5 & 6, Figure 4). Overseas females have followed a similar trend but from a lower level of participation in the sciences from 51% in 2001 to 60% in 2010 (column 7 & 8, Figure 4). Collectively in 2010 some 65% of overseas students have chosen to undertake science-related research training while only 51% of domestic students have chosen similar paths.
The proportion of part-time postgraduate research enrolments was substantially higher over the decade for domestic students than for overseas students (Figure 5).The gender differences for the domestic and overseas cohorts were not significant. Full-time and part-time domestic students numbers are almost equal, but overseas part-time students represent less than one in five of the enrolled students. The overseas profile is influenced by the limitation on the visa length of stay provisions for those students. The proportion of students undertaking part-time research training has decreased slightly throughout the decade. Factors such as the inclusion of completions in the Research Training Scheme (RTS) block grant allocations and the introduction of the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) have undoubtedly influenced universities to give higher priority to full-time students but more needs to be done in this area. Full-time students do represent a better investment return on the infrastructure resources that need to be dedicated by a university to support research training. In this regard the overseas student profile is attractive to universities.
It is also of interest to establish how full- or part-time study affects the discipline field that a student may choose. The data reported in Figure 4 has been separated into full-time and part-time choices and represented in Figure 6 at the higher level of disaggregation. Only data for 2010 is presented here with the 2001 enrolment numbers being available in Appendix 1.
The highest level of part-time research is for the H&SS disciplines for all students groups with the exception of overseas male students where the S&T discipline has a marginally higher percentage. Domestic males have the highest part-time percentage for the S&T disciplines. As noted earlier overseas students have low levels of part-time study in all three discipline groups. Overall, for the 2010 cohort 28% of the students enrolled in S&T research training programs are part-time, while for HS part-timers are 46% of the enrolled students and for the H&SS disciplines the number is 47%.
Postgraduate Research Student Completions
Overall completion trends
In the previous analysis of research training trends (Larkins 2011) Masters by Research and PhD completions for domestic and overseas students were examined for the period 2000 to 2010. The percentage of overseas HDR completions increased over time. The performance of different discipline groups, gender and level of attendance was not considered. In this work domestic and overseas completions have been examined for the years 2001 and 2010 taking into account gender and full-time or part-time candidature for the three discipline groupings considered earlier. The data are presented in detail in Appendix 3 sourced from the DIISRTE higher education statistics database (DIISRTE 2012a). Total postgraduate research completions increased from 5601 in 2001 to 7560 in 2010 – a 34.6% increased. In 2001 53.6% of the completions were by male students, but by 2010 this percentage had been reduced to 50.3%. Domestic students accounted for 83% of completions in 2010 and 74% in 2010. Students that were classified as part-time accounted for 59% of completions in 2001 and for 40% in 2010. In 2001 some 51 percent of part-time completions were for male students, but by 2010 females accounted for 53% of the part-time completions.
Completions by Gender, Citizenship and Discipline Group
It is valuable to analyse the completion statistics by gender, citizenship and discipline group. The data by discipline group are summarised in Table 2 using the information from Appendix 3.
The distribution of completions between the three discipline groupings has changed remarkable little when the performance for the years 2001 and 2010 are compared. Throughout the period there were more enrolled H&SS students than S&T students (see table 1), but the S&T disciplines have had more completions. For 2010 the completion mix was S&T 43.9%, HS 13.8% and H&SS 42.3%. It is not readily possible to assess completion rates and times for students because of the complexity of the various possible progression combinations; however, the evidence does indicate that collectively S&T students have a better completion record than H&SS students. The percentage increase in group completions also was marginally higher for the S&T disciplines at 35.9% than for the HS disciplines at 33.7% or the H&SS disciplines at 33.6%.
The number of completions by gender and citizenship in each category are presented in Figure 7 with the actual values included in the accompanying table. Domestic male students achieve the highest number of completions for the S&T disciplines and domestic female students are the highest contributors to the HS and H&SS disciplines. The increased contribution to completions from overseas students by 2010 is most significant. This trend is highlighted by a consideration of the completion percentage for each category of student.
The percentage completions for each discipline group by gender, citizenship and level of attendance (full-time and part-time) are presented in Figure 8. The lower four entries are for full-time completions for domestic male and female students and then for overseas male and female students respectively. The upper four entries are the same sequence for part-time students. As a proportion of the total, the number of full-time students completing has increased very significantly over the decade for each discipline group. For S&T from 49% to 69%, for HS from 38% to 57% and for H&SS from 33% to 52%.
The largest reduction in part-time completion has been for domestic students from 67% to 49% for females and from 62% to 43% for males. Part-time completions as a proportion were also reduced for overseas students from 37% to 20% for females and from 30% to 23% for males.
Research Relative Completion Rate Performance
The complexity of the data involving full-time and part-time Masters by Research and PhD students means that insufficient information is available to accurately determine research training completion rates. One essentially would have to profile each student. A surrogate is possible to provide some insight into the relative performance of each cohort of students over the period. The total completions for a particular year are compared with the student enrolment numbers from five years previously. For example, completions in 2005 are compared with enrolments in 2001 and completions in 2010 are compared with enrolments in 2006. This means that the students will have had a minimum of four full years in which to undertake their research irrespective of whether they are Masters or PhD students. This is a consistent approach to discern relative trends. The findings for relative completions for the six years 2005 to 2010 are summarised in Figure 9.
The relative performance of overseas students is clearly superior to domestic students with no significant gender difference. Furthermore, there has been no statistically significant improvement during the past six years. A reasonable reference point would be to expect near 25% of the students to have completed within the defined time period. The overseas student performance is close to this benchmark averaging around 22%. The domestic student performance falls well short of the benchmark averaging around 14%. The high level of part-time domestic students is the major factor limiting the performance. The finding means that with the present student profiles for equal numbers of overseas and domestic enrolees one can expect five overseas students to complete for every three domestic completions in the same time period. Alternatively stated, there is a 66% higher probability of an overseas student completing in 4-5 years than their domestic counterpart.
While progress has been made throughout the decade, It would be timely for the Australian Government to review its funding of research training programs in Australian Universities and to provide more incentives for domestic students to enrol as full-time students. It should be possible to increase the national return on expensive investments in supervisory costs and infrastructure. Based on the domestic student experience, adoption of the Knight Review recommendation on visa conditions for overseas postgraduate research students (DIC 2012) to allow unlimited work rights during their studies may result in a deterioration of timely completion performances.
1. DIISRTE, 2012a. http://www.highereducationstatistics.deewr.gov.au/
2. DIISRTE, 2012b, http://www.deewr.gov.au/highereducation/Publications/HEStatistics/ Publications/Pages/Home.aspx
3. DIC, 2012, http://www.immi.gov.au/students/knight/
4. Larkins, F., 2011, http://www.lhmartininstitute.edu.au/insights-blog/2011/11/70-overseas-students-help-boost-australian-universities-research-profile
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