There were 86,000 fewer women studying at university in 2020 compared with 2019, following the gendered impact of Covid-19 and the recession on Australia.
Newly released data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics has shown that there was a 7% drop in the number of women enrolled at universities and some vocational courses, and a 2% drop in the number of men.
Overall, the number of tertiary students dropped by 112,500 between May 2020 and May 2019 – the biggest yearly drop since 2004 when ABS data began collecting this data.
The slump in students was highly gendered, with the number of female students dropping by 86,000, compared with male students dropping by 21,200. Three-quarters of the total drop was among female students.
And the decline in female participation was starkest among older women, with a drop of nearly 60,000 in women above 25.
The ABS data was collected in the first two weeks of May 2020, during Australia’s Covid-19 lockdown. It surveyed all people, including international students, who were enrolled in study for a certificate III or higher. That includes bachelors and postgraduate degrees, diplomas and some Tafe and vocational courses.
Overall, this decline in female participation was also the largest decrease since ABS records began in 2004.
In terms of age, enrolments among those 15-24 dropped by 80,000, and enrolments among those 25 to 64 dropped by 32,000.
But while there were fewer young men, young women and older women at university, there was increase in the number of older men, which Shirley Jackson, an economist at Per Capita, said reflected the nature of the coronavirus recession.
While the number of women above 25 dropped by 59,200, there was actually an increase of 26,000 in enrolments among men above 25.
In every age category above 30 years old, there were more men enrolled this year than last year. However, in every age category except 55-64, there were fewer women.
Among those aged 25 to 29, 27,000 women dropped out, but 15,000 extra men enrolled. For those aged 35 to 39, 22,000 women dropped out, but 3,300 men enrolled.
“This recession has overwhelmingly been a pink-collared recession,” Jackson said. “It has affected face-to-face businesses that are dependent on domestic consumptions. Industries like retail, hospitality, personal and community services, care work and creative industries are mostly female-dominated, they were closed in their entirety.”
He said that usually recessions saw an increase in university enrolments, but social and political factors meant women were actually dropping out.
“We know that women are far more likely to engage in unpaid care work at both ends of the life cycle than men. Kids are out of school and are doing school at home. Women with young families have overwhelmingly been forced to pick up the slack and are acting as both teachers and primary carers.”
“Older women are more likely to care for ageing or disabled parents or family members … especially as so many Covid cases are in aged care homes and people are increasingly caring for their relatives at home.”
Jackson said this explained the increase in enrolments among older men, but the decrease in women of the same age.
“But these trends have nothing to do with economics … it is entirely because we undervalue women socially, culturally and politically,” he said.
The ABS data also revealed a larger drop in the number of young male students compared with young women.
There were 47,200 fewer male students between 15 and 24, compared with 28,600 fewer female students. But that trend reversed as students became older.
The ABS data also revealed there were fewer students with jobs compared with 2019. The number of people who were working while they were studying fell by 283,000, resulting in a drop from 59% employment among students to 50%.
“Women of all ages generally, and women under 25 especially, are more likely to work on casual employment contracts,” Jackson said.
“That means they are less likely to be offered jobkeeper and less likely to have a surplus of savings to weather the storm and take some time to engage in education or upskilling”.