Female enrolment at Australian universities dropped by 86,000 in 2020 as ‘pink recession’ hit | Australian universities

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”.

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Student with Down syndrome has enrolment ‘cancelled’ by Launceston school

The family of a 15-year-old girl who lives with Down syndrome says she had her enrolment at a Launceston Catholic school “cancelled” after her parents refused to sign off on the learning plan proposed by the school and submit her to a psychological test.

Abigail Talbot was attending St Patrick’s College, a Catholic co-educational secondary college in Launceston in Tasmania’s north catering for year 7 to year 12.

Her mother said the learning plan the school suggested was not done in consultation with her family or speech therapist, as recommended by the Australian Disability Standards for Education, and was not in line with best practice.

“Down Syndrome Australia recommends that students work within the current year curriculum for their year,” Abigail’s mother Melinda Talbot said.

“Abi is currently in year 9, but the work that’s set for her was in early years, probably prep to grade 2.

“There was a picture [in the plan] of some work that was of the Very Hungry Caterpillar, and that’s a book that children tend to read when they’re in preschool or prep, so that’s not appropriate for a student who’s 14 years old.”

Melinda Talbot says her daughter Abigail was given “appropriate” work in line with the Australian curriculum in primary school.(ABC News: Craig Heerey)

Ms Talbot said Abigail’s underlying health issues, including “fatigue and debilitating headaches”, made it inappropriate for a psychological test to be carried out.

“We actually didn’t feel that it was needed, she’d been at the school for two and a half years, we’d also provided a lot of info to the school, we had info from her grade 6 teacher when she started year 7, from her speech therapist, from Down Syndrome Tasmania and ourselves,” Ms Talbot said.

The family said when the terms of her enrolment were not agreed to, Abigail’s enrolment was terminated.

A letter from the school to the family last Monday said:

I now write to inform you that as we have not come to any resolution of the matters relating to Abigail’s enrolment, that her enrolment is now cancelled effective as at the end of Term 2.

Abigail’s locker will be cleaned out and the contents will be couriered to your place of residence.

Family says tasks set were not ‘appropriate’

Ms Talbot said “appropriate” work that was in line with the Australian curriculum was set for Abigail when she was at her primary school.

But she said when Abigail started at St Patrick’s College, she was set what the family saw as tasks that were not age appropriate.

“When she started in year 7, she was doing counting activities and activities like joining the dots … she was made to set up a pretend shop in her year 7 math class,” Ms Talbot said.

“She reported being quite distressed by that, and not only did she feel she wasn’t learning, she was actually quite embarrassed.”

Her mother also said Abigail was prevented from going outside at lunchtime when she was in year 7, with the school citing safety reasons.

Abigail’s mother said she took a complaint to the Human Rights Commission and then to the Federal Court in December last year on the basis of discrimination.

The matter is ongoing.

Exterior of St Patrick's College, Launceston.
St Patrick’s College in Launceston caters for students from years 7 to 12.(ABC News: Alexandra Alvaro)

The ABC put a number of questions to the school about the cancellation of Abigail’s enrolment and other allegations put forward by her family, including regarding the school’s approach to Abigail’s learning.

A response was provided by Catholic Education Tasmania.

It said it was “unable to comment as the case is still before the Federal Court”.

“Tasmania’s 38 Catholic schools and colleges provide safe environments in a manner that optimises all students’ learning opportunities to grow and develop and reach their full potential,” it said.

Abigail’s mother said the cancellation of Abigail’s enrolment was not included in the discrimination claim.

Advocate says students have the right to equal access

Disability advocate Kristen Desmond said it was up to schools to put in reasonable adjustments so any child could access the Australian curriculum and do work that was suitable for their age group.

Kristen Desmond, Tasmanian disability advocate looks at the camera.
Kristen Desmond says it sends the wrong message to children living with disabilities.(ABC News: Craig Heerey)

“The independent learning plan should enable her to access the curriculum and should enable her to get the same education experience as her non-disabled peers,” she said.

“That is an awful, awful message to be sending to a school community that should be inclusive.”

She said the Government needed to crack down on independent schools if they were doing the wrong thing.

“At the end of the day, why is the Catholic system any different to any other system? No public school could demand what this Catholic school is doing,” she said.

She said they should install an independent disability commissioner so parents did not have to go through so many hoops.

The Tasmanian Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff said he was open to the idea of an independent commissioner.

“I’d be interested to sit down with advocates of students with disability to see exactly what that proposal entails,” Mr Rockliff said.

He also said all schools had the responsibility to create an inclusive environment.

“I hear what people are saying and we have to ensure that we build a very inclusive environment within our schools irrespective of sector, whether that be independent, Catholic or our public education system,” he said.

He said while he was not familiar with the Talbots’ story, the setting of schoolwork that was not consistent with the age group of a student with a disability was “not appropriate at all”.

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Online enrolment for kids starting high school

ST MARY’S Catholic College is adapting to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions by taking their enrolment process online.

Principal of the Casino college, Tracy Robinson, said St Mary’s was planning an information evening for potential and new students closer to the end of Term 2 when COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings have been eased.

“We have started the enrolment process now and asking new parents to contact the college through our website or by phone,” Mrs Robinson said.

As Term 2 starts teachers and students continue to work together online.

“As a smaller secondary school, we are really able to offer individual attention that can often be missed in a larger school setting, and we know this is a benefit that is happening now in online teaching” Mrs Robinson said.

“Once the restrictions are removed we are looking forward to bringing the students back into the classroom. And at St Mary’s, this could be in a science laboratory, a paddock, an auto shop, or in a one to one learning space,” Mrs Robinson said.

St Mary’s offers counselling services, programs for students with additional learning needs, including literacy and numeracy workshops and programs for gifted and talented students.

The college offers a ‘compressed curriculum’ for the HSC. This is where senior students study half of their HSC course in one calendar year through to HSC examinations, and then study the remainder of their course in the following year.

“This ‘compressed curriculum’ allows double the traditional amount of class time and enables students to better immerse themselves in their coursework by focusing on fewer subjects. We are seeing great improvements within individual student results.

“In 2018 and 2019 the impact of this initiative was celebrated in our college community, with some of the best HSC results we’ve seen in many years and the college performing exceptionally well against the other local colleges in the Diocese,” Mrs Robinson said.

St Mary’s EARTH facility provides students with an agricultural farm and automotive workshop that gives students an authentic study and work environment.

“We offer as many opportunities for our students as possible including both trade and academic pathways,” Mrs Robinson said.

Potential students looking to become part of the St Mary’s community are invited to contact the college on 6662 2255 or see the website.

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