Language background should be dropped as a higher ed equity category

At The Conversation, Tim Pitman has anlaysed enrolment changes under the demand driven system of the official equity groups.

He mentions in passing one equity group that survives on the list despite it not predicting educational disadvantage: coming from a non-English speaking background and arriving in Australia in the last decade.

Census data suggests that it is people from English speaking backgrounds who lag in university attendance. Limiting the analysis to 18 to 20 year olds who are citizens (to avoid international students skewing the analysis), only people who speak Australian Indigenous languages at home have lower rates of university attendance.

NESB attend

Narrowing the analysis to people arriving in Australia between 2001 and 2011 does not change the broad picture, with people speaking an African language at home having about the same rate of university attendance as people who speak English at home, with the other groups having higher, and often significantly higher, rates of attendance.

NESB recent arrival

Speaking English at home is not, of course, in itself a disadvantage when it comes to going to university. Class, cultural and locational factors explain these differences. These factors are already covered by other equity categories, making language background redundant.

Update: Tim Pitman in comments below is questioning whether restricting the analysis to 18-20 year olds is enough to sustain the argument. I give reasons below why I think it is. However, to test this I have analysed 30-34 year olds. I don’t think these numbers are as good as the 18-20 year olds, as they are more affected by adult migration by people who already have degrees. Also there will be some double counting of people who have a degree and are studying. But they are a guide. Here we do get one language group, Southwest and Central Asian (without double-checking the numbers, I am guessing mainly Arabs, Afghans and Turks) which has lower rates of educational attainment and participation. However, the differences aren’t large and overall it is still very difficult to argue that speaking a language other than English at home is in itself associated with educational disadvantage.

30-34 year olds

3 thoughts on “Language background should be dropped as a higher ed equity category

  1. Thanks for making such a clear argument backed up by data.

    Universities should be congratulated for solving this societal problem and we should now turn our attention to blaming them for not achieving more on the other equity measures. (Note: I am being completely facetious!)


  2. Hi Andrew, your data is skewed by limiting your analysis to 18-20 year olds. Higher education equity policy is for all Australians, not just those of a particualar age. If NESB enrolments in the (for example) 18-64 year old range are proportional, then by all means we need to reconsider its inclusion as an equity category. Ditto if it is demonstrated that their under-representation in higher education is not leading to socio-economic disadvantage. So I beleive your conclusion that language is redundant as an equity category is premature if only this analysis is used.


    • Tim – For this kind of cross-sectional data, I think limiting the age group is the only way to deal with the denominator issue. Denominators lifted by middle aged or elderly people give completely misleading results on participation rates for the main target population.

      This aside, it is hard to think of a theoretical reason why language spoken at home would be a major positive factor for young people and a major negative factor for older people. At minimum, it is a poor proxy if it cannot predict educational disadvantage for the main group of prospective uni students.

      Another issue is that it would be illegal to target this indicator in most cases under anti-discrimination law and the fairness provisions of HESA.

      We can drop the indicator and the HE data collection, and just keep an eye on it through the census.


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