2001 – Women’s Committee Submission to the Senate Inquiry into the capacity of public universities to meet Australia’s higher education

Attachment: CAPA Submission

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) is the national peak body representing Australia’s 142,423 postgraduate students. It has affiliated postgraduate associations in 33 of Australia’s public higher education institutions and in all States and Territories. Australian postgraduate students fall into two broad categories: postgraduate coursework students who number 105,046 and postgraduate research students who number 37,374 (DETYA 2001). Coursework students undertake a set programme of studies and are likely to be part-time, pay full up-front fees and have limited or no access to income support. The range of coursework awards extends from graduate certificate to professional doctorate. Research students undertake original research for a period of two years (Masters) and four years (PhD), are less likely to pay fees or HECS and can compete for a limited number of tax exempt scholarships. Research places and scholarships are allocated competitively.

There is, of course, another binary system with which to classify Australian postgraduate students: by gender. While the participation of women in higher education has finally attained numerical equivalence overall, the distribution of participation rates is markedly uneven. Different disciplines, institutions, age groups and levels of study return significant variations from the overall pattern – usually to the disadvantage of women. Furthermore, the intersection of gender with other equity-identified demographic groups reveals the sensitivity of gender issues to other equity-compromising conditions.

However rates of access to and participation in higher education are far from the whole story, although these data are relied on excessively as measures of equity achievement, perhaps due to their ready quantifiability. Just as significant in accounting for the experience of women in higher education are the qualitative aspects of their participation: in other words, the ‘woman-friendliness’ of the university experience. Many of the issues impacting adversely on women in education are matters that are typically dealt with at the institutional level, but many of them are subtle consequences of policy decisions made at the level of government. It is the experience of many women postgraduates that numerical ‘equality’ has not lead to conditions of equality on the ground.

Assertions that the data constitutes the proof of a job well done for equal rights in education is pre-emptive at the least (and, as it may lead to complacency, potentially dangerous). There still exist many patterns of systematic discrimination on the basis of gender in Australian higher education, and structural problems in policy design and implementation are significant causal factors in continuing these unacceptable trends. For this reason, CAPA believes it is a serious mistake for the equity-standing of women in higher education to be restricted only to women in non-traditional areas of study and research (DETYA 2001). There is clearly a great deal more to be done, and if the measures currently in use do not reflect this, then the conclusion to be drawn is that new measures need to be devised, and not that everything is fine for women in Australian universities.

Given the range of concerns at hand, the CAPA Women’s Committee wished to address independently certain of the Inquiry’s terms of reference that are particularly relevant to the experience of women in higher education. This submission is therefore complementary to the main CAPA submission, and they should be considered together. The Women’s Committee refers readers to that document for of terms of reference on which this submission is silent.