More queer folk needed at Australian universities?

GAYS, lesbians and transsexuals have been named as a new equity sub-group that universities must track for their progress in enrolment and retention.

The federal Education Department has asked universities to report back on improvements in rates of under-representation, even though there is no data to suggest this group participates in higher education at lower rates than the rest of the community.

"In fact, general surveys of gays and lesbians show high levels of educational attainment," said Andrew Norton, higher education director with think tank The Grattan Institute.

The document also asks universities to report on their work with people from non-English speaking backgrounds, although recent research has confirmed that this group, on average, has higher levels of participation and success than Australian-born students.

While universities are striving to meet the government-set equity target of 20 per cent of disadvantaged people holding a degree by 2020, the inclusion of these new equity indicators has raised eyebrows.

"Lots of universities have programs to improve inclusiveness, but sexuality is not an under-representation issue, its a social justice issue," said the Queensland University of Technology's equity director, Mary Kelly.

Ms Kelly said universities did not collect data on sexual orientation -- and would probably create a public outrage if they tried to. The only required areas were indigenous background, country of birth and disability. She said she thought the move was probably a result of ill-informed goodwill on the part of a federal bureaucrat rather than government direction.

The manager of student access and equity at Deakin University in Victoria, Jennifer Oriel, described using sexual orientation as an indicator of equity as "a nonsense". "My opinion is that disadvantage has to be produced by poor educational participation or outcomes," she said. "We need to keep in mind that higher education equity is about improving the outcomes from structurally disadvantaged backgrounds."

Included in the document, under the sub-heading "Gender", are women in engineering and computing and men in education and nursing.

Ms Kelly said while women in non-traditional areas was a hot topic, the debate on men in certain disciplines had been "won and lost" some time ago. "Men are not going into nursing and teaching because they are in other professions and the trades and they don't want to go into underpaid jobs."


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