Latest News

Women Make-Up 80% of the Decline in Tertiary Education Enrolments

And the increase in caring responsibilities during the pandemic is likely the reason why

When the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, Danielle Keenan had to make a decision.

Living in rural NSW with her husband working to keep their family business afloat and her two daughters requiring home schooling, the tertiary student and worker chose to drop out of university. “I knew that I needed to focus my energy into my family and my work, and so study became a non-priority,” she tells marie claire. “Something had to give, and it had to be that unfortunately.”

Danielle’s decision to withdraw is not unique.

According to ABS’ latest data, there were 112,000 fewer students enrolled in tertiary education this year, making it the most significant drop in enrolments in 15 years.

Like much of COVID-19, the impact was gendered, with women taking the greatest fall. 86,000 fewer female students signed up for tertiary education in May this year compared to May 2019, and if Danielle’s experience is anything to go by, it’s likely that increased caring responsibilities had a lot to do with it.

Danielle Keenan with her family
Danielle Keenan with her family (Credit: Kristy Smith – K Smith Photography)

“It was exhausting trying to get my 8 year old to concentrate.  She has a little sister as well in pre-school. I was trying to do work video conferences while setting up things for them to do and check school work, there was no time for me to study.”

Dr Cathy Stone, a Conjoint Associate Professor with the University of Newcastle and an Adjunct Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education was not surprised. “Whenever there’s a conflict of interest between when a woman wants to do something for herself, and something she feels she should do for her family, she is likely to feel guilty for doing the thing that she wants to do for herself,” she explains. “Research shows that women see study as something for themselves.”

A recent United Nations report confirmed that the demand for unpaid care work this year fell disproportionally on women’s shoulders. “Even before Covid-19 became a universal pandemic, women were doing at least twice as much unpaid work as men,” Dr Stone says.  

The most noticeable decline in women’s participation was in older demographic, with 27,000 dropouts aged between 25-29 years old, in contrast to men with an extra 15,000 enrolments. Similarly, for women aged 33-45, 22,000 withdrew while, 3,300 more men enrolled.

“Older female learners are the most vulnerable to early departure due to caring priorities and insecure work,” Stone explains

“It’s a balancing act between wanting to study, meeting domestic responsibilities, needing to earn money and above all, if women feel that they are in anyway neglecting their family or caring responsibilities they tend to feel really guilty.”

Dr Stone also points out that, “women are much more likely to be in part time or casual employment by the very fact that they are putting their families and children first”. 

Women in insecure employment were less likely to receive government benefits such as JobKeeper. In fact, twice as many women than men had their payments halved during JobKeeper 2.0, due to cuts to part-time workers. As such, with likely less excess in savings, it likely became difficult for many women to ride out this period through investment in education and upskilling. 

Stone is hopeful that the decline in female tertiary education enrolments is only a temporary side effect of COVID-19. “When things get back into what we’re calling the ‘new normal’, and if the job market picks up, if women are in more secure employment again, and if men are also in more secure employment, then hopefully more women will return to their studies.”

Related stories