The number of enrolments in tertiary education has dropped in 2020, with the number of women engaging in study declining at a faster rate than men.
According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, female enrolment in tertiary education dropped by 86,000 when comparing May 2020 to May 2019. Comparatively, the number of male students dropped by much less, at just 21,200.
Overall, Australians are studying less in 2020, with the total number of tertiary students dropping by 112,500 people over the same period. Women make up three-quarters of the overall student decline.
The ABS data comes from The Survey of Education and Work, run during the first two weeks of May 2020, and includes those studying at university and some vocational courses.
The data shows that the nature of declining student enrolments in Australia is highly gendered, and it’s women over the age of 25 who have seen the greatest drop, by 59,200 enrolments. And while there are fewer younger men enrolled in 2020 than 2019, there has been an increase in the numbers of older men (over the age of 25) enrolled in study, up 26,000.
The number of enrolments for men under 25, women under 25, and women over 25, have all declined this year. The total enrolment decline is the largest Australia has seen since 2004, according to the ABS data.
The overall drop in tertiary enrolments in 2020 has bucked the trend of past recessions, where the numbers of people going to university has increased. The drop in women enrolling in tertiary education may speak to the “pink” recession Australia is experiencing, with women being overrepresented in the hardest hit industries.
Women have also seen their share of unpaid caring work increase during the pandemic, with many women leaving the workforce altogether. Compared to men, women may be less likely to feel financially secure enough to pursue study.
While the federal government’s changes to university fees will not come into play until January 2021, women will be disproportionately affected by reform. The changes will see student contributions for social science, communications and humanities (except psychology and English) increase by A$7,696 per year. Currently, there are more women in humanities-based degrees than other programs.