Postgraduates are diverse

Research into the postgraduate student cohort has found that they are particularly diverse, and that their resulting mix of needs is not sufficiently supported by universities (Crane et al, 2016, p10).

By being aware of the demographics, needs and drivers of various cohorts you will be in a better position to build courses and units that meet postgraduate student’s unique requirements and characteristics.

Postgraduates at ACU - data snapshot

Attendance type

32% full time, 68% part time


31% male, 69% female


11% overseas, 89% domestic

Age group


Source: Australian Catholic University OPSM Statistical Digest – Section 3 – Postgraduate courses (2017). Note these have been rounded to nearest whole number, for current statistics see the OPSM Statistical Digest on Sharepoint.

Coursework students

ACU's postgraduate strategy particularly focuses on postgraduate coursework students. Coursework students are often professionally focused, that is, studying in order to change careers, or to become more knowledgeable in their discipline (Cluetts & Skene, 2006).

They often have other commitments, such as full-time/part-time work, families and other responsibilities.

ACU key postgraduate coursework segment

ACU marketing undertook a study that looked for commonalities in the reasons, values and motivations that postgraduate coursework students are seeking to have met by entering into higher education. By understanding our student’s motivations and values, we can connect with them at a deeper more intrinsic level, understand the unique type of university experience they are looking for, and are better placed as an institution to meet those needs.

The following are two personas based on the ACU priority segments found in the study, the Connected Altruists and Motivated Achievers. The information here is intended to remind you what motivates our students, what they want to hear from us and how we can best engage with them, which is relevant when designing new courses, student communications and student experiences.


David - 48 - Connected Altruist

Now that my kids are older I have the chance to broaden my skills and meet different types of people. I’m hoping that this experience will take me into a new career where I can really help others.

Read more about David's motivations and decisions to study

David is seeking:

  • Support in creating industry connections, see the Employability page
  • Supportive learning environment, see the


Anna - 26 - Motivated Achiever

My drive to keep pushing myself has sent me back to university to be challenged. I’m doing this as much for my own development as for my career.

Read more about Anna's motivations and decisions to study

Anna is seeking:

Flexible ways to study, explore two examples of courses that are offered in flexible ways:

Note: the ACU Marketing Insights team postgraduate segmentation research focused on domestic postgraduate coursework students and did not include higher degree research students or international students. See the Segmentation Tool.

Strategies for designing for postgraduates

International, HDR, indigenous and regional students

ACU has a range of postgraduate student demographics each with unique needs.


International students


There is greater growth in the Australian postgraduate international enrolments than in undergraduate (Davis 2017).

Eleven percent (11%) of ACU’s postgraduates are international students (OPSM 2017), more broadly in Australia 37% of postgraduates are international students (2015 DEET).

Unique challenges

International students face a range of challenges distinct from domestic students, including:

  • Higher financial cost for courses
  • Studying course full-time (no part-time options accessible if living in Australia)
  • Developing their English language whilst learning in English, including learning the language of their discipline
  • Living in a different culture
  • Experiencing a different university culture
  • Their country of origin may have very different copyright rules.

Additional resources

  • This booklet published by Melbourne University, provides a range of strategies for supporting international students, Teaching international students - strategies to enhance learning (Arkoudis n.d.). Strategies such as:
    • Internationalising the curriculum
    • Making lectures accessible
    • Creating opportunities for small group participation
    • Adopting an educative approach to plagiarism
    • Supporting students in developing critical thinking skills
    • Explaining assessment expectations
      (Arkoudis n.d.).
  • Enhancing the experience and outcomes of international higher degree by research students (Tran, Green & Nguyen 2017). Includes a research digest and supervisor guides.
  • Finding common ground: enhancing interaction between domestic and international students (Arkoudis et al 2010) an investigation of how peer interaction can be designed and used, within the teaching and learning environment, to engage domestic and international students.

High Degree by Research students


Six percent (6%) of ACU’s PG students are HDR students, more broadly in Australia 17% of postgraduates are HDR students (2015 DEET).

Unique challenges

  • The number of Phds outnumbers the available academic vacancies
  • HDR students need employment support that prepares them for academic and non-academic careers.

ACU resources

Additional resources

  • This booklet covers a series of time-honoured practices that support HDR students and their supervisors, Eleven practices of effective postgraduate supervisors (James & Baldwin 1999).
  • Guides for new supervisors - best practice guides about coursework dissertation supervision (Roberts 2015)
  • This document contains a collection of ideas for supervisors and students for activities and research approaches that will facilitate high quality outcomes from inter- and trans-disciplinary (ID and TD) postgraduate research. Quality in Inter- and trans-disciplinary postgraduate research and its supervision (Mitchell 2009)

Indigeous students


Research has shown that indigenous students are under-represented in participation in higher education (Barney, 2013 citing Bradley et al, 2008; Ellis 2001). One percent (1-2%) of ACU’s PG students are indigenous (OPSM 2017). Research has demonstrated that indigenous Australian postgraduate students face different barriers to non-indigenous students.

Unique challenges

  • Indigenous students’ rates of participation, retention and completion are much lower than those for non-Indigenous students
  • Many students are first-in-family to complete tertiary study, and are more likely to lack a network that is supportive of postgraduate study
  • More likely to come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and have lower personal income
  • Cultural isolation – it is common for postgraduates to feel isolated, this can be more acute for indigenous students, with limited (or no) indigenous peers to interact with.
    “…it was an isolating experience because you do it on your own and so you ask people in our [Indigenous] community what a PhD is and very few people understand what it necessarily involves or is about and even a Bachelor degree half my family didn’t know what that meant and I didn’t know what that meant either until I did it … so it can be culturally isolating as well…” (Barney, 2013, p520)

Source: Barney, 2013

ACU resources

Additional resources

  • This paper draws on interviews with indigenous postgraduate students, capturing common themes in their experiences. By knowing and acting on these themes they can be better supported. Barney, K. (2013). ‘Taking your mob with you’: giving voice to the experiences of Indigenous Australian postgraduate students.  Higher Education Research and Development.
  • This paper provides 9 recommendations for considerations and implementations by indigenous units in Australian Universities. Trugett, M. (2009). Build it and They Will Come: Building the Capacity of Indigenous Units in Universities to Provide Better Support for Indigenous Australian Postgraduate Students. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education Studies.
  • This paper provides an overview of trends and issues in Indigenous higher education and  discussions possible solutions. Pechenkina, A & Anderson, I. (2011). Background paper on Indigenous Australian Higher Education: Trends, Initiatives and Policy Implications. Australian Government.
  • There is a growing exploration of ‘indigenous research methodologies’, that is, research methodologies underpinned by indigenous perspectives.
    • Saunders, V., West, R., & Usher, K. (2010). Applying indigenist research methodologies in health research: Experiences in the borderlands. Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 39(Suppl), 1–7.
    • Rigney, L.I. (2006). Indigenist research and Aboriginal Australia. In J. Kunnie & N.I. Goduka (Eds.), Indigenous peoples’ wisdoms and power: Affirming our knowledges through narrative (pp. 32–50). London: Ashgate.
    • Melbourne University runs a summer school ‘Professional Certificate in indigenous research’ that is open to all higher degree indigenous students from any university.

Regional, rural and remote students


Regional, rural and remote students face challenges different from their metropolitan counterparts. Moving to metropolitan areas is often not a viable option for studying, as accommodation costs can be prohibitive and students (particularly postgraduates) may have financial and family responsibilities.

Although the following video was created to encourage students to join the ACU postgraduate association, it is worth watching the latter-half as it captures different ACU postgraduate student perspectives.

ACU | Postgraduate Student Association (2017)


Barney, K. (2013). ‘Taking your mob with you’: giving voice to the experiences of Indigenous Australian postgraduate students. Higher Education Research and Development.

Cluett, L., & Skene, J. (2006). Improving the Postgraduate Coursework Student Experience: Barriers and the Role of the Institution. In A. O. P. S. Editior (Ed.), AUQA Occassional Publications Number 7 (Perth ed., Vol. 7, pp. 62-67). Melbourne: Australian Universities Quality Agency.

Crane, L., Kinash, S., Bannatyne, A., Judd, M-M., Eckersley, B., Hamlin, G., Partridge, H., Richardson, S., Rolf, H., Udas, K., & Stark, A. (2016). Engaging postgraduate students and supporting higher education to enhance the 21st century student experience. Final report prepared for the Learning and Teaching Support Unit, Australian Department of Education and Training.

DEET. (2015). Higher Education Statistics uCube.

Davis, G. (2017). Universities must produce postgraduates the new world needs. Financial Review.

OPSM. (2017). OPSM Statistical Digest – Section 3 – Postgraduate courses. Australian Catholic University.

Page last updated on 25/08/2020

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