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How research and best practice can improve student equity

Saying what we stand for in universities and the tertiary education system is much easier than real achievements evidenced by lived experiences and student outcomes.  There are few universities right now that do not claim a mission about making the world a better place or that they create environments where people want to work and study.  Whether the experience of staff and students reflects these objectives is a different thing, particularly whether individuals feel ‘seen’ or even that they matter. Evidence from staff and student engagement data, alongside students’ reported  experience and participation patterns all suggest otherwise.

And yet, there is great excitement, hope and anticipation in being part of a system with new policy measures that aim to allow a doubling of graduates by 2050 with most of the growth to come from equity groups.  But are these goals truly realistic?

We have many that look to the Accord and its interim report and believe they can see their ideas, hopes and frameworks in its spikey ideas, in its specific proposals, and in its wider aspirations.  But how realistic is it, to assume that growth in student numbers will necessarily result in greater participation and success for those from equity groups?

Plans are one thing, but outcomes are what really matter.  And there is great research and lots of continuously emerging best practice that can shed light on what outcomes are likely from plans we might put in place.

The goal of a doubling of graduates mostly from equity groups is probably shared as an aspiration by most of us.  It is in some contrast to the current UK government’s critique of the number of graduates in their system some 60 years after a Robbins report had established a principle for tertiary education being available to all that wanted and stood to benefit from it. It is very disappointing to see applicants to UK university entry in 2024 falling most amongst those learners who are currently under-represented in the education system.

Research has repeatedly highlighted the fundamental issues that offer almost insurmountable  barriers to genuine student equity in Australia.  At their heart is student poverty. Financial support, particularly in rural and regional areas, can both limit the possibility of university attendance and also, restrict timely completion . This is despite our world-leading HECS/HELP system, and the attempts of university scholarship programs to support learners. Practice in a place such as Arizona State University demonstrates how support to complete is as critical to allowing equity student applicants to succeed as anything we might do to make our educational spaces appear attractive to them, and can benefit from employer partners.

Research also shows that pathways within an integrated tertiary system are critical for the route many from equity groups find themselves taking to eventual higher education completions.  Our barriers to transitions between VET and HE, that suit our institutions more than they do learners, are inequitable in how they impact different groups of learners.  The ability to recognise the competences and skills that learners have already acquired from prior learning and other experiences is a key means of increasing equity and facilitating access. The requirement that learners have to spend time studying in ways we prescribe them to follow, is inequitable to time poor and time inflexible equity groups.  It is a strong rationale behind the competency-based education approaches at places such as Western Governor’s University in the US which have achieved significantly improved outcomes in equity group completions for courses that cost a fraction of research-intensive university alternatives.

Research shows that participation by equity groups is informed by the complex diversity of our student cohorts . There is a clear argument that any assumption that students are all from secure and well-resourced backgrounds as 18-24 year-olds for whom study is straight-forward, is out of step with realities. Students with complexity in their make-up and circumstances, need to be seen and to feel they matter if attaining higher education qualifications is to become achievable. The research in this area is backed up by best practice examples such as the success story of Southern New Hampshire University in the US.

And the precarious position our staff have been placed into over recent years, is still clearly evident. This has consequential implications for both staff and student equity throughout our system in both employment practices and student experiences.

Finally, research shows that persistence is a key requirement for students in higher education not only to apply and complete but to achieve transitions into employment and lifelong learning that are enduring.  Our demonstration of genuine commitment to this is a major student equity challenge. Some examples of places doing it well are often complemented by strong partnerships with employers as are seen at Waterloo, Surrey and Coventry.

It is great that we have a plan for growth in equity groups graduating from tertiary education in the next 30 years. It is really good that we had so many spiky ideas about how to achieve this. We now need to monitor outcomes as we implement some of them.  If the student support measures we put in place now are well meaning but become overly bureaucratic and generate unintended consequences we should acknowledge that.

We need our learning environments to be places where it is safe to be different as students and staff. And we need our system one where it is safe to be different as institutions.

Farmers are soon aware of when their soil needs to be fertilised to continue to generate good harvests. It is sometimes easier and more realistic to fertilise our system with good ideas from research and best practice when financial resources are limited. To continue to say no more is possible on equity goals without more resources might be ignoring the lessons other sectors have learnt about innovation and new business models.

We must monitor outcomes in seeking to grow our crop of numbers of equity graduates, and them providing the skills we need for future work. That needs us to see them in the first place and recognise their lived experiences and show them that they matter. We need to care about them more than we care about ourselves and our places in rankings.  And this needs significant shifts in our culture, governance and leadership.  We need to shift from a sector where the marginalized minority is rarely empowered to be involved in designing, implementing and monitoring of diversity policies and strategies, to one where diverse groups are resourced and empowered to participate at leadership tables. We discuss many of these issues in a future episode of the HEDx podcast you will shortly be able to access on the HEDx website or on Apple and Spotify platforms.

First published in Campus Review on 23rd October 2023.

Professor Martin Betts, Founder of HEDx

Professor Paul Harpur, University of Queensland and Universities Enable

Professor Sarah O’Shea, Dean of Graduate Research, Charles Sturt University