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You are reading: A student-centred approach: Understanding higher education pathways through co-design

Dr. Mollie Dollinger1,  Dr. Andrew Harvey1, Dr. Ryan Naylor2, Dr. Marian Mahat3,Dr. Belinda D’Angelo1 

Executive Summary 

Provision of equitable access to higher education has never been simple. Disparities continue despite over 25 years of ongoing and directed efforts in policy and practice to improve participation across equity groups (Burke, Bennett & Bunn, 2019; Harvey, Burnheim & Brett, 2016). Recent policy reviews and research have highlighted the need for urgent policy reform (Halsey, 2017; Napthine et al., 2019) to address structural inequities in access, especially for those students from regional, rural, and remote (RRR) areas (Naylor & Mifsud, 2020; Pollard, 2018). In response to these commissioned reviews, the Australian Government has announced a series of policy changes including the reformulation of the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) (Australian Government, 2020). In the new formula, 45 per cent of funds will be specifically distributed to universities based on their share of students from a rural or regional area. Additional funding will also be directed into financial assistance for students from rural and regional areas, known as the Tertiary Access Payment, to support the costs of relocation. The future allocation of annual growth places to regional campuses (3.5%) is also substantially higher than the allocation for metropolitan campuses (1%). Such policy reforms are designed to increase rural and regional enrolments and may encourage universities to conduct further outreach to RRR schools and communities.  

Raising the RRR participation rate, however, requires not only greater engagement activity but strategies that are directly informed by rural and regional Australians and tailored to local perspectives and aspirations. One productive approach is to understand the views and aspirations of rural and regional community members through a process of participatory co-design. Co-design enables the perceptions of students, teachers, and carers to be authentically captured and compared. Importantly, co-design also promotes student autonomy, improves the perceived value of initiatives and solutions, and enables new programs and resources to be collaboratively re-designed (Beer & Lawson, 2017; Dollinger & Lodge, 2020; Watson et al., 2017).  

This report summarises key research findings and recommendations of a 2019–20 National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) funded project entitled, “A student-centred approach: understanding higher education pathways through co-design”. Through the project, we worked closely with RRR stakeholders, including students, school staff (e.g., teachers, principals, career practitioners), and carers (e.g., parents, guardians) to understand the barriers and motivations around postsecondary pathways and careers advice. The project team utilised a participatory design methodology that integrated stakeholder workshops to uncover participants’ perceptions, experiences, and ideas on what resources or interventions could help to inform students’ decision-making in postsecondary educational pathways and careers. Our workshops used a series of scaffolded activities aimed to generate user ideas such as mind maps, role-playing, and storyboarding that helped stakeholders reflect and communicate to the research team.  

Two major events impacted the fieldwork component of this study: the 2019–20 Australian bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. The results presented here, as a result, stem from four outer regional school visits in Western Victoria prior to travel restrictions put in place by the Victorian State Government. At each school, three workshops were held for the various participant cohorts (i.e. students, school staff, carers) (n=101). Previous research has highlighted the importance of early-stage interventions (e.g., Gore et al., 2017; Raciti & Dale, 2019), particularly starting in Year 7 and Year 8; hence we chose this age group as our focus for exploring students’ perspectives and experiences. To further investigate stakeholder perspectives, we also held 10 interviews with RRR principals across Victoria and Queensland. 

The aim of our project was to utilise a co-design approach to create fit-for-purpose, relevant resources that could benefit RRR communities. Working with our participants, the research team was able to create several key outputs including a toolkit for teachers and carers, a series of ten careers and pathways lesson plans and learning activities, and a recommended template for school-university partnerships. In this way, our adopted participatory design methodology allowed us to capture both empirical insights about participants’ perspectives on the optimal nature of intervention and/or outreach programs and resources and to translate those insights into tangible outputs that could be distributed across the community after the completion of the project.  

Our Findings:

What is the optimal nature, delivery, and timing of early-stage interventions (Year 7 and Year 8) for students from RRR backgrounds? 

Participants advocated for context-specific and community-driven initiatives that preserve the integrity and desirability of RRR communities, clarify how traditional RRR jobs (e.g., farming) are being modernised, and articulate the benefits of discipline-based knowledge to excel in these careers. School staff also indicated that learning activities could be designed to enable hands-on experiences that are more culturally aligned to how RRR students learn and live. It was also suggested that delivery of interventions occur more regularly, as determined through partnership with the schools, and potentially consider scaffolded and scalable models of engagement that promote celebratory milestones along the way. Finally, participants felt that industry engagement in interventions was critical towards helping clarify future pathways.  

What are the motivations and barriers of students and key influencers in aspiring to/supporting higher education pathways? 

Significantly, we found that participant cohorts (e.g., students, carers, school staff) held varying perceptions of the barriers to university. Students predominantly identified major barriers as costs and difficulty of study, carers expressed barriers stemming from perceptions of a rural-urban cultural divide as well as safety concerns, and school staff more readily referred to barriers around informational gaps (e.g., available course options) and industry engagement. Across cohorts, participants further noted the importance of family and/or peers in influencing students’ decisions to pursue postsecondary study. Other key findings in regard to this question included perceptions that regional campuses or online study options were of lesser quality than metropolitan-based universities and that participants felt there was a pressing need to better communicate the value of a university degree, especially for students who wished to stay in RRR communities.  

What resources can be co-designed with key stakeholders to support interventions and higher education pathways?   

Despite a range of information available on the internet, participants expressed the need to develop context-specific resources that articulated evidence-based findings. In particular, participants requested information that presented all postsecondary education options and compared benefits of each objectively. School staff also suggested creating university-school partnership templates that clarify roles, timelines, expectations, and shared goals. Numerous participants also shared their confusion and frustration over the information provided by Centrelink, as well as university websites, and indicated a need to co-design resources with participants in the future to ensure they are comprehensive and clear.  

Recommendations for higher education institutions: 

  • Strengthen RRR outreach programs and interventions that cater to early year levels (Year 7 and Year 8), potentially by redirecting HEPPP funding consistent with the new formula.   
  • Utilise RRR mentors and local industries to help students visualise their futures through peers, following the ‘nothing about us without us’ principle. 
  • Utilise online strategies to deliver scalable initiatives, including the development of online programs that are compatible with low-speed internet access to help disseminate key information and context-specific support.  
  • Adopt and expand co-design activities to explore and compare different stakeholder voices, especially student voices, which are too often filtered through others.  
  • Specifically address concerns of cost and difficulty in the development of RRR outreach activities to students, highlighting the operation of income-contingent loans, strong graduate outcomes, and growth mindsets.  
  • Develop resources and initiatives that address carers’ concerns about safety and travel. 
  • Utilise co-design activities with diverse stakeholders to redesign confusing or outdated resources, as well as university websites, to ensure information is accessible and clear.  
  • Work with carers, schools and industry to profile and raise the reputation of their local higher education campuses and/or online offerings. 
  • Develop and promote more alternative entry pathways, including open access and tuition-free enabling programs.  

Recommendations for the Australian Government and Departments: 

  • Consult with higher education equity and evaluation experts to develop a thorough review of the impact on the Higher Education Support Bill (Job-ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) (DESE, 2020) that includes the impact of any legislation on equity group postsecondary education participation, including RRR and Indigenous students.  
  • Utilise participatory design methods with students from equity groups and other relevant stakeholders to further develop reforms and understand the impact of any changes to course costs, student income support, and access levels. 
  • Review future policy consultation processes to ensure adequate and authentic input from any impacted stakeholders, including students, school staff (principals, teachers, career counsellors), and carers (parents, community members). 
  • Collaborate with RRR communities to redesign and improve messaging around transfer payments and services, including Centrelink payments, relocation scholarships, youth allowance, carer payments, and ABSTUDY (the group of payments for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students or apprentices).   
  • Modify Centrelink services in RRR communities to allow community members to book in-advance appointment times.  
  • Ensure that Regional University Centres (RUCs) include a strong focus on collaboration among vocational education and training institutions, higher education institutions, industry, and schools and to support ongoing collaboration through clear goals and targeted outcomes. Ensure that students and carers are directly involved in the operations of such hubs. 
  • Extend funding for regional research initiatives that explore diverse participant voices and support co-design of future programs and policy to ensure relevancy.  
  • Create funding opportunities for local communities to develop context-specific initiatives and programs. 
  • Support participatory design methods to co-create with schools and communities context-specific career guidance and postsecondary pathway information in early-stage interventions (e.g., Year 7) to raise students’ awareness and confidence.  
  • Modify existing Department of Education and Training (DET) (e.g., Research in Schools and Early Childhood setting (RISEC)) guidelines to allow for researchers to provide gift cards to community members and carers that will support greater participation and acknowledge the travel time and/or loss of work that participants may undergo in order to participate in studies.  
  • Leverage the new National Careers Institute (NCI) to promote regional careers connected to tertiary education, ensure that careers education with RRR perspectives is embedded within the Australian Curriculum, promote professional development resources for career advisors and teachers, and advocate for schools to have a strong ratio of careers teacher per student (which currently varies by state and sector).  
  • Support greater partnership with the Career Industry Council of Australia (CICA) to promote professional standards, offer RRR-specific online careers professional development opportunities, and benchmark practice.

Full report

Read the full report here: A student-centred approach: Understanding higher education pathways through co-design


1 La Trobe University

2 University of Sydney

3 The University of Melbourne

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