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You are reading: Exploring the Experience of Low-SES Students via Enabling Pathways

Written by Dr Chad Habel, Dr Kirsty Whitman (University of Adelaide) & Jennifer Stokes (University of South Australia)

Since the 1980s, Enabling Pathways have been one of the main ways that prospective students from low-SES backgrounds have been able to enter into universities. These programs, often known as Foundation Studies or Preparatory Programs, provide both access to generalist degrees and enabling experiences to enhance the potential for student success within degree-level studies. This project builds on qualitative research undertaken at the University of Adelaide to explore the experiences of low-SES students in these programs.

Often the focus of analysis in these programs is quantitative: how many students, what retention rate, the numbers that pass into degree programs. Recent research has shifted the focus to a qualitative analysis of student experience in these programs, which unearthed rich data about SES, class, and students’ sense of belonging (or not) in academic institutions that had always felt out of reach to them (Habel and Whitman 2016). This research returned to these same participants after they had experienced degree level-studies at their university, to explore their subsequent experiences in light of the previous findings. In addition, it sought to explore the experiences of students who didn’t quite ‘make it’, and for one reason or another did not articulate into a degree. Finally, it compared the experiences of these students at the University of Adelaide with those who had undertaken a similar pathway at the University of South Australia, a very different institution with a distinct mission, structure and program.

The theoretical framework of this project drew on critical pedagogy, Bourdieusian field theory, and phenomenology. Paolo Friere’s insights into ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ are essential in dealing with low-SES students, and critical pedagogy encourages a focus on the systemic disadvantage that students occupy prior to entering formal education. Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’ is very useful to explore the deep assumptions in educational institutions and, again, their links to social systems and disadvantage. Finally, this project employed the insights of Phenomenology to allow a focus on the lived experience of students from low-SES backgrounds and they ways that they give meaning to the new experience of entering into university.

This research interviewed 20 students from the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia who had participated in an Enabling Program. Six of these were reinterviewed from previous research, while 14 were interviewed for the first time, with six of those moving into Bachelor of Science degrees, a relatively uncommon pathway for students from enabling programs. Two of them had not progressed into degrees, for a variety of reasons, but had also been interviewed previously which provided a good opportunity to compare their experiences over time. A limitation of the sampling was that all these students were relatively high-achieving: it proved almost impossible to engage with students who had significantly struggled in their studies.

Participants partook in semi-structured interviews (usually located in the university) which lasted from an hour to an hour and a half. Those who had been interviewed previously were invited to review their transcript, and the broad findings of the previous research were used as a springboard for discussion. Those who had never been interviewed before were taken through a broadly chronological structure of discussion, aiming to elicit their experiences of university through reflecting on their past in the Enabling Program as well as their current degree-level experience.

Given the diversity of participants, the findings from this research were complex and multi-faceted. Every one of the participants remembered their experience of their Enabling Program with fondness and gratitude, and most expressed some feeling or experience of substantial transformation as a result as well as a sense that their Enabling Program laid the basis for a very positive and productive study career. However, the interviews elicited some troubling experiences of adversity which do not fit easily into a marketable narrative of social mobility through transformative education. Notable differences emerged between students from the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia, including distinct responses to the branding of the respective universities as well as a sense of belonging to different organisational units based on structures unique to their institution. Overall, though, all the students interviewed had some balance of positive transformation as well as adversity which suggests that the ‘social mobility’ discourse present in institutional and public policy discourse needs further interrogation.

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Habel, C., Whitman, K. & Stokes, J. (2016). Exploring the Experience of Low-SES Students via Enabling Pathways. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.
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