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You are reading: Narratives from Non-traditional Students in Higher Education

Suzanne Macqueen

Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at The University of Queensland in 2017. 


This study examines the experiences of non-traditional university students in higher education. Recommendations from the Review of Australian Higher Education (Bradley, Noonan, Nugent & Scales, 2008) have seen universities aiming to increase enrolments of school leavers, particularly those from low socioeconomic status backgrounds. Similar trends have occurred in other countries such as the United Kingdom, with mixed success. In addition to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, non-traditional students include those who are mature-age, have low achievement at secondary school, are from Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds (in Australia), belong to minority ethnic groups, or come from rural or remote areas. Despite widening participation initiatives, enrolments of students from less advantaged groups have remained largely static in recent decades, both in Australia and elsewhere.

Research has shown that students attracted to university in the context of widening participation policies are clustered in some particular institutions, based on location, admission requirements and the extent to which the institution itself genuinely participates in the policy initiative. Likewise, such students are more likely to enrol in some degrees than others. They are likely to be the first generation from their family to attend university. Students from less advantaged groups also experience higher education differently from their more advantaged peers, and face additional challenges. There are exceptions, with some non-traditional students succeeding in HE, but little is known about the factors which facilitate such success.

This thesis presents a longitudinal study which combines a Bourdieuian theoretical framework with a narrative methodology. Non-traditional students with a range of background variables were followed into, through and sometimes beyond their enrolment at the campuses of a regional Australian university. After an initial survey with students in a first year teacher education course, interviews were conducted with 13 selected non-traditional students. Up to five interviews were conducted with each student: at the beginning of their first year at university, then at the end of that year and the following three years, as the students moved through university or onto different pathways. Data were then combined to create a single, chronological narrative for each student. Narratives were examined to determine those factors which affected student journeys, either positively or negatively. This included consideration of Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction through his thinking tools of habitus, capital and field, as well as other themes raised in the literature on non-traditional student experiences.

This thesis demonstrates the resourcefulness of non-traditional students, which enabled the vast majority of students in this study to succeed in their endeavours at university. However, despite the success of those individuals, their stories present evidence of inequities which remain in the field of higher education. It is largely as a result of their own efforts and their sometimes ingenious use of limited resources that they have succeeded. There is much that could be done in policy and practice to facilitate a more equitable experience for students from under-represented backgrounds.

Read the full thesis. 

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