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You are reading: Community influence on university aspirations: Does it take a village…?

Jenny Gore, Leanne Fray, Sally Patfield and Jess Harris

Executive Summary

This project, Community influence on university aspirations: Does it take a village…?, examined how post-school aspirations are formed within, and shaped by, the communities in which young people live. While “aspirations” have become a key feature of Australian higher education policy and practice in an effort to widen the participation of under-represented groups, research attention has often been directed towards individual, familial, and school-related effects in the complex process of aspiration formation. As a result, comparatively little is known about the role of local communities in shaping what students imagine for their post-school futures and how they are positioned to navigate these futures.

Two key questions were addressed in this project:

  1. What impact does community have on student aspirations for higher education?
  2. What community factors are important for increasing equity participation?

To answer these questions, we investigated the structural characteristics of the communities in which young people live as they form their post-school aspirations, as well as the subjective experiences and perceptions of young people and adults within these communities.

Data used in the project were drawn from two existing studies on the post-school aspirations of school students enrolled in Years 3–12 across a diverse range of communities within New South Wales, Australia, together with additional data collected from key community members. Taking a mixed methods approach, we analysed the effect of community-level variables on university aspirations; identified a number of case study communities for further analysis; and undertook case studies in a sub-sample of eight communities.

The eight case study communities were: Damperia, a higher socioeconomic status (SES) community located in a major city with many residents coming from Anglo-Australian backgrounds; Teasel, a higher SES community located in a major city with many residents coming from ethnically diverse backgrounds; Excelsa, a lower SES community located in a major city with a large retiree population; Pimlea, a lower SES, inner regional community with a high proportion of residents not in the labour force; Ironbark, an outer regional, mid SES community with many residents coming from ethnically diverse backgrounds; Olearia, a lower SES, remote community with a high proportion of Indigenous Australians and high levels of unemployment; Muellerina, a lower SES, inner regional community with a high proportion of Indigenous Australians; and Oldfieldii, a mid SES, outer regional community with a large proportion of residents who care for children and where vocational education is the most common educational pathway.

Major findings of the project were:

  • Across all case study communities, higher education is the most popular educational aspiration, although the proportion of students aspiring to this pathway differs across geographic and socio-cultural dimensions.
  • Aspirations for university are “high” in many disadvantaged communities, challenging the simplistic view that young people from equity target groups have “low” aspirations for their futures.
  • Across all case study communities, aspirations for university are higher than existing levels of educational attainment; similar trends are evident when examining the proportion of young people who aspire to professional careers, which far exceeds the proportion of local residents working in these careers — even in urban, higher socioeconomic communities.
  • On average, females are more likely than males to aspire to university across the case study communities, while males are more likely than females to aspire to technical and further education (TAFE).
  • The careers that young people aspire to are highly gendered, regardless of the community in which they live. Commonly, females aspire to be teachers and veterinarians and to work in the arts. In contrast, sports-related careers are popular among males, as well as policing, the defence force, and engineering.
  • Students in higher socioeconomic urban communities aspire to more prestigious occupations, on average, in comparison to students living in regional and remote areas and communities characterised by disadvantage.
  • Aspirations are formed within very different contexts, in which “community” can be seen as a form of collective socialisation, as an amalgam of time and place, and as a symbolic boundary. That is:
    • “Community” acts as an important site of socialisation, in combination with home and school.
    • Aspirations are not only linked to the future, but also to time and place.
    • The territorial and relational elements of “community” can coalesce to form a symbolic boundary, thus shaping views of the world.
  • The fusion of geographic, structural, and relational elements within a community work in both overt and more subtle ways to shape aspirations and the capacity for young people to navigate the pathway towards their imagined futures.

Recommendations for communities (including schools and community organisations) and higher education providers are offered at the end of the report.

Read the full report: Community influence on university aspirations: Does it take a village…?