The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our campuses are situated. With a history spanning 60,000 years as the original educators, Indigenous peoples hold a unique place in Australia. We recognise the importance of their knowledge and culture, and reflect the principles of participation, equity, and cultural respect in our work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future, and consider it an honour to learn from our Indigenous colleagues, partners, and friends.

You are reading: COVID-19 has cooled low-SES parents’ access to ‘hot knowledge’ about supporting their university-bound children. But are ‘warm knowledge’ solutions up to the challenge?

Naomi Alberti and Maria Raciti, University of the Sunshine Coast

As Year 12 students across the country are celebrating the end of their secondary schooling, their parents are also breathing a sigh of relief after a difficult COVID-affected year. In the coming weeks, these recent school leavers will embark on the next phase of life — turning their career aspirations into reality. While some students have already received early enrolment offers, the vast majority will be waiting to the week before Christmas to find out whether they have been accepted into their chosen university and degree. This is a critical defining moment and one that comes after many years of planning.

The journey to this point typically begins in junior secondary school, when students and their parents start to think more seriously about careers. The decision to go to university (or not) occurs over many years. Families consider the pros and cons, square up the risks and rewards and crystal-ball gaze as to what future work prospects may be. The complexity of the decision to go (or not to go) to university has been amplified in our current COVID times.

Beyond the all-important cost-benefit analysis, parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds consider how going to university will impact their child’s social, emotional and mental wellbeing. It is well established that parents play an influential role in this decision-making process. Having never gone to university themselves, many parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds feel ill-equipped to give good advice and to support their child’s aspirations. These parents often turn to ‘hot knowledge’ networks, being people in their social grapevine such as family and friends, as they are often considered to be the most credible sources of information.

The power of these ‘hot knowledge’ networks cannot be underestimated, particularly for parents and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Research from the United Kingdom as well as  Australia has found that the ‘hot knowledge’ grapevine, comprised of trusted, informal information from family and friends, is more influential than the ‘cold knowledge’ provided by universities to prospective students and their parents primarily through generic, non- or low-interactive guides, prospectuses and websites. Studies indicate that such university-generated ‘cold knowledge’ is often viewed with scepticism.

Between these two extremes is ‘warm knowledge’ which derives from momentary connections between parents, students, and university staff or student ambassadors at open days. ‘Warm knowledge’ is often considered credible, and some studies have suggested that student ambassadors are regarded as reliable and relatable sources of information.

COVID-19 has brought a raft of new challenges, restricting personal interactions and disrupting ‘hot knowledge’ networks. In our new socially distanced world have the lines between ‘hot knowledge’, ‘warm knowledge’ and ‘cold knowledge’ become blurred? Is ‘warm’ the new ‘hot’? How do we prevent ‘warm’ becoming ‘cold’? And, what does this mean for universities and their virtual engagement and equity outreach endeavours?

The immense impact of COVID-19 has forced many universities to redefine their traditional open days and deliver them online. In 2020, most universities provided a plethora of information through academic presentations, virtual tours, and video resources. However, some universities paired up ‘cold knowledge’ information with the option to one-on-one live chat with university students and staff, creating opportunities for ‘warm knowledge’ which may be perceived as more authentic and trustworthy due to the human element. Such ‘warm knowledge’ virtual efforts may lack the credibility of a friend or family member; however, they are likely considered more trustworthy than the formal information provided by universities.

In the absence of traditional, physical open days, students and parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds have little choice but to immerse themselves in virtual university experiences. As ‘hot knowledge’ is preferred and ‘cold knowledge’ avoided, the challenge for universities is to find ways to create ‘warm knowledge’ virtual environments where parents and prospective students from low socioeconomic backgrounds can connect in meaningful ways. These connections foster students’ sense of belonging and help equip parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds to support their university-bound children.

Illustration by Suzanne Richards, NCSEHE