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You are reading: Investigating the impact of social inclusion: A case study of seven widening participation programs at Macquarie University

Written by Dr Richard Reed, Stathi Karavias and Rebecca Smith


This research is currently investigating the impact of widening access and participation programs funded through the federal government’s Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program (HEPPP) at Macquarie University in Sydney. The evaluation represents a critical part of the University’s commitment to enhancing educational opportunities for students from under-represented backgrounds.

The evaluative research has two broad objectives. In its formative aspect, it aims to contribute to program development and to inform the University’s teaching, learning and social inclusion strategies.

Of equal significance, however, is the project’s anticipated contribution to wider national debates about best practice and to advocacy of social inclusion practice. By documenting the impact of social inclusion work, the research is creating an invaluable evidence-base that helps to illustrate that the University’s use of public funds is effective, efficient and correctly aligned with local and national government priorities. 

The research began in mid-2012, and is due to deliver its final findings at the end of 2014. It consists of detailed case study based evaluation of seven programs designed to support the access and participation of students from under-represented backgrounds at Macquarie University. Collectively, the case studies target the full range of student equity groups (students with disabilities and those from low socioeconomic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, rural and remote and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds) and also a range of social inclusion activities.

These include:

  • raising ambitions and aspirations
  • increasing capacity and skills
  • tackling structural disadvantage, and
  • enhancing the student experience by cultivating a sense of belonging and engagement.

The programs under evaluation also cover the full life-cycle of social inclusion work as envisaged by the Council of Europe’s recent recommendations on ensuring quality in higher education, encompassing facilitating access, through to successful participation and completion, and entrance into the labour-market.

The research design is structured in accordance with a cyclical approach that facilitates iteration and thus ensures that data collection instruments are flexible and responsive, both to changes in the structure or key personnel of programs under evaluation, and to emergent trends in the data. The precise methodologies have been developed in collaboration with key stakeholders in order to ensure that the methodology used is appropriate, practical and minimally disruptive, and thus vary from program to program. Broadly speaking, the research deploys a range of qualitative and quantitative research instruments that combine narrative-driven evidence from focus groups and interviews with survey data and statistics related to the application, retention and successful completion rates of students from equity backgrounds. Collectively these instruments have been designed so as to capture the voices of a range of program stakeholders, including school and university students, school teachers, project leads, community representatives and other key informants. This diversity of input and methodology is intended to maximise triangulation of the data and thus boost its validity and the subsequent findings and recommendations based on the research findings.

The research is principally driven by program objectives and pre-conceived indicators of success. However its instruments are also intended to capture evidence of broader impact in order to ensure as many impacts are evidenced and understood as possible, such as putative changes in the capacities or attitudes of program facilitators and in the culture and working practice of the University and its partners.

The research’s dissemination strategy has been designed both to maximise the project outcomes and to support the key drivers of social inclusion strategy. As well as forming the basis of conference presentations, research papers and evidence-based advocacy, formative findings are therefore also communicated on an ongoing basis throughout the lifetime of the research to project leads, key stakeholders and partners through interim reports and presentations. The dissemination aims to empower stakeholders to reflect on the possible implications of the findings and thus to effect informed decisions concerning program development and resourcing.

A number of indicative findings have already emerged against each of the programs under evaluation. Much of the findings have so far been dominated by the role of recognition – that is, actively acknowledging students’ backgrounds without seeking to address some perceived deficit – in positively altering students’ self-concepts and thereby raising self-efficacy, aspiration and academic performance. Beyond this, there is also emergent evidence of the capacity such programs have to impact the perceptions both students and their families and communities have of higher education. When combined, this evidence speaks powerfully of the capacity of social inclusion activity to support the access and success of students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Nevertheless, the data is also extremely complex, and reveals something of the multi-dimensionality of structural disadvantage and the interconnectedness of these dimensions. The evaluation has thus also provoked a number of broader questions concerning defining impact and attributing causality. While the evaluation cannot expect to deliver final verdicts on these issues, the findings will nuance our understanding of the interaction between disadvantage and intervention, and, assuming the indicative findings are reflected in the final output, constitute an evidence-based critique of a number of the misconceptions concerning quality and equity that currently prevail within and beyond the higher education sector.

Dr Richard Reed is currently working at Macquarie University as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow within the office of the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Teaching, Learning and Diversity. Richard previously worked in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he initiated a number of voluntary educational school engagement activities with former paramilitary groups as part of broader efforts to build peace by combating the conflict’s legacy of enduring social division and exclusion. The direct experience of the transformative potential of education has reinforced his commitment to advancing educational opportunities for all, to deploying academic research and to establishing effective links between the academic and community sectors as tools for effecting social change and tackling social injustice.