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You are reading: Success and Failure in Higher Education on uneven playing fields

Bernadette Walker-Gibbs, Rola Ajjawi, Emma Rowe, Andrew Skourdoumbis, Matthew Krehl Edward Thomas, Sarah O’Shea, Sue Bennett, Brandi Fox and Peter Alsen

Executive Summary

Higher education is in a state of massification (Sharma, 2008). More people are accessing higher education than ever before, and targets are being set to further increase these levels of participation. It is in the context of widening participation agendas that this study examines student aspiration, success and failure within their first experiences of assessment at university, to improve knowledge and practice to better support students from low socioeconomic status (low SES) groups. Exploring forms of cultural and social ‘capital’ that first year university students draw upon from their prior schooling to support their transitional journey into higher education, specifically we aim to better understand contributing influences on students to ensure success in higher education.

The questions that guide this study are:

  • To what extent do Australian higher education reports informing current policy account for experiences of student success and/or failure?
  • How do first year equity students experience academic failure and success?
  • How do first year equity students mobilise and make sense of their first experiences of failure and success in higher education?

Crucial to these agendas are an examination of who is currently afforded a place in higher education and who may eventually be afforded a place. School sectors are becoming increasingly segregated as some families, with predominantly middle/upper class backgrounds, are able to choose where they send their children to school while others are not afforded the same privilege, creating social hierarchies. Our review of key documents highlights that students are entering university from increasingly diverse backgrounds and this brings into question whether the definition of equity should be extended beyond low SES in government policy.

The study includes a secondary quantitative analysis of existing anonymised institutional data. Participants in this part of the study comprised 7,239 domestic students (2,744 males, 4,495 females) enrolled across four undergraduate courses (commerce, education, nursing and civil engineering) in one academic year (2016) from four different faculties at various campuses of a large metropolitan and regional university in Victoria. The students ranged in age from 16.91 years to 71.7 years (M = 24.49 years, SD = 6.52 years). This phase of the data collection investigated the effects of SES and Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) on student failure and drop out rates. More specifically, when controlling for other student characteristics and demographic factors, the unique contributions of SES and ATAR are of interest to the key findings of the study. The significance of failing one unit identified that this group of students were at higher risk of dropping out than students who did not fail any units. Three variables that were seen to statistically significantly influence academic failure and drop out were: entry based on ATAR (versus non-ATAR); studying part-time and off-campus (external); and being mature age (over 24). However, the effect size on academic failure and drop out varied from small or small to medium. It is important to note that an examination of interaction effects identified the highest failure and drop out rates amongst low SES and part-time students. Significantly for this study, SES as a categorisation alone is not adequate for predicting academic failure and drop out, supporting an argument for widening the definition of equity groupings.

Within the agenda to widen access to higher education across Australia and internationally, attention is often drawn to the quantifiable measurement of impact and progress. Taking an approach which acknowledges the complexity of access in higher education, we have used multiple methods and have also drawn on qualitative data to gain a richer understanding of the ways to examine what influences and informs student aspiration, success and failure in higher education. To this end, focus groups and interviews were held with 24 students across two higher education institutions, Deakin University in Victoria and the University of Wollongong in New South Wales. Ten of the 24 students were enrolled at Deakin University and 14 were recruited from the student body of the University of Wollongong. Taking heed from the quantitative findings, the qualitative data was collected from students across a range of equity and diversity groupings and did not focus solely on SES, nor ATAR. The research was conducted at the University of Wollongong during the first half of the academic year in both institutions.

The key findings from the qualitative data demonstrated that the connections between first year students’ experience of success and failure are related to outcomes of their first assessment in higher education. For students transitioning from secondary school into higher education or coming into higher education after taking time off from formal education, receiving high marks/grades on their first assignments reaffirms them as belonging in higher education. When they are not as successful on the first assignment, often they relate this to them not knowing what is expected both on the assignment and how it will be assessed. This can lead first year students to question if they belong in higher education.

Support networks and structures are important in the ways in which students experience success. How and where they mobilise these networks from multiple entities both within and external to higher education institutions are also significant; this includes support by family and friends, Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Programs (HEPPP) and programs such as Peer Assisted Study Support (PASS), and support and feedback from lecturers and tutors. It would appear that there is a trend for students to access supports from further afield than directly from the academic staff within their degree of study. This disconnection between the academic and the student is also related to the notion of success and belonging, and failure and not belonging in higher education.

The findings suggest that SES alone might not be an adequately sensitive category for predicting academic failure and drop out, and the literature for some time has suggested there is a need for a shift in the higher education sector in the way in which equity students are considered. The findings of this study illustrate that clichéd and simplistic understandings of equity are no longer useful. Alongside this we would argue for consideration of a change in funding arrangements for students to include a widening model of point in time and place supports for students to ensure their likelihood of success prior to and throughout their first year of higher education.

Future research that examines more in-depth pathways to higher education than are currently considered in the Australian context are recommended. Many of the students from this study could be considered as part of multiple equity groupings. As the diversity of our students increase, seeking tailored support strategies embedded within the curricula for the students in front of us matters to ensure that the increasingly uneven playing fields are addressed before they become even more segregated and exclusive.

Read the full report here.