Sarah O’Shea

Graduate employment: Right now, the ‘fair-go’ isn’t fair enough

A cornerstone of Australian values is the idea of a ‘fair go’: equality of opportunity regardless of personal circumstances. However, when it comes to higher education, decades of equity data reveal how university systems have failed to ensure this ‘fair go’. Nowhere is this more noted than in relation to gaining employment post-graduation.

Getting a job after completing a university degree is rarely straightforward. Only a minority of students walk straight from the graduating stage into permanent employment. However, students from equity backgrounds experience markedly different post-graduation trajectories compared to their peers from non-equity groups. In Australia,  students from a poorer background, living with a disability or with a first language other than English, consistently encounter ‘labour-market disadvantage’  with lower levels of employment 6 months after graduation. This is particularly noted for those living with disability, with a full-time employment rate of 68.4%, compared to 79.5% for those with no reported disability.

Statistics only tell one part of the story

Disparities in securing employment or job conditions are only some of the inequities experienced. Recent research indicates that those graduates from more diverse backgrounds also 1) have less opportunity to achieve ‘high status’ professional roles (e.g. medicine, law), 2) report differences in hourly wages and also, 3) experience more complex, interrupted pathways to employment.

There are many reasons for these differences not least of which is these graduates may not have access to necessary, but often obscure, networks or information needed to obtain professional roles. For example, graduates who were the first in their families or communities to attend university do not have a ‘guide on the side’ who can provide insight or advice about the fundamentals of job seeking. In recent research, graduates repeatedly told me how this was a hidden, but significant, barrier. For example, one survey respondent explained how seeking employment after graduation was like “navigating uncharted water”, another reflected on the difficulty of “understanding […] the white collar world” and sadly one defeatedly stated: “I was very ignorant in what came after.”

What’s the difference?

In their reflections, there was a perception of “difference” that was implicitly and overtly experienced within the workplace, tied up with their family background and biography:

Perhaps if someone else in my family had graduated and embarked upon a professional career they also could have given me advice about building the foundations early, such as doing internships and volunteering in places.

What this and other quotes indicated was that while these students had received a university degree, there was more practical and applied knowledges needed to achieve their end goals. Not only did they need to aim for good grades but also, participate in internships, gain volunteer experience, network with future employers and proactively engage with the careers services on-campus. As one student so eloquently summed up, many ‘assumed the degree would be all I needed’.

The promises of university education were not delivered for some and the frustration and anger of this situation was palpable in survey responses:

The universities just pretend that getting that piece of paper is all you need, like they are selling ice cream. (Female Survey Respondent)

We need to think about entry and exit

The last two decades have seen huge changes to the university sector with increasing numbers and diversity in our student populations. While policy and procedures have engaged with the implications of this as students consider and enter university, those who are exiting the higher education system have not attracted a similar level of attention. We are experiencing a highly competitive job market with a global oversupply of graduates and this, combined with the need to be ‘employable’ means that those students with less access to necessary material and personal resources may be at a marked disadvantage within the graduate employment market.

The recent Accord Interim Discussion paper proposes a range of actions designed to ensure that the skills and knowledge developed by students are readily transferable to the workplace. The paper calls for a ‘modular, stackable, integrated approach to course design’ complemented by a framework for coordinated work placements as well as ‘earn while you learn’ and other financial support for undergraduates.

What they need

But what the graduates in this study indicated was a need for more practical and applied careers-related support deliberately targeted at that final transition: the move between university into employment. Suggested initiatives included proactive careers advice contextualised to different stages of the degree journey; ongoing professional mentoring that commenced early in the degree and extended beyond graduation; opportunities to have meaningful contact with professionals with similar (equity) backgrounds to their own; and explicit teaching about protocols and expectations within a professional workplace environment. Those changes are not difficult but such initiatives do require a ‘shift’ in mindset across the university sector – to one that more readily embraces and desires a relationship with students that extends beyond the graduation stage.

Sarah O’Shea is the dean, graduate research at Charles Sturt University, a Churchill Fellow, principal fellow of the Higher Education Academy and leading an ARC Discovery Project exploring the persistence behaviours of first in family students.

Education: the five concerns we should debate right now

Meghan Stacey on the trouble with teaching

Deb Hayes on making school systems more equitable.

Phillip Dawson on how we should treat ChatGPT.

Sarah O’Shea on widening participation at university.

Scott Eacott on the Productivity Commission’s review of the National School Reform Agreement.

The trouble with teaching by Meghan Stacey

Last year was a big one for teachers. In NSW, where I live and work, years of escalating workload, the relentless intensity of the job and salaries that are declining in real terms were compounded by reports of debilitating staff shortages leading to considerable strike action. The latter half of 2022 then saw a NSW inquiry and a federal action plan aiming to address such shortages. Nevertheless, government responses to these issues have been critiqued as focusing too much on supply and not enough on retention. Concerns about teachers’ working conditions do not seem to have really been heard, and there’s not much point talking about supply, or any other challenge for education in 2023, until we truly have that conversation. 

Australian teachers work long hours, and complete considerable administrative labour when compared internationally. It is true that some steps are being taken to reduce teachers’ administrative load, but not always in a way that recognises the intellectual and creative complexity of their work. And according to the Teachers Federation, when NSW schools go back in just a few days, they will be starting their year with a whopping 3,300 vacant positions. So there is much still to be done, and I wonder: in 2023, will action be taken that adequately addresses the depth of disquiet rumbling amongst the profession?

Making our schooling systems more equitable by Deb Hayes

This draws on parts of my book with Craig Campbell.

In terms of funding, how much is enough to provide a good education to an Australian child? This question has occupied policymakers for decades. 

In 1973, a Whitlam-appointed committee proposed eight school categories A-H, A being the highest. It argued that support for schools in Category A with resource levels already above agreed targets be phased out because government aid could not be justified for maintaining or raising standards beyond those that publicly funded schools could hope to achieve by the end of the decade.

Today, Commonwealth funding for schools is needs-based and calculated according to the Schooling Resource Standard, which estimates how much public funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs. 

Sounds good? Well, not really, because schools that already have enough to provide a good education receive federal government funding due to an amendment by Fraser to Whitlam’s proposal. Under current funding arrangements, public schools in all states except the ACT will be funded at 91% of their SRS index or less by 2029.

It’s time to pause government funding to non-government schools that already have enough to provide a good education until all public schools are funded at 100% of their SRS.

Challenges for Widening Participation by Sarah O’Shea

2023 will usher in both challenges and opportunities for widening participation in Australian higher education, not least of which is the predicted growth in school leavers. Those born under the Costello ‘baby boom’ of 2005-2008 will be leaving school from 2023, with an almost 20% increase in this age cohort by 2030 (Productivity Commission, 2022). While this is good news for a post pandemic higher education sector, ensuring equity in the face of greater competition for places will be an important challenge moving forward for the sector. 

Given the greater number and diversity of participants, how we conceive and categorise what ‘equity’ is, will be key. The current six equity categories were defined in the eighties and research has indicated the limitations of these outdated classifications (Tomaszewski et al, 2018). The diversity of current and future student populations requires expanded definitions of ‘who’ our equity students are, definitions are that are both more granular in nature and also, responsive to emerging trends in higher education participation. Any changes in definitions need to be accompanied by a better measurement of cumulative disadvantage, recognising that students often belong to multiple equity groups and that this membership has distinct impacts at different stages of the student life cycle (Tomaszewski et al., 2020). 

For 2023 and beyond, contextualised and targeted approaches to supporting growing diverse populations will be required. Approaches that cater to both the uniqueness of our students and also, specific learning environments. Of course, such bespoke approaches to widening participation are resource intensive. In an environment of reduced funding and pressure to meet equity performance benchmarks, this too will be a challenge for institutions, particularly regional universities who are often serving the most disadvantaged communities. 

ChatGPT is the least capable it will ever be. What can we do about it. By Phillip Dawson

I asked ChatGPT to “Write 200 words about the challenge that ChatGPT poses to education
in 2023”. It gave me a 283 word response, starting with:
“ChatGPT poses several challenges to education in 2023. One of the most significant
challenges is that it has the ability to generate human-like text, which makes it difficult to
distinguish between machine-generated content and that written by a human. This can lead
to concerns about plagiarism and the authenticity of information, making it more difficult
for educators to ensure that students are producing original work.”
Like much of the media commentary, ChatGPT has jumped straight to academic integrity
concerns. Yes, this is a challenge. Assessment has become harder thanks to the emergenceide
of generative artificial intelligence.
But that’s not the whole picture. These tools are getting more and more sophisticated, and
are already used in society to be creative, have fun, and get stuff done. Rather than focusing
so much on the threats posed by ChatGPT traditional assessment practices, we might need
to question how fit for purpose our assessments are for the world our students will inhabit
when they graduate. Because these tools are currently the least capable they’ll ever be.
I hope 2023 is the year where we double down on what we could call “future-authentic
assessment”: assessment that considers what’s likely to happen to the world.

Where’s the discussion of funding? Scott Eacott on the Productivity Commission’s review of the National School Reform Agreement.

Setting national education policy is a complex task. This is made even more difficult in Australia given the constitutional responsibility for education lies with the states and territories but the
commonwealth government controls the finances. Therefore, while legislation and national
declarations establish the social contract between government and its citizens (equity and
excellence in school provision), jurisdictional sovereignty can get in the way of reform.

Friday’s release of the Productivity Commission’s review of the National School Reform Agreement
(NSRA) highlights the complexity. The NSRA is a joint agreement between the Commonwealth,
states, and territories with the objective of delivering high quality and equitable education for all
Australian students (the social contract). There is a lot to unpack in the review with considerable
media attention on the failure of the NSRA to improve student outcomes. I want to raise three key
systemic points:

1) Common critiques of federalism focus on overlap in responsibilities (e.g., funding of schools) and
duplication as state and territory groups replicate national policies and initiatives (e.g.,
professional standards, curriculum). This imposes artificial divisions in a complex policy domain
whose actions impact well beyond state or territory borders. There are reduced opportunities
for engagement, surrendering some of the strengths of a federal system of government and the
removal of important failsafe mechanisms, as each jurisdiction seeks to assert its independence
and sovereignty. Achieving uniformity across eight jurisdictions is difficult, time consuming, and
often reduces initiatives to the lowest common denominator.
2) Despite some concerns about new data points (e.g., additional testing, administrative
paperwork), the review calls for greater reporting and transparency from states and territories.
In most – if not all – cases, the data points already exist. What the review argues is for a common
basis for new targets but greater flexibility in how jurisdictions pursing delivering on them. This
flexibility comes with greater accountability for performance of reforms against benchmarks.
That is, each jurisdiction will be held to accountable for how their reforms deliver on targets.
Such reporting would make it clear when reforms are, and are not, working for students.

3) Funding was excluded as a topic for discussion in the review. Since at least the first Gonski
Report, the funding of Australian schools has been a central issue. As the NSRA was established
on the back of a $319B funding deal for schools, the achievement of its objective cannot be
achieved unless funding mechanisms ensure equitable distribution of funds to schools and
specifically the targeting of funding to those schools and students most disadvantaged.

As noted, there is plenty to unpack, and the above just point to some key systemic issues in design in a
process focused on improving outcomes for students and holding jurisdictions to account for their
reforms in meeting agreed targets.

Meghan Stacey is a senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Education, researching in the fields of the sociology of education and education policy and is the director of the Bachelor of Education (Secondary). Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it. She is an associate editor, The Australian Educational Researcher Links: Twitter & University Profile

Debra Hayes is professor of education and equity, and head of the University of Sydney School of Education and Social Work.  Her most recent book (with Ruth Lupton) is Great Mistakes in Education Policy: How to avoid them in the Future (Policy Press, 2021). She tweets at @DrDebHayes.

Professor Phillip (Phill) Dawson is the Associate Director of the Centre for Research inAssessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE) at Deakin University. His two latest books are Defending Assessment Security in a Digital World: Preventing E-Cheating and Supporting Academic Integrity in Higher Education (Routledge, 2021) and the co-edited volume Re-imagining University Assessment in a Digital World (Springer, 2020). Phill’s work on cheating is part of his broader research into assessment, which includes work on assessment design and feedback. In his spare time Phill performs improv comedy and produces the academia-themed comedy show The Peer Revue.

Sarah O’Shea is a Professor and Director of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Sarah has over 25 years experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, she has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity.

Scott Eacott PhD, is deputy director of the Gonski Institute for Education, and professor of education in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney and adjunct professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Saskatchewan.

O’Shea: All I want for higher education now and tomorrow

Fresh from delivering a widely-applauded keynote at this year’s HERDSA conference, Fragility or tenacity? Equity and participation in the pandemic university (read it, it’s fantastic), Professor Sarah O’Shea of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University shares her hopes and visions for the sector’s future.

My first face-to-face conference in over two years has given me pause to consider the many changes and challenges the university sector has encountered in the last years. The onset of the pandemic both exacerbated existing issues within the sector as well as revealing a whole gamut of new complexities related to funding sources, precarity of employment and systemic injustices for equity-bearing students. 

We are not yet post-pandemic and there are many things  the onset of the health crisis has revealed. It showed us COVID was never simply a health issue but required a much broader social response. 

Indeed, key to how we emerge from the pandemic will be our education systems, particularly the higher education setting. With this in mind I offer a personal wish list of changes needed in the system, to better serve the students and staff therein:

  • Linked to the previous point is the need to revisit the removal of Commonwealth financial support for those students who do not manage to maintain ‘an overall pass rate of 50 per cent’ across their studies (DESE, 2021). We know that many students from equity backgrounds may initially fail some subjects as they navigate the university system but still go on to succeed academically. Pedagogically, failing can often result in key points of learning and students should never be penalised financially as a result.
  • Recent research has indicated the high cost of ‘investment’ universities make to support and retain the equity student cohort. These costs are often borne by those institutions located in regional areas or who have committed to a mission to open up educational pathways for disadvantaged communities. Such work is laudable and deserves to be funded in ways that recognise the variable nature of investment required in different communities and locations.
  • The precarity of academic employment has always existed but its visibility and impact has become more visible since the onset of COVID-19. I hazard a guess that most of the readers would know of colleagues who have either not had a contract renewed or have been ‘restructured’ out of the organisation. A recent report has highlighted how tertiary education topped national job losses (39%) across Australia, but again, if Australia is to navigate its way out of the current health situation then securing and rewarding university staff is a requisite need moving forward.
  • Finally and fundamentally the current ‘business model’ of the university sector needs to be challenged and revised. The level of public investment in the sector has declined to just 52% of university revenue, which has led to an untenable funding model characterised by an over-reliance on international student fees derived largely from two markets (China and India), a situation identified as problematic even by the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) 

COVID has irrevocably disrupted the existing and accepted business model of higher education, but embracing this disruption will ultimately assist in reimagining this system. Identifying and addressing the enduring and emerging pressure points in the system, provides an opportunity to strengthen the resilience of Australian education systems. We know developing robust and inclusive higher education environments will be key to adapting to new and unforeseen challenges in the future. This is challenging work but  confronting the deficiencies of the current system will ultimately enable us to ‘build back better’.

Sarah O’Shea is a Professor and Director of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Sarah has over 25 years experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, she has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity.

More help needed for vulnerable learners in the age of COVID-19 school closures

During lockdowns due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, school closures were hotly debated. Complete school closures were perceived by some as being a way to protect both students and teaching staff. Although initially children appeared to be at low risk for contracting the virus, many families were deeply concerned about the health implications of sending their children to school. Many families made their own decision to keep their children out of school even before the regulatory bodies made the call to close schools and some were slow to return their children when schools reopened.

While a vaccination for the COVID-19 virus may well be available soon, it is possible future outbreaks of the virus will continue to force school closures or partial closures across Australia well into 2021 at least.

We were interested in the educational, psychosocial and emotional repercussions of school closures, in particular the long-term ramifications for vulnerable or disadvantaged children.

Educationally at-risk children in Australia

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that as of 2019 there were 3,948,811 students enrolled in 9503 schools in Australia, with 2,263,207 primary students and 1,680,504 secondary students. Mass school closures thus have the potential to impact nearly four million students.

A significant proportion of the Australian student population experience disadvantage in some form, with 20% of the school student population, approximately 800 000 students, being in the lowest quintile for family income.

Students come from vulnerable backgrounds for a number of equity reasons, such as the household economic situation (low income or jobless households, financial stress), lack of social support (e.g. social networks), personal characteristics (poor household health, low educational attainment), and race/ethnicity. Many students don’t just fit into one category but rather multiple categories of disadvantage. For these students who are already at an educational disadvantage, the educational gap widens by not attending school.

Over 2020, the Australian schooling sector experienced varying levels of lockdown, with the recent outbreak in Victoria resulting in up to two terms of school closures and a state-wide move to online learning. Until recently there were school closures in South Australia. Such a move to online learning foregrounds educational inequalities that exist within a multi-tiered educational system.

Each state or territory differs in their educational governance, as well as their diverse regional, rural and remote schooling opportunities, across states and within states educational participation may not occur on an equal playing field.

Implications of school closures

We undertook a deep dive into the emerging literature and existing knowledge to consider what implications there might be for long-term school closures for students in more vulnerable contexts.

Whilst remote learning can be challenging for many learners, those from materially disadvantaged backgrounds face a number of additional barriers to learning from home. These additional difficulties include, but are not limited to

  • digital exclusion,
  • poor technology access,
  • increased psychosocial challenges, and
  • educational disengagement.

There are inherent issues around the unequal division of resources and support for students learning at home. Some students may have limited access to a computer, some may share a computer with other family members, and with others having limited internet access and if access is available it may be through expensive mobile plans with restricted data.

These issues did not go unrecognised during COVID_19 with many schools and communities implementing innovative solutions to address inequalities – for example

  • loaning out computers,
  • buying dongles for internet plans for their students,
  • supplying paper packages to their homes,
  • having community businesses supply computers and
  •  local prisoners building desks for students  for their home study. 

Although these interventions were innovative, they were ‘band aid’ in nature. Yet they went a long way to mitigate the inequalities of resources for students studying at home.

Despite these interventions, it is estimated that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have learnt at half their usual rate during lockdown, so the longer the students were away from school, the more learning was lost.

Equally, what these responses could not address was the fundamental emotional and psychological difficulties that school closures presented. Many students need structure in order to learn and the school system provides such a structure. Importantly, the school environment provides the basis for the teacher-student relationship to flourish, which is known to be particularly important for student engagement. When students are engaged in their learning, they learn more.

If students become disengaged they are at risk of a range of adverse academic and social outcomes, such as daily absence, disruptive behaviour, and poor school connectedness. Furthermore, for some students, once the physical link to school is broken through COVID-19 disruptions it stays broken, and even though the school reopens they do not return. For these students who continue to disengage, they fall further behind their peers, and for some, the learning deficit won’t be recoverable.

Building capacity and resilience

Moving forward and learning to live with further disruptions, requires future generations to become adaptable to possible changing learning environments, building capacity and resilience for future crises becomes an imperative. Proactive and multifaceted responses and planning for any future crises will best meet the educational needs of our diverse student populations to ensure vulnerable children are not left behind in their learning.

Governments should re-examine resource allocations to schools to ensure all students have equality of access to up-to-date resources, especially technology. The pandemic has shown us that learning online is possible, but if we are to avoid widening existing educational disparities, we must ensure that learning is equitable for all students.

For those who want more, here is our full paper Drane, C.F, Vernon, L & O’Shea, S. (2020). Vulnerable learners in the age of COVID-19: A scoping review. Australian Educational Researcher.

Catherine Drane is a Research Fellow in the NCSEHE. Previously, Catherine has worked on large-scale National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) projects across Australia. Catherine’s research interests include adolescent development and public health interventions, and quantitative research methods. Her teaching in the areas of research, measurement, design, and analysis led her being awarded a Murdoch University Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Lynette Vernon is a Senior Research Fellow at Edith Cowan University with the School of Education and an adjunct researcher with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Lynette was a secondary science teacher for over 20 years retraining to complete her PhD in psychology at Murdoch University. She directed the Murdoch Aspirations and Pathways for University project (MAP4U) working with high schools to support students aspirations. Her research interests are in developmental psychology, especially related to technology use, sleep and their impact on academic attainment and wellbeing.

Prof. Sarah O’Shea is the Director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) which is hosted by Curtin University. Sarah has spent over twenty-five years working to effect change within the higher education (HE) sector through research that focuses on the access and participation of students from identified equity groups. Her institutional and nationally funded research studies advance understanding of how under-represented student cohorts enact success within university, navigate transition into this environment, manage competing identities and negotiate aspirations for self and others. This work is highly regarded for applying diverse conceptual and theoretical lenses to tertiary participation, which incorporate theories of social class, identity work, gender studies and poverty. Sarah has published extensively in the field and has been awarded over $AUD3 million in grant funding since 2009, she is also an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow (ALTF), a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA) and a Churchill Fellow.

Changes to career advice needed now more than ever

The recently released report into post-schooling pathways in Australia has presented a challenging picture of how career advice needs to be reconsidered in the current employment and health climate. The Report of the Review of Senior Secondary Pathways into Work, Further Education and Training identifies that many career strategies used in Australian schools rely on old paradigms that are predominantly focused on supporting students in pursuing a single career or profession, rather than encouraging a broader career outlook. These problems were identified before the disruptive impact of COVID-19 on education. The pandemic makes changes even more urgent.

Addressing gaps in career planning and advice could yet be key to global economic recovery. It is estimated over 1.6 billion students are negatively impacted by COVID-19 world-wide. Significantly, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, warns us that because of the COVID-19 pandemic the world is facing a “generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities”.

Career education (also known as career advice, guidance or learning) for young people is largely offered within high schools in many countries around the world, including Australia. Both teachers and students in Australia report that current approaches to career education are both inadequate and inequitable.

The ‘narrowing’ of options by career education strategies was also a key theme that emerged from our current research in this field. We looked at identifying best practice career education for the post-COVID era and how this could be implemented in educational settings, particularly for students from diverse backgrounds who are currently underrepresented in higher education.

Our research

Limited options

Students and teachers who participated in our research said there was an expectation from the career advice they were given that just one overriding career or pathway could, or should, be chosen. For one student ‘picking’ a unique or sole pathway was difficult and confronting.

I was told on several occasions that a particular career path was over saturated and to ‘choose a different interest’ which was a bit shocking to me, how are you supposed to just pick something else? (Female, 21-25, PhD)

Indeed, students described experiences of being funneled into particular pathways.

my school… they have a lot of advice for people that had to do trade and all that stuff but for academic purposes, it’s not that good… (Liam, 17, Bachelor of Engineering)

Lucy, a work placement provider in a NSW regional town, witnessed the foregrounding of higher education pathways rather than supporting each persons’ exploration of multiple options and opportunities.

I think these days, the careers adviser’s role has changed so much that it’s more about university entry, preparing students for university, and the ones that are not going to go to university are left out (Lucy, CEO, Work Placement Provider)

We know that career education that supports the notion of a single career is old fashioned and out of step, and so too is the idea that there is one pathway into a desired field of work. Recent research by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research in Australia has shown that a pathway from school directly to university is experienced by few and mainly those who live in metropolitan areas and often from high socioeconomic status backgrounds.

The reality of interrupted and complex pathways

In contrast to a predefined pathway or linear journey into a predetermined job, participants in this research described diverse and individualised school-to-work routes. This visual map drawn by current university student Noah (31, Bachelor of Arts) depicts his complex journey since high school which has included switching between work, study and training in the fields of Hospitality, Information Technology, and Creative Arts across three states. Noah’s journey has been influenced by depression, a sleep disorder, and indecision about what job he would like to do in the future. Noah described it as

a very storied and long journey for me, not one that I would want to go back and do again, but… better late than never.

(Post-school pathway of Noah, 31)

Noah’s journey is one example of the highly interrupted and ‘swirling’ journeys experienced by students with pathways typified by ‘stepping stones’, ‘zig zags’ and ‘lurches’.

Key message about alternative pathways

Overwhelmingly, when asked what they had wished they had known in high school, current university students told us that they had wished they had known about alternative pathways and that

ATARs aren’t like, the be all and end all’ (Jasmine, 18, Bachelor of Information Technology).

Here Yolanda highlights the pressure that the notion that there is a singular pathway, for example, achieving the requisite ATAR, has on students throughout their schooling.

I think in high school, especially at the start of high school, I wish that I had known that there were so many more pathways available to me…it would have been nice to have that kind of at the back of my mind while I was studying so that I didn’t have to stress out so much (Yolanda, 23, Bachelor of Psychology).

Arielle, University Outreach Officer, suggests that students need to be told that

it’s okay to change your mind, or to change direction and that that’s really normal… (Arielle, University Outreach Officer).

A key message for career education of school students should be that alternative entry into courses and careers do exist, and that fluid pathways are not only possible, but normal. In the current climate, career advice can no longer be focused on guiding students in one direction but should aim to provide students with choices. Indeed, for students from diverse backgrounds, whose educations can be disrupted by caring and family responsibilities, disability and illness, or financial issues, having options is critical for educational access and career development. Career advice for these students is preparing the student for multiple possible pathways rather than trying to tie them to one journey.

Career Development Learning

This more encompassing and contemporary vision of career advice, which supports equity goals, we have called Career Development Learning (CDL). In its broadest form, Career Development Learning relates to learning about self, learning about the world of work and developing the skills necessary to navigate a successful and satisfying life. Our research indicates that Best Practice Career Development Learning involves the implementation of a ‘partnership’ approach between multiple stakeholders, including schools, universities, vocational education providers, community and industry to provide students with a wide variety of authentic career-related experiences which increase knowledge, alternatives and choice.

For example, High School Principal, Michael, highlights the benefits for students when they are supported to engage in Career Development Learning activities which broaden their options, such as HSC subjects with vocational accreditation.

We’ve got, I think, six or seven kids at the moment doing nursing as a vocational subject… They’ll walk straight into work almost anywhere on the globe and it counts for their HSC (Michael, Principal, Regional High School)

The uncertainty caused by the current health emergency combined with expected record levels of unemployment and changes to educational funding means that now, more than ever, the need for high quality and targeted career advice is needed.

Current work being completed in our two-year research project include a set of Best Practice Principles for career advice for students from diverse backgrounds which, together with our Guide to Partnerships, are practical resources which can help schools and other stakeholders provide quality career development learning activities for all students.

Prof. Sarah O’Shea is the Director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) which is hosted by Curtin University. Sarah has spent over twenty-five years working to effect change within the higher education (HE) sector through research that focuses on the access and participation of students from identified equity groups. Her institutional and nationally funded research studies advance understanding of how under-represented student cohorts enact success within university, navigate transition into this environment, manage competing identities and negotiate aspirations for self and others. This work is highly regarded for applying diverse conceptual and theoretical lenses to tertiary participation, which incorporate theories of social class, identity work, gender studies and poverty. Sarah has published extensively in the field and has been awarded over $AUD3 million in grant funding since 2009, she is also an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow (ALTF), a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA), and a Churchill Fellow (CF).

Dr Olivia Groves currently works between the School of Education and Outreach and Equity unit at University of Wollongong in teaching and research roles. Olivia has worked in HE for ten years teaching and supporting students, including those studying via distance and with language backgrounds other than English. Also, for the past two and a half years, Olivia has been involved in research activity focused on achieving equity in HE, including improving access, participation, and outcomes for students from diverse backgrounds.

We would like to acknowledge the other research team members Kylie Austin and Jodi Lamanna for their contributions to this study, as well as the National Centre for Student Equity in HE (NCSEHE) and the Department of Education, Skills & Employment (DESE) for funding this research.

What does success mean to you? Be surprised what it means to our uni students

If you asked a university student nearing the end of their undergraduate degree what success meant to them, what responses would you expect? Good grades or perhaps a career in the field? For some it might be having the edge in a competitive job market or a secure, regular salary?

In our recent study we did ask this question and we were surprised by many of the responses.  We expected more of a focus on future desired jobs or high incomes but instead students told us, often in humble ways, how they themselves defined “success”.

In this blog post we want to tell you what we found and look at the complexities of how students define success, in a nuanced and richly descriptive manner.

Our findings should be of special interest to government and university policy makers in the current political climate where the Australian Government plans to tie university funding to measures such as graduate employment and student satisfaction with their university courses – measures that the government sees as embodying success at university.

Such measures could be overlooking many life changing experiences that attending a university can add to a student’s life and in particular miss the complexities of how students themselves view success at university.

Our study

We conducted a total of 163 interviews and surveys across five Australian universities for this research study, which was part of a much broader study exploring the persistence behaviours of students who are the first in their family to attend university.

Students were asked two key questions relating to success namely: Would you describe yourself as a successful student? and How you do characterise success at university and after graduation?

During data collection, participants identified additional equity and demographic categories with significant numbers being derived from low socio-economic backgrounds or from rural/remote areas as well as being older. Questions covered a range of areas including personal self-reflections on ‘being’ a student; reflections on higher education participation and how family/community, the institution and others has shown support (or not) of these educational endeavours.

This gave us a rich dataset to work with.

We drew on the work of economist and philosopher Amartya Sen to help us unpack the perspectives of the students in our study. He believed a person’s capability to live a good life is defined in terms of the set of valuable ‘beings and doings’ like being in good health or having loving relationships with others. His approach allowed us to consider how ‘success’ can be more broadly conceived as reflecting a person’s achievement of such ‘valuable functionings’ or those things that are intrinsically important or beneficial to individuals themselves. Adopting this conceptual framing provided an alternative way of thinking about this data and forced us to question taken for granted assumptions or ideas.

Our findings

We were surprised by many of the responses received to our question. Students told us, how they themselves defined ‘success’ and for many it was far from high incomes or desired jobs. For one success was basically ‘survival and having my mental health intact’, another explained how success was simply being ‘here … still going – I’m not failing which is good’ another acknowledged ‘just coming to uni already makes me successful’.

While most of the students we asked considered themselves successful, around twenty percent were not sure or did not think so. This was surprising as these students, according to normative or accepted standards, were successful – they were all first in their families (and sometimes their community) to attend university; they were all nearing the end of their undergraduate degree; and they were all performing well, often extremely well, academically.

The students’ explanations countered popular notions of ‘being academically successful’, particularly, those illustrated through university marketing and quality indicators, which largely refer to high grades or passing exams, a focus on individual achievement, competitive prowess or measurable, usually vocational, outcomes.

Being the first in the family also meant that these learners may have already achieved significant ‘success’ in simply arriving at university. Many had undertaken interrupted and difficult educational journeys, enduring and overcoming many significant hurdles to achieve their educational goals. Perhaps then it is not surprising that another participant eloquently reflected how success was summed up by the fact that ‘I’m happy and I’m passing, that’s all that matters’.

When analysing the data we noted how students repeatedly defined success in terms of what success was not, often challenging those generally accepted understandings of success, such as getting a good job or earning a higher income.  

Importantly our findings indicated that success was perceived as a form of validation for these learners, also providing a sense of ‘defying the odds’ but equally underpinned by emotional and unique understandings of achieving outcomes that are personally validating.

The need to acknowledge success at university is complex

Success is a complex entity and we argue that while different definitions of success may co-exist they also frequently ‘jostle uncomfortably’ against each other. We propose that there is a genuine need to develop and recognise more expansive notions of what ‘being successful’ actually means to individual learners. The various facets of success should be equally acknowledged and celebrated in higher education rhetoric rather than just an emphasis on financial gains.

This is not simply a moral requirement but also a political one. Recognising the broader social impacts that higher education participation has on people arguably shifts the material responsibility of learning from the individual and instead recognises the wider public benefits of the university experience. 

It is a significant issue given the promise of secure employment upon graduation is no longer true, particularly for those students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Similarly, graduates in certain fields earn less than those who entered full-time employment after school so the guaranteed economic return of university studies is not necessarily the reality for all graduates.

We believe this dysfunction means that current emphasis on employability should shift to incorporate a more inclusive understanding of achievement post-graduation. This might include a desired job or less tangible, but equally anticipated, forms of success.

Importantly, differing perspectives on the nature of success are not necessarily mutually exclusive but could be regarded as complementary goals, assisting people to achieve desired flourishings. Recognising the multiplicity of success within policy and popular discourse would go some way to achieving recognition of how understandings of success can be balanced. This recognition would simultaneously acknowledge the value of diversity in the university population as well as different lived experiences.

Let’s shift the way we talk about success

Continuing to retain this dominant focus on the private benefits of university has deeper and more insidious financial implications. If popular debates on higher education attendance only emphasise financial or employment outcomes then the responsibility for funding such activity similarly rests with the individual. Student debt in Australia continues to grow with current estimates over 50 billion dollars.

Responsibility for the costs of study is shifting wholly to students, reflected in Australian political discourse and policy, with changes in loan repayments and fee structures imminent.  This is alarming for all students but particularly so for its adverse impact on students from less-advantaged backgrounds. 

Shifting the way we talk about higher education participation can assist in celebrating the more personal and social outcomes of this educational participation; from emphases on often-illusive rewards, to acknowledgement of the wider more public benefits of attendance. We argue that this provides a more encompassing and valuable recognition of ‘success’.

In co-author Sarah O’Shea’s research on female first-in-family students, the women interviewed positively reflected on university as offering a space to reflect and reconsider the possibilities in their lives, including reconsidering the constraints they had taken for granted. This enabled them to consider alternatives, which while not necessarily financially enriching, marked an emotional richness appreciated by these women.

Importantly, higher education institutions have the means to ‘enable independence in learning and criticality in new generations of learners, and the desire to produce rather than reproduce knowledge’.

This is a moral endeavour as well as an educational one, requiring proactive institutional engagement at the level of curricula, instruction and also, policy.

As educators we should question our own assumptions of success

Equally, as educators and scholarly practitioners in the field, we need to continually question our own assumptions around the role of ‘success’ in students’ thinking and engagement, remaining mindful of the varied and personal nature of this concept for diverse learners.

We believe better understanding of what students desire from their university experience is fundamental to creating a clearer alignment between the goals of the institution and those of the individual.  And it should have a profound effect on policy makers in governments who have the power to change the lives of so many Australians who aspire to a university education.

For those who want more on this study ‘Getting through the day and still having a smile on my face!

Dr Sarah O’Shea is a Professor in Adult, Vocational and Higher Education in the School of Education, Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong. Sarah has over 25 years experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, she has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity. Sarah has co-authored 57 scholarly publications – this work has also featured in The Conversation, University World News, Campus Review and The Australian. Sarah is on Twitter @seos895

Dr Janine Delahunty is Project Manager (various projects) and Academic Developer on the Academic Development and Recognition Team- Learning, Teaching and Curriculum at the University of Wollongong. Janine’s research is motivated by how the educational experience can be enriched, particularly for diverse learners and those from educationally disadvantaged circumstances, reflected in her ongoing research projects. She has published across the fields of education, higher education, distance education, educational research, linguistics, adult learning and university teaching and learning. Janine is on Twitter @janined60