Ten steps to student equity and success now

By Ian Li and Paul Koshy

The inaugural Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success (ACSES) Student Equity Symposium took place over 21-22 May at the Western Sydney University (WSU), Bankstown campus, a week after the Federal Budget 2024-2025 was announced.

The program for the Symposium focused on the Australian Universities Accord recommendations impacting student equity in Australia. The Symposium featured keynote addresses from the Minister for Education, Jason Clare, Shadow Minister for Education Sarah Henderson, Dr Omar Khan, head of the UK’s Transforming Access for Students and Outcomes in Higher Education  (TASO), and Universities Australia head Luke Sheehy. 

Discussion of critical issues flowing from the Accord Review was promoted across four panels covering equity targets, student success (featuring a student-focused panel) and funding models, in addition to an opening panel discussing the importance of the Accord Review and its implementation.. Panellists include Professor Mary O’Kane, Chair of the Accord panel, Dr Barney Glover, an Accord Panel member and current Commissioner of Jobs Skills Australia and formerly, Vice-Chancellor of WSU. 

The Symposium covered a lot of ground and discussions between attendees and speakers. 

Here are ten observations from the event. 

Number one: the Roadmap

Over the course of the day various metaphors were used to describe the Accord Review, including ‘blueprint’ and ‘reference point’, but the term used throughout the Symposium was ‘roadmap’. The Minister for Education, The Hon Jason Clare also made it clear that nothing was set in stone, and the roadmap is subject to revision, particularly based on consultations and analysis undertaken throughout the current (May 2024) implementation phase. 

Number two: a long journey

The need for a roadmap is apparent given the Review’s strategic intent and outlining of structures and processes required to ensure 80% of Australians attaining a tertiary qualification by 2050, including 55% who attain a bachelor degree qualification. As Curtin Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Haynetold the audience, the university students (from school-leaving pathways) in 2050 will mostly be born after 2029. The Accord will guide both current and future actions of Australian governments. 

Jason Clare noted that ‘[f]unding it and implementing it is going to take more than just one budget. We have to do this in stages.But we have bitten off a big chunk, 29 of 47 recommendations, in full or in part’. 

Number three: Stewardship

However, this leaves work to be done in relation to the remaining 18 recommendations, much of which will be left to the soon-to-be-established Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC). It is ATEC who take on a ‘stewardship’ role, emerging as the central policy-making centre for Australian tertiary education and playing a critical role in equity funding, through the introduction of a demand-driven function for place allocation and the implementation of a needs-based funding (NBF) system.   

Number four: Whole-of-Sector Approach

Both the Minister and Shadow Minister of Education commenced their talks at the Symposium with references to educational challenges in the community of Western Sydney, particularly in shaping aspiration for higher education. Both of them emphasised a shared commitment to ensuring that from early education onwards, all Australians will have equitable access to educational opportunities that lead to post-compulsory participation. Speakers and attendees pointed to post-COVID declines in school retention in this regard, and its impact on higher education, particularly equity groups students. 

Professors Mary O’Kane and Barney Glover both reminded the audience that the Accord Review focused on tertiary education – both universities and TAFES – in addressing the skills challenges Australia will face to 2050. Sally Kift, the Chair of the ACSES Grants and Fellowships Committee noted that this extended to three critical areas: curriculum design to ensure universal access to course materials among students; recognition of prior learning; and the need to improve careers guidance material and programs.

Number five: You can’t be what you can’t see

Gains in post-compulsory education only follow gains made by students at school. This point was raised by students at the Symposium, both panellits and representatives, all of whom shared stories of aspiration (‘dreaming’ – Kathleen Nelly and  ‘dreaming big’ – Tayla Roberts). The students expressed the need to overcome geographic and social isolation to engage with universities, despite not having readily identifiable role models to do so. Current Curtin student and panellist Dylan Storer called on universities to work with underserved communities, pointing out that outreach did not happen at his high school in Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley. 

Number six: Meet the students where they are at

Another student panellist, Ebe Ganon, who focuses on disability rights and systemic advocacy, urged universities to become more receptive, flexible and responsive to student needs at all parts of the student cycle. Speakers across all panels all agreed that the appropriate use of technology and data analytics was needed for Australia’s relatively large universities to ensure that students are treated as individuals rather than as members of a set group. 

Number seven: Whole-of-Provider Approach (WPA) 

Meeting students will require a ‘whole-of-provider approach’ – from senior institutional leaders, to teaching staff, equity practitioners and strategic managers. This begins with raising awareness about equity and inclusion among staff and ensuring that the implementation of good practice, with a view to achieving good outcomes, is the responsibility of everyone at the universities, not just equity program managers. These sentiments were echoed by Omar Khan and Luke Sheehy who spoke of baking equity into the centre of thinking in higher education, including program design.     

Number eight: Cultural Safety and Awareness 

Most importantly, good equity practice follows from an aware and empathic consideration of the need to include students in a culturally safe space, both in terms of treating students as individuals, but also ensuring that discussion of equity concerns is directed by the student and not attached to stigma around an identity that is crudely shaped by policy or procedure.  

Number nine: Evidence-based policy making and Data Collection

Dr Omar Khan reported on his experience at TASO, emphasising the importance of designing interventions with a view to collecting and analysing data to evaluate them. This rule applies from institutional interventions, ranging from how universities approach students to program design through to systemic-wide changes to be undertaken by ATEC. All panellists agreed that the collection and use of data in higher education was lagging dangerously, to the extent that it constitutes a threat to good policy-making both across the educational life-cycle (aspiration through to post-graduation outcomes) as well as equity status discussions, notably in relation to disability.

ACSES Director of Research and Policy Ian Li shared that there is plenty of data already collected by universities, and which can be linked and harnessed to paint a rich picture of what goes on across the higher education life-cycle. However, at present there are barriers to data access and linkage, such as legislative ambiguity, which will require the resolve and unity of the sector as a whole to address. 

Number ten: Defining Success and Contextualisation

The other critical issue in program and policy responses to foster equity outcomes is the need to be precise about the definition of ‘success’ and the way it is rewarded in higher education. This is most apparent in the discussion about rewarding universities for meeting completion targets, when success can often mean introducing students to the higher education environment without them necessarily completing a course. 

In the overall context of national equity policy, ACSES Executive Director, Professor Shamit Saggar stressed the need for contextualised policy that reflected institutions’ locations and missions.   

The ACSES Student Equity Symposium stimulated rich conversations and discussion on progressing on an ambitious equity roadmap for the decades ahead. One key message that emerged from the discussion was the need to ensure that the talk translates into actions, and to avoid the pitfall of deferring action far into the future, such as by waiting for ATEC to be established before being spurred into action. We are currently at the beginning to landmark, multi-decadal reform in the higher education sector and would be well-served by taking a long-term view and action plan. 

Ian Li (left) is a professor and director of research at the Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success, Curtin University. Paul Koshy is a research fellow at the Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success, based at Curtin University.

Supplied: header image of student panel at the symposium . From left to right: Professor Maria Raciti, Tayla Roberts, Kathleen Nelly, Ebe Ganon, Dylan Storer, Professor Sally Kift

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