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

By Sarah O'Shea and Janine Delahunty

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

4 thoughts on “What does success mean to you? Be surprised what it means to our uni students

  1. The survey results match my own experience of being a student: it is an achingly lonely, painful, frustrating experience. Success is about getting through each day, resisting the constant temptation to give up, and save myself the misery. I now design courses with this experience in mind: giving students help with getting through each task.

    The marketing hype from Australian universities about how wonderful an experience study is must be harmful for the students, with each thinking: “What is wrong with me?”.

    Contrary to the hype from universities on how wonderful the campus experience is, I found online education most successful, and least painful. The best education experience I have had is as an international distance education student at a North American institution.

  2. Cathy Stone says:

    Thanks Saran and Janine – great blog piece and a great article!

  3. Kevin says:

    Wonderful article, thank you.

    Giving attention to generational shifts in perceptions of ‘success’ is an exciting area for future research with huge potential for education. I found this article exciting and stimulating.

    Personally, I had thought I’d succeeded in university – graduating with first class honours and the university medal – but when it didn’t translate into better employment opportunities than my peers I think it was wasted effort. Likewise, I graduated with a PhD by publication and was awarded a VC recommendation and research award which also didn’t translate into improved employment opportunities so that too undermined any perceived success I previously felt.

    I was the second person in my family to attend university after my brother. My family came to Australia as refugees after WWII. And I have a visual disability that makes reading and writing more challenging. I feel the odds are stacked against me and living off Newstart doesn’t help.

    I guess what I’m trying to say from my lived experience is that success doesn’t prevent failure, and when success doesn’t equate to better outcomes it becomes a pointless endeavour. If success is associated with intrinsic qualities or ‘small’ goals, rather that attained achievement, it may serve to be more protective.

  4. Kevin, agreed: there are different perceptions of ‘success’ in education. I focused on what would be useful vocationally, but while useful, this does not impress my academically minded peers.

    I was also the second person in my family to attend university after my brother. While good at maths and science, writing doesn’t come easily to me. As a result my success came from workplace training, before formal university education.

    My lived experience is that vocationally oriented education leads to success. Aiming for high grades in an abstract academic course results in failure. My “small goals” are to meet the minimum requirement to get through the next assignment, so I can get through the course, and the qualification.

    Currently I have 245 computer project students, who I am taking through their final assessment before graduating. This is a carefully scaffolded exercise where they have to say what they have learned, how they learned it, and how it will be useful for a real job. This involves nudging the students through each task. It is not so much about inspiring them to excellence, but getting them to submit acceptable work on time, as that is what will lead to their future success. Well, it worked for me. 😉

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