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Success and failure in higher education on uneven playing fields

posted on 2019-09-24, 00:00 authored by Bernadette Walker-Gibbs, Rola AjjawiRola Ajjawi, Emma RoweEmma Rowe, Andrew SkourdoumbisAndrew Skourdoumbis, Matthew ThomasMatthew Thomas, Sarah O'Shea, Sue Bennett, Brandi FoxBrandi Fox, 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 edu




Place of publication

[Bentley, W.A.]



Research statement

No Research Statement provided

Publication classification

A6 Research report/technical paper

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