Progression through the formal school system is still the main pathway into higher education. In a report commissioned by Bridges to Higher Education, The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) visually mapped the interconnections between the various contexts and stakeholders, individual motivating factors, choice of pathways over time and educational outcomes to enable progression into higher education.
This report emphasises that the learning context does not begin or end with school but is informed by the capital assessable to students, their own human capital in the form of goals and resources, cultural capital of families and communities in the form of educational expectations and finances, as well as the social networks which can ease the way into higher education. The lack of these forms of capital is a barrier to higher education when the student's community does not share a strong orientation towards higher education.
There is evidence that achieving a more equitable number of undergraduate enrolments of students from LSES backgrounds can only be realised through a collaborative approach and a stronger establishment of educational pathways.
The progression of students through transition points focuses on the student pathway, particularly with reference to their goals and motivations, and the ways in which these may change in the course of their educational journey due to the types of outreach, interventions and institutional offerings they encounter.
In primary school a gap in achievement between students from high and low SES backgrounds, and between those from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds can be identified from the first year of formal schooling and is well established by Year 3. A similar achievement gap exists in secondary schools, along with student retention in the higher years of formal schooling. NCSHE highlights school curriculum support and professional development for teachers as an area for further exploration from widening participation practitioners as potential collaborative engagement in university-led progression programs, stating 'evidence is strong that collaborative, holistic, and cumulative approaches are effective in increasing students' educational retention, success and motivation at all stage of their educational journey' (NCSHE, 2014, p69).
Critical Interventions Framework
In 2013, the Centre for the study of Higher Education developed a Critical Interventions Framework to assist in identifying the characteristics of the most effective initiatives and strategies to contribute to a better understanding of how activities and resources can be targeted to generate positive outcomes.
Graphic: Factors leading to increased completion, particularly for students from low SES backgrounds - CHSE, 2013
Key points from 'Developing a Critical Interventions Framework for advancing equity in Australian Higher Education' CSHE, 2013
In their report CSHE (2013) highlight, across the student life cycle, five identifiable periods for equity initiatives in higher education:
a) Prior to seeking access to higher education
b) At selection / admissions
c) During transition into higher education
d) During an individual's studies and
e) During the post completion phase of finding suitable employment
Outreach to schools and communities forms the core of initiatives aimed at informing aspirations prior to students seeking access to higher education. While the theoretical basis, or plausibility or face-validity, of these initiatives is generally strong, there is little direct empirical evidence of the effectiveness of these initiatives.
CSHE suggested that resourcing problems in schools in low SES and non-metropolitan areas affects Year 12 retention and achievement, resulting in lower participation in higher education among low SES students. This supports the argument for implementing early initiatives aimed at improving students' academic achievement and year 12 retention rates.
Awarding scholarships also potentially affects aspiration, access and retention as they reduce both the perceived and actual financial obstacles to higher education. Providing financial support is thus a common response to increasing access for low SES students; however, this is based on the assumption that cost if the principal barrier to access, when often it may not be.
In terms of retention and success, there is clear evidence supporting the value of orientation and transition initiatives. These programs aim to enhance student engagement and retention, and often overlap with other initiatives targeting more general retention and success.
Providing student support services is seen as being important for reducing attrition due to personal or financial hardship, and to enhance student well-being, skills-building and overall engagement with the university. However, evidence seems to suggest that low SES students are less likely to make use of these services. In addition, there is little evidence to support that universities with more extensive student support services have better retention rates.
The Engagement Framework establishes a progression map from primary to tertiary education, considering the six clusters or themes to underpin educational progression for students from Low SES and other student equity groups to inform widening participation practice. It highlights the key milestones and transition points, considering the clusters across educational stages, with focus on the enablers to progression, based on the successful elements of programs rather than the programs themselves.