Participation and Access

Issues of participation and access are paramount in discussions about higher education. In every country of the world, students from higher socio-economic backgrounds are over-represented in higher education, while students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are under-represented. This gap is obviously problematic from a social justice point of view. In addition, many argue that this inequality is also inefficient because we are not fully investing in people who could otherwise make a significant contribution to society.

This latter argument is increasing as industrialized countries experience labor shortages in areas that require university qualifications. Most policy makers and experts would agree that from an equity and efficiency perspective, ability and motivation, not socio- economic background, should determine who has access to higher education.

Learning objectives: Wilks & Wilson
1. What are the educational aspirations of young people in rural communities?
2. What barriers do they face in accessing post-secondary study?
3. What factors shape their perceptions and decisions regarding higher education?

Learning objectives: Bergerson
1. How can the values of a university conflict with those held by working-class students?
2. How do universities reproduce inequality?
3. What does Anna’s story tell us about the importance of having a diverse range of higher education institutions?
4. What should universities do to improve participation and access for underserved groups?

Learning objectives: Ferguson & Simpson
1. What are the organizational and cultural barriers hindering institutions in achieving greater student diversity?
2. How does student diversity benefit individuals, institutions, and society as a whole?
3. How do institutions reinforce cultures of exclusion?

My initial post

The Wilks and Wilson article provided some measures concerning education and access, much of which was pretty much in the realm of sociological common sense. It was perhaps unsurprising to discover that "the reasons for the persistent low participation rates in higher education by low SES young people found that low levels of educational achievment at school, low educational aspirations, and low school completion rates[,] affected outcomes".

What was a little more useful was the claim that "[c]ultural capital by the way of family transmission" affected these aspirations (this is despite my continuing displeasure with the misuse of the word 'capital' in this context). It would have been empirically useful to compare educational aspirations, achievements, and SES to see what disparity exists (e.g., good achievements from students in a low SES background not equating to aspirations).

Belinda's response

Thanks Lev. I agree, the Wilks and Wilson (2012) article did not bring too much new information to light. The research findings were fairly common sense, but it was interesting to note how much family influence plays a role in an individual's choices in life and education. The article did highlight some barriers of concern in education (p86), as "factors such as limitations of rural/regional area in terms of accessibility to tertiary educational institutions and choices of courses, financial issues, separation from family and community and transport, were expresses by parents". Some useful strategies for increased participation in university were also explored (p87-88).

Rachel's response

According to the. Australian Council for Educational Research (2002) added stress while studying such as costs towards moving out of home and transport have significant impact on students’ choice for post-secondary study options. Abbott-Chapman (2007) also points out that positive educational experience are important when students are deciding on which degree they would like to complete. Additionally, parental occupation, sibling and friends’ viewpoints are all influential when students are deciding on a university education. This is especially so for those who reside in regional Australia. Regional students often worry about financial and/or the emotional difficulties of being away from home and this can affect educational choices, and therefore their overall educational experience. The literature is very clear about providing prospective and continuing students with early intervention programs to assist their academic aspirations. Also, it is essential to steer students towards services that advocate assistance with alternative pathways and/or support mechanisms (Wilks & Wilson, 2012). Therefore, where I work the Business and Law’s Mentor Program as well asDeakin at your Doorstep program are influential when it comes to student participation and access that supports successful educational experiences, leading towards positive results. Eckland (1964) argues that the decision to attend university depends on a combination of “socialization, life experience and opportunity rather than individual intelligence” (cited in Bergerson, 2007, p. 109). Interestingly, Alford (1998) points out that the high value placed on work by working-class students “prohibit[s] students from participating both academically and socially in campus life” (cited in Bergerson, 2007, p. 111). With this in mind, I can certainly relate to these ideas as I am from a working class background and I was the first in my family to seek a university qualification. Looking back, I always felt slightly guilty having fun while studying and so my socialization came much later in life.

Sonia's response

Yes, there really wasn't much particularly surprising in Wilks & Wilson, though it did align quite interestingly with the current media conversation regarding the different educational outcomes between public and private primary and secondary schools. Family engagement & values in education, as well as the educational attainments of the parents, seem to have a much stronger influence on educational outcomes than type of school system, geographic area or income (Considine & Zappala, 2002). It would make sense that this influence doesn't end with graduation from high school, but continues into post-secondary education as well.

Tim Pitman from Curtin University had an interesting suggestion in his article on The Conversation, where he proposes a market mechanism to adjust for the problem of attracting low SES students.

"Instead of providing additional money, the government could redirect the current funding via a market mechanism, much like its fixed-price carbon trading scheme. This would allow the government to set a more realistic (i.e. higher) price to support each low-SES student enrolled without necessarily having to increase funding.

Essentially, those universities under the 20% target would have to “buy” students (virtually speaking) from those above it.

In the short term, this would mean those universities doing the right thing will be significantly rewarded, at the expense of those who are not. And in the longer term – if the cost of trading students is sufficiently high – universities might just find it cheaper to nurture disadvantaged students themselves."

It's an interesting concept. I'm not sure how it would work in practice, but it's a suggestion worth considering, I think.

(Btw, if you're not familiar with The Conversation it's a terrific source of interesting articles written by academics but in a more accessible, journalistic style. Well worth checking out if you have the time.)

Considine, G., & Zappalà, G. (2002). The influence of social and economic disadvantage in the academic performance of school students in Australia.Journal of Sociology, 38(2), 129-148.

Pitman, T. (2012). A low target: enrolling poor uni students remains a challenge, The Conversation. Retrieved from

My response to Sonia

The article by Pitman does raise an interesting mechanism (effectively a "cap and trade"), but the assignment of responsibility would be profoundly unjust and the universities would certainly make an issue of that. Unlike a emissions trading scheme which punishes people who are responsible for emissions and rewards those who are careful with their emissions, applying this to the university for lower SES students doesn't seem entirely fair. At best the role of the university in the number of lower SES students is modest. There is certainly something that was strongly indicated by the Wilks and Wilson article both in terms of causes, and in terms of their solutions:

"Firstly, the need for programmes within primary and secondary schools to include literacy and study skills, careers information and mentoring from adults to strengthen young people's resolve and move beyond negative family influences ... Second the implementation of university outreach programmes early in a student's education to assist in their career choices and understanding the structure and expectations, and 'daily life' , of university education"

The evidence that has been illustrated is more than anything else the enrolment of lower SES students despite academic potential relates to both class-based expectations, both in terms of culture and income, that is, it's decided prior to enrolment. There are many other ways to break down these negative expectations in addition to the proposals by Wilks and Wilson. Even something as indirect (for example) of only allocating new university land in lower SES areas would contribute - the example of Murdoch University Rockingham (plus the localised scholarships) or the University of Western Sydney - are two such examples that come to mind.

Bree's Response

The Wilks and Wilson article reaffirmed my thoughts and perceptions regarding the decline of young people in rural Australia receiving post-secondary study. All the barriers described in this article are evident in the rural community I currently live in. Initially my partner and I moved up to the Kimberleys for the Royal Flying Doctor Service and were on a mutual agreement that if and when we have children, they will receive an education up until the age of 5-7 years and then we will relocate. We are both firm believers that the country lifestyle is a positive influence on a child's upbringing and although the VET sector (as noted in Topic Five) has better coverage in rural and regional areas, I would like my children to be exposed to multiple opportunities in further education without the disadvantages described by Wilks and Wilson. For example the financial and emotional burdens of relocating if they would like to access a tertiary education. I believe my thought process of removing children from a rural community at the age of 5-7 years has been influenced by my parents. Wilks and Wilson discuss the pattern of young people's aspirations and the influence of parents. My parents raised my brother and I in a rural community but once my brother entered primary school they commenced research into relocating as the only option available because they didn't want to send him to boarding school once he entered high school.

From my exposure living in a rural commmunity I have found that my colleagues who have children in primary and secondary schooling are voicing different options in regards to further education in the remote community. However they discuss the different options due to a similar, voiced belief regarding the education that is available. We currently have available in our community a private primary school and a public primary and high school. The private primary school has a waiting list to attend and all of my colleagues and friends that have children in this age bracket attend this school even though they voice concerns over high classroom numbers. Of the colleagues that have their children in primary school all have stated they will relocate once their oldest child is to enter high school because the public high school is viewed as an inappropriate option. The reasons voiced for this are bullying, violence and high truancy within the Indigenous students which causes disruption to class routine and agendas. One colleague who has their child in the public secondary schooling stated his rationale for not relocating revolves around the perception that his child will not attend tertiary education. The benefits he currently receives while attending a high school in a rural community out weigh the education in the city. Examples of these benefits are the attendance rates of students are so low therefore his child receives an education with lower classroom numbers and increased teacher availability.

An example that aligns with Ferguson and Simpson's article on student diversity and how it can benefit invididuals, instituitions and society relates to a colleague who has a child who entered boarding school and now tertiary education via a scholarship. My colleague's son is Indigenous and through this scholarship it has encouraged some of the Indigenous children and siblings to reflect on this opportunity and see it as a possibility for their education. If he had not completed this education pathway, it may not have influenced others to seek this as an option for themselves. This encourages student diversity and racial understanding which promotes a wealthier future for our society.