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$1.5bn has gone into getting disadvantaged students into uni for very small gains. So what more can be done?

The proportion of Australian university students from under-represented backgrounds has “barely moved” in more than a decade, federal Education Minister Jason Clare noted last week. About 15% of undergraduates came from low-socieconomic-status (SES) backgrounds in 2008, he said, and a target of 20% by 2020 was set. Today the figure is around 17%.

Since 2010, the Australian government has invested nearly A$1.5 billion in higher education equity programs. Yet participation and retention rates for the various equity groups remain stubbornly lower than for other students. Equity groups include students from low-SES backgrounds and regional and remote areas as well as Indigenous students and students with a disability.

Read more: Bridging programs transform students' lives – they even go on to outperform others at uni

The new minister’s commitment to improving outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is welcome. The challenge is to identify exactly how to achieve that goal. Reasons for the lack of progress to date are both “big” (macro) and “small” (micro).

At a macro level, the systemic issues include:

All these issues mean attending university is a more complicated endeavour for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Read more: Why first-in-family uni students should receive more support

What needs to be done instead?

Achieving more equitable participation in higher education requires fundamental shifts.

The first shift relates to how universities consider diverse students. Current equity group definitions do not adequately capture the diversity of learners within equity groups.

Students should not be characterised only in terms of “binary” groups – for example, low socio-economic status or not. We need far more nuanced understandings of students’ individual circumstances than postcode identifiers or outdated classifications can provide.

The lack of progress on equity points to the need to avoid a “one size fits all” approach. Targeted support attuned to students’ individual needs is essential.

Technology can be used to provide support at critical stages of students’ academic journey, pre-empting decisions to quit their studies. An example of this would be using data analytics to check that students are regularly accessing online content. Checks like these should be followed up with in-person support via telephone or email.

Read more: Odds are against ‘first in family’ uni students but equity policies are blind to them

Disruption has created opportunities

The timing for such change is perfect. The pandemic has caused a major disruption to higher education delivery. At the same time, the global move to blended learning – combining electronic or online learning with face-to-face options – offers huge flexibility to better focus on students as individuals.

Students with a disability or who are older, have family or work responsibilities or live a long way from campus need this flexibility. Designing learning that works for students amid the realities of the pandemic particularly favours those from equity groups. The lack of flexibility in traditional on-campus offerings often excluded them.

Carefully embracing the possibilities of technology can lead to inclusive practices being “embedded” across the institution, rather than being an add-on or an afterthought. However, this is expensive work that requires adequate resourcing.

Recent research found full-time students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds are four to six times more expensive to support. Smaller regional campuses are often the ones that bear these costs.

The researchers called for more transparent and realistic funding models that cover the hidden investment by some institutions. They found the “opaque” nature of equity funding is a problem.

For example, a student may belong to more than one equity group and so receive funding from various schemes. Or the services provided for equity students are used by all students for much broader benefit. These complexities mean a realistic cost analysis is difficult.

Read more: We can put city and country people on more equal footing at uni — the pandemic has shown us how

And what can each institution do?

Such big changes need to be accompanied by actions at an institutional and individual level. The mantra “you can’t be what you can’t see” challenges universities to reconsider how their marketing and recruitment portray “being a student”.

Nearly one in four students are older than 24 when they start university. Marketing and images that assume a younger school-leaver cohort need to be discarded.

This is important from an equity perspective. If you already have a lower sense of belonging or feel like an “imposter” at university, depictions of youthful student “homogeneity” only confirm this.

Equally, small but important gestures can make a big difference to learners’ achievements in higher education. Using an “equity lens” to look at all facets of the university is key. Begin with things like:

  • providing clear and simple explanations instead of obtuse university terminology

  • scrutinising timetables to avoid unintentional exclusion - this might include specific options for parenting students or those who work to support their studies

  • ensuring inclusive design principles underpin decisions on assessment and program design

  • highlighting the diversity of staff.

These are simple but effective ways to promote feelings of belonging not only for equity groups but also students in general.

To realise the minister’s laudable ambition, all these changes need to be co-ordinated and based on solid evidence. An overarching equity roadmap is needed.

Any change should be informed by significant research in this field and key stakeholders. They include not only those working at the equity coalface but also the people most affected by greater inclusion: the students, families and communities that our higher education institutions serve.

This article is part of The Conversation’s Breaking the Cycle series, which is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

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