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In conversation with 2018 NCSEHE Research Fellow Maria Raciti

During 2018, NCSEHE Research Fellow Maria Raciti (Associate Professor in Marketing in the School of Business, University of the Sunshine Coast) will conduct a high-profile, targeted research project, How the perceived risks of going to university influence the decision by people from low SES backgrounds to participate in Australian higher education.

The project aims to:

  • explore the types of perceived risks that people from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds associate with the decision to go to university
  • develop an evidence base about the role of perceived risks in participation decision making
  • develop and test a model of the influence of perceived risks on the decision to go to university by people from low SES backgrounds
  • seed new thinking and rethinking of widening participation in an era of increasing occupational uncertainty brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Read more information on the Research Fellowship project here.


In the following interview, Maria introduces her Research Fellowship project within the context of her personal and professional experiences.

NCSEHE Alongside your 2018 position as NCSEHE Research Fellow, you are currently Associate Professor in Marketing in the School of Business at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) and co-leader of the University Indigenous Studies Research theme. Could you tell us a little about your journey to this point?

Maria Raciti — I’m originally from Central Queensland. I’ve experienced firsthand many of the barriers to participating in education many of which, unfortunately, still prevail. It is this personal experience that has been an undercurrent in my journey. I have personal experience with the issues facing students from low SES backgrounds, regional/isolated areas, Indigenous students, and students who are the first in their family to attend university. I went to university directly after high school and was one of only four Indigenous, bachelor-level degree graduates out of a starting cohort of more than 100 Indigenous students at my university. Through that journey, I witnessed the consequences that navigational capabilities, financial stress, waning family support and culturally-unsafe practices can have on individuals. But most poignantly, what has stuck with me through the years was the negative impact that not going to university or dropping out of university had on people’s self-concept, such as the belief that they “weren’t good enough”, and then decades later to see how that decision changed the trajectory of their life.

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After completing my Bachelor of Business degree in the early 1990s, I worked for a few years in the industry. In 1996, I commenced at the then Central Queensland University (CQU)’s Indigenous Higher Education Centre, Nulloo Yumbah, as an Academic Adviser for Indigenous Business students. This role was a very important touchstone in my career. At this point in time, the national Vanstone reforms descended on the sector. I observed with keen interest the interplay between these reforms, sector-level responses, strategic re-positioning of individual universities and the trickle-down effect on activities both in and out of the classroom. I noted the significant impact that such reforms had on the participation of people from identified equity groups, and the deficit perspective of both university students and university staff who were from these equity groups. These learnings were profound, and in my ensuing honours degree and PhD, my research looked at the relationships formed between universities and their students in the light of sectoral change.

Now, some two decades later with this NCSEHE Research Fellowship opportunity, that early experience remains as pertinent as ever. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.

NCSEHE  You are a successful and respected academic and researcher — the first Indigenous PhD graduate from CQU; the inaugural USC OLT citation recipient, the inaugural Associate Dean (Learning and Teaching) in the USC Faculty of Arts and Business and Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (UK). How important do you feel academic role models are for people from equity groups? 

Maria Raciti  An integral, yet often overlooked, element of widening participation is the presence of people from the core equity groups in academia. Role models in academia are important for Indigenous peoples but equally for people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people from low SES backgrounds and people with a disability. I have met many successful academics—in junior and senior roles, from an assortment of disciplines, employed at regional and urban universities—who are from one or more equity groups. Some of these academics are involved in widening participation, but there are many others outside of widening participation who are in faculties as discipline experts. In both instances, their stories have rarely been captured or shared. Role models can inspire and empower by challenging stereotypes and conveying straightforward journeys into academia, ‘scenic’ journeys into academia, as well as journeys of triumph in difficult circumstances. Indeed, harnessing the stories of academics from equity groups for widening participation efforts would be a valuable extension to the current widening participation agenda.

NCSEHE — Your NCSEHE Research Fellowship project will examine how perceived risks influence university participation by people from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. What brought about your interest in this important subject area?

Maria Raciti  The topic of my Fellowship reflects my marketing discipline background and my observations of gaps in the widening participation agenda. What marketing is, and its intentions are often misunderstood. Marketing synthesises psychology, sociology and economics to understand how people think, feel and behave in different roles and contexts. Marketing is used extensively by not-for-profit organisations and, in the last decade, the rise of marketing for the social good (known as social marketing) has gained significant traction worldwide particularly because its focus is upon changing what people do (e.g. donating blood, increasing exercise). My discipline expertise is in social marketing and the marketing of services. Perceived risks feature heavily in both social and services marketing research because it drives what people do, yet was absent in the widening participation agenda. Perceived risks have been largely overlooked in the widening participation literature yet are endemic in the decision to go to university.

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NCSEHE — You have co-authored previous research with the NCSEHE, notably the National Priorities Pool project, Social Marketing Strategy for Low SES communities. This report noted that risk aversion was a significant factor in non-participation among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Will your Fellowship project give you the opportunity to further explore this issue of perceived risk in the context of this cohort?

Maria Raciti  People vary in terms of their risk preference (risk averse vs. risk seekers), and this risk preference is known to be context dependent. That is, a person may be a risk seeker in social contexts and quite bold in making new friendships, but the same person may be risk averse in financial contexts, being conservative with their spending or hesitant to get into debt.  Perceived risks are subjective judgements, and these are assessed in the pre-access stage when evaluating post-school alternatives. Furthermore, there are many different types of perceived risks such as financial risk (e.g. expenses associated with going to university, incurring HECS debt), functional risk (e.g. the degree will not help them to get a job in their area of interest) and temporal risk (e.g. length of time to undertake a degree could be time spent earning an income). The Fellowship will also consider opportunity costs, which are a type of risk, in that by choosing to go to university people are forgoing other post-school options. Identity risk will be explored. Identity risk is the risk associated with changing social class identity as a result of higher education participation. The purpose of the Fellowship is to drill down into the role of perceived risks, and potentially identify new types of perceived risk prevalent for people from low SES backgrounds, which may include Indigenous Australians, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and/or people with a disability.

NCSEHE — This appointment will incorporate a secondment at the Australian Government Department of Education and Training; what do you hope to achieve during this placement?

Maria Raciti  My placement with the Department will be my first real exposure to widening participation policy decision making and decision-makers. The placement will hopefully serve a number of purposes. Chiefly, I am hoping to determine interest in my Fellowship project—its timeliness, relevance and usefulness—and how this project can dovetail into current Department priorities. Also, I’m keen to understand the Department—its people, thinking (sensitivities and priorities), and decision-making practices. With regards to the model central to my Fellowship, the placement will provide me with the opportunity to gain insights into the Department’s view of the types of perceived risks that people from low SES backgrounds may associate with going to university. Furthermore, I’m hoping to improve the model through feedback from Department staff.

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NCSEHE — In a rapidly shifting world of work, increasing vocational risk is a significant consideration when students weigh up the risks and benefits of university education. Through this project, you hope to seed new thinking around the optimisation of career construction; do you feel this is particularly significant for people from low SES backgrounds?

Maria Raciti — Widening participation has been demonstrably successful as today more students from the core equity groups access university in Australia than ever before. Widening participation has made great strides, and there is fantastic momentum around the country; however, we are still to reach parity, being the ultimate measure of widening participation success, with people from low SES backgrounds still falling short of proportional representation in the university student population.

We live in interesting times, and there is growing, global discussion of the Fourth Industrial Revolution being the impact of technology on the future of work and how automation, for example, may change the nature of existing occupations, may generate new occupations and, in more dire situations, bring about the demise of some occupations. A significant social shift is upon us. These changes are forecast for the next 10 to 15 years and not the distant future. Hence, they are apparent in the present day and relevant to the current generation of school-aged children — a quarter of which are from low SES backgrounds. Compounding this situation are predictions that jobs in the future may be more likely to need a university education. Given we are currently not at parity in terms of low SES participation in higher education, there is a need to accelerate widening participation for people from low SES backgrounds so as to attend to imminent occupational change and attempt to circumvent the deepening of social inequities.

NCSEHE — What does the NCSEHE role mean to you, and what do you hope to achieve in a more personal context?

Maria Raciti — I’m immensely honoured to be the 2018 NCSEHE Research Fellow and am grateful for this opportunity to bring forth change and seed new thinking about widening participation on a national scale. This Fellowship has been 22 years in the making! To me, the role is both recognition and reward for the body of work that I have generated over my academic career. I bring to the Fellowship not only my lived experience with widening participation but professional expertise as an experienced researcher, accomplished teacher and engaged academic as well as a lot of passion. In terms of what constitutes success for me, well, I simply hope to make a difference and, to quote Bessie A. Stanley and Ralph Waldo Emerson, “to win the respect of intelligent people … the appreciation of honest critics … and to leave the world a bit better … to know even one life has breathed easier … this is to have succeeded”.

Regular updates, leading to the publication of the full report, will be available here on the NCSEHE website and distributed through the Centre’s social media channels and monthly eNews.

Posted 1 May 2018 Posted in Disability, Editorial, General, Indigenous, International, Low SES, Regional