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The Australian Student Equity Program and Institutional Change

Paradigm shift or business as usual?

Written by Dr Nadine Zacharias, 2016 NCSEHE Equity Fellow & Deakin University Honorary Research Fellow

The vision of an Australian higher education system that actively widened participation and whose graduates reflected more closely the diversity of the Australian population was articulated in the Bradley Review of Higher Education (2008) and drove the establishment of a national student equity program in 2010: the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program (HEPPP). This Fellowship has explored how the vision of a more equitable higher education system was translated into institutional practice. The key questions enquired how the sector has responded to the challenge and opportunity provided by HEPPP and whether the national equity program became a catalyst for driving strategic and institutional changes in how universities’ conceptualised and implemented student equity programs.

HEPPP has provided significant funding to 37 public universities since 2010 to “undertake activities and implement strategies that improve access to undergraduate courses for people from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds and improve their retention and completion rates”. The 2012 Guidelines state that “HEPPP aims to encourage and assist providers to meet the Commonwealth Government’s ambition that, by 2020, 20 per cent of domestic undergraduate students must be from low SES backgrounds”. Six years on, and following substantial financial investment, it is important to understand how HEPPP has been implemented by universities and whether they responded in the anticipated way, i.e. engaged with schools and communities to generate interest in higher education, increased enrolments of students from low SES backgrounds and allocated resources as necessary to ensure retention through to graduation in a wholeof- institution approach. The approach to the Fellowship program has been collaborative, using a qualitative methodology which includes five interrelated pieces of work and an engagement strategy with key stakeholders:

1. Analysis of HEPPP annual progress reports (2010-2015) to produce a typology of institutional approaches to HEPPP implementation.

2. Interviews with policy makers at the Department of Education and Training to establish their aspirations and experiences in implementing HEPPP.

3. Review of institutional performance data (2010-2015) with regard to access, participation, retention and success rates of students from low SES backgrounds

4. Three institutional case studies illustrating types of institutional approaches to HEPPP, including additional document analysis and interviews with key decision makers, equity practitioners and program partners in the chosen universities.

5. Five Student Equity workshops with practitioners in four capital cities to explore how universities have designed, implemented, evaluated and improved student equity programs since the introduction of HEPPP.

The first two phases of data collection were conducted during a four-week placement with the Australian Government Department of Education and Training in Canberra and three follow-up visits. These visits also included formal and informal meetings with the Equity Programs team and other relevant experts in the Department as well as a presentation to the Department on equity scholarships research.

Through the analysis of annual HEPPP progress reports and the collation of institutional case studies, the Fellowship has produced a typology and three in-depth examples of how universities responded to policy and program objectives in terms of strategic approach and alignment to institutional mission, program design, administration and governance. In doing so, the Fellowship research presents a rich and complex view of Australia’s national equity program and its implementation in deliberately different institutions and geographic locations.

The most important finding of the Fellowship is that instead of aiming for a one-size-fits-all blueprint of ‘best practice’ in HEPPP implementation across the sector, it is significantly more important to assess what kind of program works best for a specific institution in its context. Most universities had preexisting equity programs which were re-worked, scaled up and/ or significantly expanded by HEPPP funding. HEPPP has provided universities with the flexibility to develop and implement bespoke programs which best fit their institutional profile and priorities. What is missing is an effective approach to evaluating how successful these approaches have been in context. The Fellowship identified existing measures and developed new tools to more comprehensively and meaningfully assess the effectiveness of institutional HEPPP initiatives, including a typology of approaches to HEPPP implementation and an expanded Equity Initiatives Map initially produced as part of the Critical Intervention Framework (Part 2).

HEPPP design and implementation was assessed as having worked well overall. At the same time, some key challenges and scope for program reform at federal and institutional levels were apparent at an early stage of the Fellowship. These included:

  • Increased accountability and the need to better enforce universities’ adherence to the HEPPP Guidelines;
  • Annual funding allocations as serious barriers to efficient and proactive program implementation;
  • Very large numbers of initiatives in many institutions and little evidence of comprehensive program review and reform;
  • The need for systemic support and national frameworks to enable effective evaluation, collaboration and sharing of leading practice.

While there were some common themes, the ways in which HEPPP has been implemented across the sector strongly reflects existing institutional diversity and, though there were similarities between some universities, there were no dominant ‘types’.

To reflect the diversity of approaches adopted across the sector, three case study institutions were chosen for their differences in institutional type (a Group of 8, an Australian Technology Network, and an unaligned university), geographic location, student profile and approach to implementing HEPPP. There were distinct differences in the scale of HEPPP initiatives, the organisational model adopted, conceptual frameworks used as well as the level of selectivity of the institution in terms of both students and partners. These difference are outlined in more detail in the typology in Appendix 1. I have called these three types:

  • Deliver at scale;
  • Principles and partnerships;
  • Targeted and personalised.

However, it was not possible to group all 37 universities into these (and potentially other) types as originally intended because the information provided in the HEPPP annual progress reports was insufficient to make an informed judgement.

In addition to identifying different approaches to HEPPP implementation, the Fellowship project endeavoured to link these different types of institutional structures to student and program outcomes at the institutional and national level and to identify any influence of the form of an institution’s HEPPP initiatives on its success or otherwise. However, there were a number of methodological and practical challenges in the evaluation process.

The HEPPP Guidelines position the 20 per cent participation target as an important objective of HEPPP, to be achieved by increasing access and retention rates of students from low SES backgrounds. Corresponding institutional targets were initially set out in Compact Agreements. A key theme of the Fellowship was whether the 20 per cent target is the best measure of success of the program, taking into account the interrelationships between the demand driven funding system and HEPPP which were introduced in tandem in 2010.

In summary, low SES participation rate is a useful outcomes measure at sector level but, by itself, seems an imperfect tool to assess the quality and success of a university’s HEPPP initiatives, especially due to the influence of other variables which cannot readily be accounted for. The HEPPP Guidelines already include improvements in access, retention and completion rates as explicit objectives of the program. To get a more nuanced view on achievements and challenges, it would be useful to shift the collective focus to the underlying drivers of participation rate and to factor in completion rates to any assessment of program success. Furthermore, an equal emphasis on total numbers of students in the system provides a more accurate and positive picture on low SES participation. Finally, process measures could be introduced to assess the quality and success of an institutional HEPPP activities in its context. These process measures would increase the accountability of universities regarding the targeting and effectiveness of their HEPPP activities and go some way to demonstrating the effects of HEPPP in the context of demand driven funding.

In response to the key question of the Fellowship, does Australia have a more equitable HE system now than in 2010, the results are arguably, and perhaps not surprisingly, mixed. It is without question that HEPPP has fundamentally changed the scale, scope and approach to student equity work in universities. There was evidence, especially from the case studies, that HEPPP increased the institutional focus on student equity and created an expert workforce with specialist skills not previously found in universities. There were also examples of systemic changes in outreach work, admission systems and student support. HEPPP-funded work touched most areas of universities while not necessarily altering them in fundamental ways. At the partner school level, there were examples of HEPPP-funded interventions being identified as catalysts for whole-of-school transformations. Practitioners described the achievements of the partnership work funded by HEPPP as a “triumph”.

From 2010, Australia has recorded the first substantial increase in participation rates since the 1990s, from 16.3 per cent in 2009 to 17.9 per cent in 2014, and there are significantly more students from low SES backgrounds in the system now than ever before, 124,429 students in 2014 compared to 90,447 in 2009, an increase of 38 per cent. However, at both ends of the spectrum, universities have seen actual declines in participation rates which seems to be an effect of demand driven funding.

Universities have contributed to, and drawn on, a rapidly growing evidence base on the nature of the challenge and what works in widening participation for students from low SES backgrounds. This is in itself transformational as equity practitioners and university decision makers are less likely to commit ‘acts of faith’ in designing interventions to increase the participation of equity students and are instead enabled to make strategic decisions informed by solid evidence.

The Fellowship research is the first exploration of how institutional mission and strategy as well as administrative and governance arrangements have shaped the HEPPP initiatives implemented in different institutions. The key finding is that HEPPP has provided an opportunity for universities to develop bespoke equity programs and that any assessment of ‘success’ of institutional HEPPP initiatives must consider what kind of program works best for a specific university in its context. Low SES participation rate as the sole measure of success is an imperfect indicator to determine how these meso structures contribute to overall program and student outcomes. Instead, success indicators should consider each objective of HEPPP, improving access, retention and completion and combine outcome with process measures.

The Fellowship methodology worked well for this exploratory project and provided a rich perspective on the implementation of HEPPP across the sector which opens up questions and avenues for further research.

In line with the key finding that there is no one-size-fits-all recipe of success, the onus is on universities as well as the Department to assure themselves that an institution has designed and implemented a HEPPP activity which best fits its institutional context and priorities and optimally supports prospective and current students from low SES backgrounds in their area of influence. The best interest of the student, prospective and current, has to be paramount in that process.

While the focus of the Fellowship research has been on universities’ responses to HEPPP, it provided a conversation starter about whether HEPPP in its current form is the optimal national equity program for Australian higher education. Recommendations have been provided to the Department of Education and Training for that purpose.


Dr Zacharias’ full Fellowship report will be published to the NCSEHE website in early 2017.


Posted 6 December 2016 Posted in General, Low SES