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Fair Connection to Professional Careers

Understanding social difference and disadvantage, institutional dynamics and technological opportunities

Written by Dr Erica Southgate, 2016 NCSEHE Equity Fellow & University of Newcastle Australia Senior Lecturer, School of Education

Imagine this: you are fifteen years old, and you live in a country town where you can go fishing, look after all your animals and swim in the river with friends when it gets hot. You like school and some of the teachers have shown an interest in you because you knuckle down in class and always get your assignments in on time. Your grades aren’t bad either; in fact, in maths and science, you are doing really well. Your parents can’t afford much data on their internet plan but they try to make sure you and your sister get to use some for homework and Facebook, and you use what you can to look up anything to do with NASA on the internet. You love NASA, the international space station, the singing astronaut, aeronautics and the new technology that is being invented. You dream about inventing materials that can be used in space. You wonder how you might get to do this. Do you have to become a scientist or an engineer? What’s the difference anyway? Would you have to move away and go to university and what would that be like? What subjects at school would you need to do? What do scientist or engineers actually do in their work? The only science-y people you have met are your teachers and your parents don’t know a lot about engineering except that your dad can fix the truck he drives. Mum tries to help you on the internet, but she says she doesn’t know much about this stuff either because she works as a cleaner and hasn’t met anybody who does these types of jobs. When there is a chance to do some work experience through school, you want to go and work with real scientists or engineers, but your teacher says you need to find your own placement. Because your family doesn’t know anybody like this, mum lines up some work experience with the local bakery where you help out serving customers and learn a bit about cake decorating.

The features of this vignette are drawn from research with young people experiencing disadvantage in Australia today. Young people of low socioeconomic status (low SES), rural and remote, and Indigenous backgrounds may have significant career aspirations but are less likely to gain access to university and are vastly under-represented a range of high-status degrees such as medicine, law and engineering, and their associated professions. While there has been an understandable focus on academic achievement as a key barrier to accessing high-status degrees, there are numerous other social, cultural and economic factors preventing talented young people from reaching their goals.

The purpose of my Fellowship was to explore the complexity surrounding access to high-status degrees for young people experiencing disadvantage, with special attention paid to the potential of new and emerging digital technologies as a means of creating authentic, early connection to high-status professions.

The Fellowship comprised three interrelated components. The first involved analysing data from existing projects including (1) mining the qualitative data from the Aspirations Longitudinal Study of school students in Australia; and (2) a study of first-in-family (FIF) university students enrolled in the high-status degree of medicine (FIF is highly correlated with low SES). The analysis of the first dataset identified the types of barriers highlighted in the above scenario. High school students experiencing disadvantage who had career aspirations to high-status professions had very limited capacity to identify the range of careers options available to them. They weren’t aware of the academic prerequisites and alternative educational pathways available for gaining access to the degrees associated with such careers and had virtually no access to ‘hot knowledge’ or direct experience of connecting with professionals in their field of interest and undertaking relevant work experience.

In the main, working class kids got working class work experience, and this hampered their ability to explore careers authentically. Analysis of these FIF data revealed that these university students often had protracted and circuitous pathways into medical education and that many received minimal encouragement and career education about high-status degrees at school. Moreover, many struggled with the financial pressures involved in studying medicine. Feelings of stigma related to family background were also evident. However, FIF students were often committed to returning to their communities of origin to practice medicine (these communities being working-class, rural, remote and, for some, Indigenous).

The second component of the Fellowship project was a national scoping of barriers and enablers to high-status professions through interviewing experts in the field. Analysis of this component is underway.

The final component was a road map (or primer) to existing and emerging digital technologies and their potential application for K-12 education and career exploration. A report – Immersed in the Future: A roadmap of existing and emerging technology for career exploration – is available for free download (4MB). The report scopes a range of technologies including virtual and augmented reality, haptics, tangibles, and new video media. It provides accessible explanations of these technologies and some examples of how they are, or might be, used to promote dvveeper learning in the disciplines associated with professions and virtual ‘taster’ experiences of post-school education and the world of work. At the heart of the report is a vision for using these technologies to promote equity of educational outcomes and career opportunities for all students facing disadvantage, just like the student described in the scenario that opens this summary.

Publications and other outputs from the Fellowship can be found on my research profile and my research network website.

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


Posted 8 December 2016 Posted in General, Indigenous, Low SES, Regional, rural and remote