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In Conversation with NCSEHE Visiting Fellow Sally Kift

Professor Sally Kift (President, Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows) spent a week at the NCSEHE in May 2018, conducting collaborative project work with the research team, and presenting a seminar on Maintaining the momentum: Transition pedagogy to sustain widening participation and student success. Sally took some time during her visit to share her personal and professional experiences as an equity student, and as a long-term advocate for widening participation in higher education.

NCSEHE — Your background is in law and teaching; what brought you to develop a particular interest in widening participation in higher education?

SK — I attended state primary and secondary schools and was the first in my family to go to university. I was extremely lucky to have had parents with aspirations for my further education, despite them being somewhat fearful about what that might look like and where it might lead. I think Mum and Dad were simultaneously proud and aghast at what I had undertaken when I first enrolled, and what I might become. I was also one of the many beneficiaries of Gough Whitlam’s transformative agenda of free higher education in the 1970s. If the cost of tertiary education had been a factor at the time, I am not sure that I would ever have gone to uni; money was always a bit tight and, as it was, I worked three part-time jobs to support myself through my law studies.

With that background, how could I be anything other than an advocate for widening participation? My life would have been so very different if I had not had access to the opportunities that higher education presented. I want that opportunity to be easily available for every single person who has any wish to pursue further study, but particularly for those who might not be as fortunate as I was to have had parents who supported me and made sure that I understood that going to uni was always an option.

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NCSEHE — Did you experience personal challenges in accessing and succeeding at university given your own background as a First-in-Family student from a regional area, and do you feel those experiences have shaped your work?

SK — In a quite self-indulgent way, I have written about this in a not-very-polished 2005 article in the Newcastle Law Review entitled “My Law School — Then And Now”. To summarise: throughout my law school years at my state’s Go8 university, I had a very strong sense of being “other” to my peers’ apparently effortless fit. I also found it hard to penetrate the extreme insularity of everything about “The Law”, regarding which I was completely ignorant. I said in that 2005 article that I can “still quite clearly recall the early days or weeks of social and intellectual isolation, the constancy of intellectual self-doubt that pervaded everything I did, and the massively ill-conceived problem-based learning exercise my degree seemed to be”.

From my 16-year-old, first-generation university student perspective (I was a February child who started primary school early), I really didn’t understand a single thing that was going on: how anything was supposed to fit together; what study or academic skills I was expected to have and/or might need; how unpronounceable legal words were to be pronounced (which was mortifying); how we were supposed to go about tackling the crushing burden of 100 per cent, end-of-whole-year, closed book exams; etc. etc. I was “scared witless by the fear of failure, though I was never quite sure what it was that I was required to do to ensure non-failure, let alone success.”

You might get an inkling from this as to why I am so driven now to get first year right for all students, or at least give it a red hot go. Knowing what we do now about how to work with students to seek to alleviate transition anxiety and to better support the diversity of first year experiences, it seems to me that we have a duty of care to ensure that none of today’s first year, non-traditional, students is as intimidated by their experience of learning and seeking to belong as I was. As Vincent Tinto exhorts: we shouldn’t leave student success to chance.

NCSEHE — What were the main factors that contributed to your success at university?

SK — I am very clear about what kept me at university — because to learn and succeed you must first be retained. It was the fact that I lived in a residential College on-campus, with other like-minded, like-aged peers. And we all studied and played our way through university together. I would call this now a “learning community”, though I didn’t know that at the time. I suspect the fact that very few of these College peers were law students may have also assisted because I found my fellow law students quite aloof (and much better dressed than me!). I had one good friend at College, with whom I went to and from law lectures, and a number of good friends amongst later year law students who also lived there. My social experience of learning, therefore, was mainly via other disciplines, enabled by the daily College ritual of a 9:30pm coffee/study break. It also helped that my identity back in the 70s was primarily one of student, though we all worked part-time.

Crucially, and fortunately for me, we didn’t have to navigate university websites, online enrolment, or a learning management system. Instead, I spent a lot of time standing in queues—to get enrolled, to get an ID card, to get a piece of paper about one of the subjects I was studying—and found out what was going on that way.

So — I think it is fair to say that I was successful by accident and due to a confluence of fortunate events. And probably because, at my peak, I could rote learn an A4 page in 15 minutes (for the 100 per cent closed book exam at the year-end of every subject).

NCSEHE — Do you feel there have been fundamental changes in the landscape for supporting non-traditional students into, and through, higher education since then?

SK — In 2018, we are so much better at supporting underrepresented students, though I would concede there is still work to be done. I strongly believe that the quality of Australian higher education is generally very high, though am not naïve about the daily struggle that it is for institutions to assure the quality of every individual student’s experience — there are so many variables, not the least of which is our capacity to join up siloed academic, administrative, and support programs to assure the personalised quality of learning, support, and administration of learning. The institutions that take large numbers of non-traditional students are usually very good at providing their students with the “just-in-time”, “just-for-me”, support and information those students need to be successful, while the quality of both curriculum design and teaching professionalism are both far better than was the case in the late 1970s when I was a student.

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There are many reasons for this. We now know so much about what works for student learning, success and retention — we have decades of research on which to draw, and many exemplars of good practice in our sector. With the injection of the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) outreach and participation money since the 2008 Bradley Review, many targeted programs and activities have been funded to support low socioeconomic status (SES) student success in particular. These have had discernible impact as the NCSEHE Fellows, collections, and projects have highlighted.

The advent of the Higher Education Standards Framework in 2012, against which higher education providers are regulated by TEQSA, has also been very influential, given the Framework’s critical focus on student success, teaching quality, student support, and assurance of learning design and graduate outcomes.

We continue to reap the benefits of almost two decades of bipartisan federal government enhancement funding, which provided critical insights that have enabled improvements in higher education educational quality and the student experience. Though this research and development money is no longer available, we are fortunate to continue to have access to the NCSEHE Fellowships, National Priorities Pool (NPP) projects, and a range of other learning and teaching research opportunities via institutional groups (for example, IRU, ATN — see my collection of them here). A big game changer has been the powerful tool that is institutional deployment of learning analytics to identify and proactively push support to students who need it.

And finally, all institutions very keenly feel the reputational spotlight shone on them by the public availability of student data on the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) website, which is driving them to (re)focus on assuring learning and teaching quality. Institutions are doubling down on these efforts now that the sector has been told to anticipate performance-based funding from 2020, likely tied to student attrition, retention, progression, low SES participation, and graduate outcomes. So, all round, it’s a good news story for student success. The recent release of the Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) Final Report – Improving Retention, Completion and Success in Higher Education in June 2018 with its further enhancement requirements—all of which have been accepted in the Government’s response—further underscores that this focus is not abating.

NCSEHE — You have spoken, and published, widely on the subject of Transition Pedagogy. What does a strategic, holistic approach to Transition Pedagogy look like from an individual student’s point of view?

SK — From the student’s point of view, it looks like we have our institutional act together! It looks like we genuinely care about their success; that we are interested in them as individuals, and give of our time and expertise to make this big investment they have made in their future a real possibility for them. It looks like we value what they bring to their learning, whatever their background; that we don’t do deficit and blame, and that we respect the trust they place in us to do the right thing. It is the whole of the institution intentionally orientated towards supporting their learning and success. It is seamless, coordinated, coherent and integrated, managed over the course of their student lifecycle. It is a truly beautiful thing.

If we can make easy the administration of their learning, their access to timely support and their capacity and motivation to belong and connect, and if we intelligently anticipate and pre-empt the inevitable peaks and troughs of the first year lifecycle, then we free students up to focus all of their energy on the hard work that is learning. Transition Pedagogy (TP) says that this should all be driven through the curriculum, because that is where time-poor first year students are entitled to find academic and social relevance, learning structure, a sense of belonging, and explicit support to be successful. And, before anyone asks, of course students have to work hard too. But we need to meet them half way.

NCSEHE — You explain that “Transition Pedagogy focuses on what students have in common—their learning experiences mediated through curriculum—rather than problematising their diversity and difference.” What is the significance of embedding retention and support strategies at the heart of institutional policy and practice and the curriculum, rather than simply addressing specific deficits for those from disadvantaged backgrounds?

SK — Education is the most efficient mechanism we have to future-proof Australian society—especially the more disadvantaged members of our society—against deepening inequality that may fall out of the current technological revolution. In that context, if we are going to deliver on our higher education promise equitably, and particularly for underrepresented cohorts, we have to focus on what we in institutions can do (rather than what “they”—students from disadvantaged backgrounds—can’t do, that needs to be “fixed”). This is about adapting our university culture and practices so that we can get the context right for staff to get the context right for students (as the wonderful Lynne Hunt said many years ago).

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The premise underpinning Transition Pedagogy was to cease problematising individual students and to focus instead on inclusion and achievement with an inclusive curriculum as the centrepiece, rather than desultory, inequitable and ad hoc efforts at integration deployed on the curriculum’s periphery. The focus on first year curriculum as the academic and social “organising device” and “glue” (McInnis, 2001) that holds the student experience together for all students was the quantum leap in first year theorising that TP has facilitated. The distinctive features of TP are threefold:

  1. an intentional and foundational curriculum focus to mediate equitably the coherence and quality of the student experience, cumulatively over the student lifecycle
  2. a whole-of-institution and whole-of-student emphasis that delivers coordinated and integrated engagement and proactively intervenes to assure just-in-time, just-for-me support, and a sense of belonging
  3. the enabling capacity of academic and professional staff working together in cross-institutional partnerships in pursuit of an articulated, institutional first year experience (FYE) vision.

Such an integrated model, which overtly demonstrates institutional intent and commitment to the quality of the first year student experience, is effective, efficient and, critically, sustainable once it becomes enmeshed in curriculum design and delivery. This is hugely important as universities face constrained and constricting budgets and struggle to provide comprehensive support services, especially after hours when many equity group students need to access them.

The NCSEHE Fellows in particular have drawn attention to particular cohorts—Indigenous; external; regional and remote; First-in-Family; non-traditional students in elite courses in elite institutions; and others—who expect to be challenged by their tertiary studies but require scaffolded support embedded in universal design for learning success.

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If we can shift institutional culture by getting policy statements explicitly supportive of critical success strategies and move from a primary focus on students integrating into institutional culture, to an adaptation approach whereby institutions adapt culture, processes, and practices to support diversity (as Nick Zepke and colleagues in New Zealand have advocated) then we establish what Tinto refers to as the “educational conditions” that promote learning and retention.

NCSEHE — You have now become a prominent figure across the sector; is it personally challenging to be one of the “faces” at the forefront the widening participation agenda?

SK — I am very keenly aware that I am not Australia’s next top model and just try to live through the photos, videoing and other attention directed my way, as happens on occasion. I have learnt to accept that it goes with the territory. But, if it gets the message out, and there is consequently a greater potential that the out-there-message might be heard, then that has to be a good thing. Right? I also consider that it’s my responsibility to keep putting myself out there on issues that I think are important. If I don’t do that, if I don’t do anything, I can hardly complain that things are not improving. It may come as a surprise to hear that I don’t actually find it at all easy, but I am better now at just getting on with it than I was some years ago. What’s the worst that can happen? (I actually try not to think about that).

Supporting the wider agenda in this way—as well as those who are collectively trying to do the same—by opening myself up to scrutiny is always a bit of a risk because, as Kamahl once said if I might paraphrase, people can be so unkind. Which leads me to this. As a sector, we are probably not as supportive of good colleagues as we should be. I therefore see it as my obligation also to support as many good colleagues as I possibly can — I write a lot of referee reports!

NCSEHE — In your recent seminar at the NCSEHE, you drew on Equity Fellowship research by Erica Southgate: Fair Connection to Professional Careers. Having achieved outstanding personal success in high-status professions, do you have any advice to students who may be facing challenges in the realisation of their own career aspirations?

SK — This is kind of you to say, though I am not sure that I am the successful person you have just described. This is a difficult question to answer because there is no silver bullet. Rather boringly, it is a lot about hard work and determination, though you also need reservoirs of resilience and persistence to keep going in the face of, what often seem to be, crushing fails. I think you can be lucky—like I was in the free Whitlam years—but also you can make your own luck or, more accurately, take advantage of good fortune that comes your way. When seriously good opportunities present, you do need to step up, even if that requires some courage.

I think having a strong moral compass/set of principles is critical — that helps with constancy in your decision-making. You should align yourself with like-minded people, actively seek out some good role models and mentors, don’t take yourself too seriously, treat people fairly, and be clear about what it is that you want to do and stick with that, despite what others say, with necessary pauses for reflection and recalibration along the way.

You can’t avoid taking risks and often you do just have to force yourself to do stuff. My one constant piece of advice to myself is — don’t flatter yourself (that anything that hurts or discourages is personal or intentionally directed at you — it often is just the way things, or people, are, which is disappointing but rarely about you specifically).

My advice to my younger self would be to keep calm(er) and keep it real/authentic, noting that being passionate is just fine (and is quite authentic). And support other women and good colleagues. Please. Hope that helps!

Sally Kift is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA), a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law (FAAL) and elected President of the Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows (ALTF). From 2012–17, she was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at James Cook University (JCU). Prior to JCU, Sally was a Professor of Law at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), where she also served as Law Faculty Assistant Dean, Teaching & Learning (2001–06) and QUT’s foundational Director, First Year Experience (2006–07). Sally is a national Teaching Award winner (2003) and national Program Award winner (2007). She was awarded a Senior Fellowship by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) in 2006 to investigate the first year experience and is a Discipline Scholar in Law. In 2017, Sally was awarded an Australian Award for University Teaching Career Achievement for her contribution to Australian higher education.

Posted 28 June 2018 Posted in Disability, Editorial, General, Indigenous, International, Low SES, Regional