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Making a Difference together: The importance of school and university partnerships in widening participation in higher education

Written by Dr Ann Stewart for Faculty Magazine. Reproduced with permission.

For decades now, Australian governments of both persuasions have aimed to increase the participation of people from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds in tertiary education. The 2008 ‘Bradley’ Review of Australian Higher Education was the catalyst for a significant increase in funding for university programs aimed at increasing access to and participation in higher education for people from these ‘equity’ groups, in particular, those from Low Socio-Economic backgrounds (Low SES), and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

While the additional funding was welcomed by the sector, what appeared odd at first glance, was making the responsibility for increasing the numbers of students engaging in university study primarily the responsibility of the universities themselves. It could easily have been argued that the schools were responsible for ensuring that their students from whatever background, were properly prepared to undertake university study and for encouraging them to do so. However, by tying a proportion of the funding to federally-funded core university income and requiring demonstrated partnerships between institutions of higher education and relevant stakeholders, including schools, the higher education sector was forced to seriously address how they could contribute to meeting the government’s targets [1].

What has become clear in the ensuing years since this higher education agenda was set by the federal government, is that the most successful programs resulting in increased numbers of students moving on to university from their final year of school, have come about through the development of close working partnerships with schools and universities [2].

The Imperative
In 2007, Tony Vinson wrote a report, Dropping off the Edge [3], in which he argued that social disadvantage negatively impacts upon Australia’s economic potential, robbing the nation of skilled workers and inflating the costs of welfare. His data supported the contention that issues such as social unrest, poverty, high rates of incarceration and crime, poor health, high rates of unemployment, low educational attainment, and political disengagement are interdependent indicators of social exclusion which result in a society that is fragmented, dysfunctional and in which most of us would not want to live. Vinson suggested the solution requires

“…drawing the most severely disadvantaged neighbourhoods of our society into mainstream economic and social prosperity…”

He specifically referred to the ability of higher education in particular to be transformative in bringing about community cultural change, raising standards of living and lifting people out of poverty.

This report resonated with the then Labor opposition, which, when coming to power, ordered a review of Australian higher education. The 2008 ‘Bradley Review’, as it became known, was undoubtedly one of the most thorough examination and analyses of the Australian system for over two decades. A significant component of the review report critically considered how universities might better grow the representational percentage of students from ‘equity’ groups, in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and those from Low Socio-Economic backgrounds.

Despite decades of work by equity practitioners in universities across the country, usually with minimal resourcing, little improvement had been made in increasing the representation of, particularly, these two equity groups in higher education. Julia Gillard (who at the time was Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister) noted that

“… Australian universities had a ‘major problem with equity’… with people from rural and regional areas and lower socio-economic groups, as well as Aborigines, dramatically under-represented.” (The Australian, 30 June 2008.)

What was required was a major incentive to encourage universities to encourage universities to partner with key stakeholders, in particular the school sector, to develop strategies to tackle this seemingly intransigent issue. Such strategies needed to consider three key aspects of this ‘Widening Participation’ agenda: to build aspiration to higher education, support the development of potential students’ academic capability, and remove barriers and open pathways to enrolment. Unsurprisingly, the incentive for universities to put significant effort into this imperative came in the form of an unprecedented funding boost, with accountability strings attached.

Much of the previous effort in university outreach programs had focused upon addressing perceived barriers to higher education and for the main part, had primarily engaged with high-school students at the senior levels. Activities had been principally designed, therefore, to identify academically capable students in the final year or two of school and encourage them to apply for a university place, often through providing bonus points for various equity considerations, providing financial assistance and tailored transition programs for specific student cohorts. Despite these efforts, the percentage of students from low SES backgrounds remained stagnant at around 15%.

Professor Gavin Brown, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney, was absolutely correct when he stated that this approach would never had the desired result in significantly improving the representation of students from low SES backgrounds, and that

“… early intervention is necessary. This starts with preschool opportunities and runs right through the education system. Universities can and should help with this, but mere tinkering with entry requirements is fool’s gold.” (The Australian, 25 June 2008)

This view was supported by a number of leaders in the field, including Professor Eleanor Ramsay who also noted

“… the need for long term relationships between universities and the schools to be developed in order for outreach to be successful.” (Ramsay et al. 1998)

These claims were supported by data from the UK, where, for almost a decade a major national strategy with almost identical goals similar to the Australian government’s higher education agenda had been operating. The success of the UK programs, indicated the absolute necessity of university partnerships with schools, to develop activities that are related to and enhance the schools’ curriculum, value-adding to the classroom experience for the students and assisting the teachers. Partners had to be committed to the long-term, commencing at an early age, engaging all students in programs which systematically scaffolded outcomes related to academic success, as well as aspiration-building and career development.

As a result of the Widening Participation agenda and taking the lead from international best practice, universities seriously addressed the enhancement of relationships with disadvantaged schools within their catchment area and in some cases for the first time, the more elite universities began to develop genuine relationships with such schools.

In Queensland, all public universities came together under a formal MOU that was signed by all Vice Chancellors and the relevant Ministers of Education. Each university was allocated a cluster of schools located in disadvantaged areas, and undertook to work collaboratively with those schools to offer a range of Widening Participation activities. The intent of this engagement was to encourage students who may not have previously considered tertiary education, to think about this possibility and, if academically able, to consider university education as an achievable and realistic post-school option.

As the Widening Participation programs developed around the country, it became increasingly obvious that a key element in building aspiration to further education and to university was to engage in shifting community thinking about the accessibility and usefulness of further education, in particular about the value of acquiring a university degree and entrenching the belief that ‘people like us DO go to uni.’ This required a whole-of-community approach and consequently, many of the initiatives that were developed through these strengthened school-university partnerships were expanded to also include relevant local community organisations such as church groups, sporting clubs, and police youth groups. But the schools remained pivotal to the activities, communications, structuring the various activities, as well as providing access to potential future students.

Given the long-term nature of this work, the full impact of these recent initiatives has yet to be fully evaluated in terms of a sustained improvement in enrolment statistics from low SES and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, as well as any pay-off in community capacity building. Nevertheless, early indications suggest that even in the relatively short time (five years) of this work, there has been an increase in the enrolment of low SES and Indigenous students in Queensland. Universities have become more sophisticated in their delivery and valuable relationships have been developed that will ensure ongoing school and university partnerships into the future, no matter what happens in an uncertain funding environment.

Creating aspiration to higher education is not the only answer to the national aim of improving proportional representation in higher education of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but it is certainly one significant aspect of this. Universities have a unique capacity to significantly contribute in a range of areas: through their expertise, their graduates who enter the professions, as well as providing access to their outstanding facilities and intellectual capital. Importantly, however, has been the development of an understanding that, for the Widening Participation agenda to be successful, a genuine and equal partnership between the schools and the universities is necessary. Furthermore, that the expertise of the school stakeholders is recognised as is the value-adding capacity of the wider community stakeholder groups. The Australian experience has in fact mirrored that of the UK in finding that Widening Participation programs developed in a genuinely collaborative manner, involving schools and community stakeholders and that a focus upon relationship-building is fundamental to success.


Ann is passionate about the ability of education to make profound changes in people’s lives. Throughout her career, she committed to making a difference to those who experience disadvantage and marginalisation. Ann recently retired from her role as Head of Student Access, Equity and Diversity with the University of the Sunshine Coast. Previously, Ann was Director of Equity at the University of Queensland. In that role, she helped develop a suite of equity and diversity policies for students and staff, as well as a range of initiatives across the university. Ann holds a Doctorate in Education, exploring effective diversity leadership and policy implementation.


[1] The first target was to raise the percentage of Australian 25 to 34 year olds holding a bachelors degree to 40% by 2025, and the second, to raise the percentage of Low SES students to hold an undergraduate degree to 20% of the total domestic student cohort by 2020.

[2] A number of case studies and research papers on this subject are available from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.

[3] Vinson, T. (2007). Dropping off the Edge: the Distribution of Disadvantage in Australia. Richmond, Victoria. Australia: Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services Australia.

Posted 9 February 2016 Posted in Editorial, General, Indigenous, Low SES, Regional, rural and remote