NPP Projects

Equity Initiatives in Australian Higher Education. A Review of Evidence of Impact: The Equity Initiatives Framework (EIF) – The Critical Interventions Framework Part 2

Lead University: University of Newcastle

Lead Researcher: Anna Bennett

Research Team: Anna Bennett, Ryan Naylor, Kate Mellor, Matt Brett, Jenny Gore, Andrew Harvey, Richard James, Belinda Munn, Max Smith and Geoff Whitty

Year Funded: 2014

Funding Received: $205,262

DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.6984002.v1



This report provided an overview of equity initiatives in Australian higher education that have demonstrated their effectiveness through published impact studies or as part of a national survey. It included two resources to enhance the planning, monitoring and evaluation of university equity initiatives: an Equity Initiatives Framework providing a summary of equity program and evaluation types; and a supplement of featured initiatives.

Project Outline

  • This study of program impact was based on a review of literature to identify programs that demonstrated impact, and a national online survey. The survey was followed up by targeted telephone interviews with program providers. A ‘rigorous review’ methodology was applied (Kingdon et al., 2014; Oketch et al., 2014).
  • Initiatives from 34 Australian and 9 international institutions were captured using the project methodology.

Key Findings

  • Many different types of programs demonstrate effectiveness within the various stages of the student life cycle. There is no one specific, most effective program per stage, although there are common, underlying factors that contribute to impact.
  • An increasing number of initiatives demonstrate effectiveness, but sustained effort is required to support the development of contextualised forms of evaluation that enable shared learning about the key features of effective approaches across the wide variety of program types.
  • The following key findings are based on the 76 initiatives identified that demonstrated evidence of effectiveness in promoting good outcomes for students from equity groups. The key findings are likely to be most effective if nested within a cohesive institutional equity strategy and national policy framework:
    • Strong collaboration between institutions and communities, and within university environments, is a clear feature of effective programs.
    • Direct experiences with universities for school students and other groups.
    • Mentors and role models.
    • Embedding support in the curriculum is more effective and has broader reach than extra-curricular support programs. Support should be responsive and tailored according to context.
    • Well-designed technologies and online resources increase engagement and support for many students. However, there are challenges in equal access to technologies and with sustaining engagement in online programs. Technologies are best aligned with inclusive pedagogies and practices.
    • Impact studies that provide details about effective initiatives for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students contain important principles and approaches that may be useful for influencing the design and evaluation of other initiatives.
    • Much of the evidence of impact draws on robust theory and research about equity, evaluation and quality program provision.
    • Most studies focus on secondary school outreach programs, pathways programs and first year transition initiatives. Fewer publications evaluate the impact of specific initiatives in early outreach in primary schools and community outreach for adult education. Initiatives during later years of participation, including those relating to completion, transition to employment and postgraduate study, are also less prominent in the literature.
    • Regional universities/campuses with high numbers of students from equity backgrounds are well represented in the literature about effective program provision.
    • The equity group most targeted is people from low socio-economic status backgrounds, but there is a high degree of overlap in equity group participation, and many of these initiatives also capture people who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, people who are first in family to attend university, people from non-English Speaking Backgrounds, and people from regional and remote areas. Less represented in the literature are students with a disability and women in non-traditional areas of work and study.
    • The most impact demonstrated by programs in specific areas of work and study is found in the health sciences, particularly nursing.
  • Important Features of Effective Equity Initiatives:
    • Effective initiatives shift the focus from fitting students into an unchanging higher education system, to developing inclusive higher education programs.
    • Inclusive pedagogies, curricula and support are important. This is particularly evident in the effective initiatives that draw on Indigenous knowledges and practices.
    • Demystifying university culture and cultivating a sense of belonging for both current and prospective students are important for building and sustaining student engagement and success.
    • Evaluation of impact is important. From the impact studies and research participants, researchers found that effective evaluation in the field:
      • is stakeholder-centred, context-specific and iterative
      • is undertaken most frequently through mixed methods approaches that utilise both qualitative and quantitative methods
      • reports multiple effects and outcomes, including: increased access, retention and performance; improved student experiences, connectedness and engagement; informing aspirations for higher education and awareness of pathways
      • is informed by those with experience in program provision and evaluation. Collaborations that join program providers’ specialist knowledge with evaluation and research expertise promote rigorous forms of evaluation and high quality provision.


  • The Equity Initiatives Framework (EIF) may be used as a reference guide for planning, monitoring and evaluating equity initiatives across the student life cycle.
  • Although there have been some improvements for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander groups, the participation, success, retention and completion ratios of this group require attention as they are still significantly lower than those of other students.
  • Institutions should be encouraged to invest in developing evaluation capacity and specific expertise within equity programs. Tailored continuous professional development (CPD) based on research about program effectiveness is likely to improve provision and outcomes. There is scope to develop an interactive web-based toolkit as a shared resource for institutions and program providers to help plan and evaluate equity initiatives in higher education.
  • The establishment of a web-based national clearinghouse of evidence-based work about the impact of equity initiatives in higher education should be considered. Such an information and knowledge-sharing approach could work to: acquire and publish information about evaluation and program impact; connect people with a wide range of expertise in equity program evaluation; and provide comprehensive and policy-relevant analysis of research relating to equity initiatives. This could be overseen by a steering committee composed of national and international experts who would provide overarching strategy and ongoing direction in its development.

Summary prepared by the NCSEHE.


Posted 7 June 2018