NPP Projects

Who Seeks Access to What, When and Why? Interrogating the Pivotal Role of Student Aspirations in Higher Education Participation

Lead University: University of Newcastle

Lead Researcher: Jenny Gore

Research Team: Jenny Gore, Max Smith, Kath Holmes

Year Funded: 2014

Funding Received: $275,625

DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.6988850.v1



This project addressed low SES student underrepresentation in higher education, particularly in high-status degrees. Data from surveys and focus groups was mapped to indicate the specific occupational interests and educational aspirations of school students from Years 3–12 to inform targeted university outreach activities. A robust evidence base was generated for wider dissemination which was applicable to outreach activities across all Australian universities.

Project Outline

  • The project’s objectives were to:
    • investigate higher education participation and aspirations in schools in low socioeconomic status (SES) areas
    • build the evidence base about the occupational interests of school students upon which targeted strategies might be designed and implemented by universities, to increase access to participation in higher education by students from low SES backgrounds
    • analyse data on specific occupational choices of students across all primary and high school years (Years 3–12) to identify patterns and gaps in aspirations and optimal timing of interventions
    • analyse data on the reasons students provide for their occupational choices
    • investigate students’ motivations, hopes and desires as they relate to particular career interests and how these impact on their choices and decisions
    • provide a robust evidence base, able to be used by all Australian universities, to help shape targeted university outreach activities that resonate with and build on the ways in which low SES students talk about what interests them.
  • The project involved analysis of the career aspirations, and reasons students gave for their aspirations, drawing on surveys of more than 10,000 school students and focus groups involving 577 of those students. Regression analysis and qualitative analysis created a rich picture of who seeks access to what, when and why — which can inform the outreach and other strategic activities involving schools that are undertaken by universities.

Key Findings

  • Gore J., Barron, R. J., Holmes, K., & Smith, M. (2016). Who says we are not attracting the best and brightest? Teacher selection and the aspirations of Australian school students. Australian Educational Researcher, 43, 527–549. doi:10.1007/s13384-016-0221-8
    • Interest in teaching was widespread and prior academic achievement was not a significant predictor. Thematic analysis of reasons expressed for interest in teaching indicated that working with children and/or in specific subject areas, altruism, and perceptions of personal suitability for the job dominated student responses. These data provided a counter-narrative to the primacy, in policies for teacher recruitment and selection, of needing to attract ‘better’ students.
    • Researchers argued that policies for improving teacher quality should capitalise on the widespread interest in teaching among school students. Without such a discursive broadening, they cautioned that current attempts to attract the ‘best and brightest’ risk undermining the very goals espoused.
  • Gore, J., Holmes, K., Smith, M., Fray, L., McElduff, P., Weaver, N., & Wallington, C. (2017). Unpacking the career aspirations of Australian school students: Towards an evidence base for university equity initiatives in schools. Higher Education Research and Development. 36, 1383-1400. doi:10.1080/07294360.2017.1325847
    • A complex array of factors related to interest in different careers. Year level at school, gender, and prior achievement were stronger predictors across many careers than factors such as SES, Indigenous status, and school location.
    • Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach to encouraging participation in higher education, the authors argued for targeted outreach activities to account for student diversity and inequalities that foster differing aspirations.
  • Gore, J., Fray, L., Wallington, C., Holmes, K., & Smith, M. (2017). Australian school student aspirations for military careers: Traditional perceptions in shifting contexts. Armed Forces & Society, 43, 238–259. doi:10.1177/0095327X16682046
    • Student aspirations were influenced by traditional perceptions of the military as a primarily masculine enterprise. Key reasons for student interest included dominant notions of masculinity, familial military experience, career options, and enlistment benefits.
    • Current views of the military among school children signaled the need to shift dominant perceptions of the defence forces are to appeal to a wider range of people and attract a more diverse workforce.
  • Gore, J., Patfield, S., Holmes, K., & Smith, M. (2017). Widening participation in medicine? New insights from school students’ aspirations. Medical Education. Advance online publication. doi:10.1111/medu.13480
    • For medical schools seeking to widen participation, this study underscored the importance of recognising the intersection of other factors with socioeconomic status and how they contribute to students’ aspirational biographies.
    • If medical schools are to select from a more diverse range of applicants, recruitment strategies must take into account the discursive positioning of the discipline.
    • Sustained outreach into primary and secondary schools may be critical to interrupting the current social reproduction of medical schooling.
  • Gore, J., Rickards, B., Fray, L., Holmes, K., & Smith, M. (2017). Profiling Australian school students’ interest in a nursing career: Insights for ensuring the future workforce. Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing. 35, 12-22.
    • Significant predictors of interest in nursing included being female and having a parent in a nursing occupation. A ‘helping orientation’ and prior experiences with nurses or nursing were key factors underpinning students’ interest in this career. Some students perceived nursing as a ‘safe’ career choice, balancing practical concerns, such as job security, with their desire to care. Other students expressed ambivalence, with nursing but one of many ‘caring’ careers to which they were drawn.
    • Given that early experiences with nursing or nursing-related activities influenced the desire to pursue this career, developing new experiential strategies that engage school student interest are important for ensuring the growth and stability of the Australian nursing workforce.
  • Holmes, K., Gore, J., Smith, M., & Lloyd, A. (2017). An integrated analysis of school students’ aspirations for STEM careers: Which student and school factors are most predictive? International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s10763-016-9793-z
    • Being in the older cohorts, possessing high cultural capital, being male, having a parent in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupation and high prior achievement in reading and numeracy, were significant predictors of interest in STEM careers.
    • This analysis provided a strong empirical basis for school-based initiatives to improve STEM participation. In particular, strategies should target the following: the persistent lack of interest by females in some careers; improving student academic achievement in both literacy and numeracy; and expanding knowledge of STEM careers, especially for students without familial STEM connections.
  • Gore, J., Gibson, S., Fray, L., Holmes, K., & Smith, M. (2018). Fostering diversity in the creative arts by addressing students’ capacity to aspire. Journal of Creative Behaviour. Advance online publication doi:10.1002/jocb.232
    • Being female, high achieving, from an English-speaking background; possessing high cultural capital; and attending advantaged schools were significant predictors of interest in the arts, suggesting the likely reproduction of existing patterns of participation.
    • Initiatives within schools are essential to disrupting these patterns and building the capacity of a more diverse range of students to aspire to careers in the arts.
  • Symposia were held at the Equity Practitioners in Higher Education (EPHEA) Conference in November 2015, and the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference (2015). Presentations to external bodies have also been delivered.
  • Key findings from this project will also be used in a current project developing professional learning resources for teachers across Australia. The resources are designed to assist teachers in understanding and supporting their students’ aspirations.

Summary prepared by the NCSEHE.


Posted 8 June 2018