Research

Australian universities and educational equity for student veterans

Ben Wadham1, Melanie Takarangi1, Andrew Harvey2, Lisa Andrewartha2, Brad West3, Matthew Wyatt-Smith4, Jodie Davis5

Executive summary

This report draws upon a small but growing scholarship on student veterans in Australia. Two recent projects and studies led by La Trobe University in conjunction with the Australian Student Veterans Association (ASVA) (Harvey, Andrewartha, Smith, & Wyatt-Smith, 2018) and the Australian Catholic University (ACU), Charles Darwin University (CDU), and Western Sydney University (WSU) (Harvey, Andrewartha, et al 2020) have established a platform for ongoing research and reform in the area of military/civil transition and student veterans. From that work, we know that transition from the military is often a challenging time for veterans. Challenges may include the loss of community and friendships, previous roles or status, dealing with the impacts of service on psychological and physical health, and the radical change from being an integral part of a cohesive, constraining environment to an individual in a civilian society. Veterans also bring significant strengths to their studies:

… including discipline, leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. These skills prepare many veterans to succeed at university, while their experiences and perspectives can also inform others and contribute to a richer learning experience for all students (Harvey, Andrewartha, Sharp, & Wyatt Smith, 2018).

Universities can provide exposure to a wider range of employment possibilities, but they can also be difficult places for veterans to integrate. University life and military life are starkly different.

Higher education is one transition pathway available to veterans, though experiences of university differ. It is an avenue that some defence members have been exposed to during their training or through their careers (e.g., commissioned officers) or that some defence members have not been exposed to at all (e.g., other ranks in some corps). Veterans can experience both opportunities and challenges in attending university. The Australian higher education sector (primarily comprising universities) provides some recognition for prospective student veterans, but as a group they remain largely invisible. Veterans are acknowledged by researchers as a non-traditional student group.

This report describes how student veterans are understood by universities in Australia, and how they are governed and serviced as a group. The study also investigates if, and how, student veterans, or particular groups of student veterans, can have particular equity needs. This information was placed in the context of how student veterans are recognised, understood and supported internationally. This project was led by Flinders University in partnership with La Trobe University, the University of South Australia (UniSA), the University of Newcastle and the ASVA. Our research adopted a mixed methods approach that included:

  • a national and international review of programs designed to support student veterans
  • examination of specific support for student veterans provided through the Departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs (DVA)
  • three focus groups with university admissions and transition units in South Australia and Queensland, and four in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, asking: How do Australian universities recognise, service and govern the educational equity needs of student veterans?

Ethics approval was obtained from the Flinders University Social and Behavioural Research Ethics Committee to conduct the focus groups.

Our findings reveal that:

  • Australian student veterans are often acknowledged but not well understood by universities.
  • Australian universities are recognising and servicing student veterans in different ways and to different degrees.
  • There is genuine goodwill and intent in the university sector to support student veterans.
  • Military skills and experience are not adequately recognised or incorporated into university admission decisions.
  • Tertiary admissions frameworks are variable and would benefit from a national coordinated approach.
  • If universities do not have student veteran-specific programs and processes, they are using existing equity and transition process to support student veterans.
  • Universities have support pathways such as “elite athlete programs” which can be emulated to identify, promote and support the needs of veterans studying at university.
  • Almost all Australian universities do not know who their student veterans are — there are limited cases of veteran identifiers in university admissions.
  • Universities do not collect demographic, study pattern, performance and completion data on student veterans.
  • There is limited financial support for student veterans to attend university.
  • There are limited specific veteran entry programs at Australian universities.
  • There isn’t a national framework for supporting veterans in higher education (e.g., a GI Bill).
  • Access and opportunity for higher education is unequal in Defence across rank and corps.
  • Higher education is not considered evenly across Defence during the transition phase.
  • There is no national consistent framework for mapping and applying credentials for veterans seeking to engage in higher education.
  • The articulation of policy across Defence, DVA and the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) is inconsistent or missing.
  • Higher education as a transition pathway is conceived under a rehabilitation framework limiting opportunities for university study.
  • Not all veterans are exposed to higher education as a possible transition pathway.

Recommendations

Government, Defence and DVA

  • Establish a national policy for veterans access to higher education (e.g., a GI Bill).
  • Defence to establish equal opportunity for higher education for all ranks and corps and to support all members to undertake higher education as part of their transition planning if desired.
  • Develop a national framework for credential mapping between Defence and universities (higher education).
  • Defence, DVA, DESE and the higher education sector establish a national student veteran working group to evolve veteran access and engagement in higher education.
  • DVA and Defence to widen its engagement and support for higher education as an important transition pathway.
    Engage DESE in the assessment and support of student veterans.

Universities and the higher education sector

  • Universities and Tertiary Admissions Centres (TACs) to develop a national tertiary admissions framework for veteran admission to university that equates with ATAR scores, recognising military skills and experience within university admissions policies and processes.
  • Develop flexible timetabling and study plans for veterans to support university engagement, attendance, retention and degree completion.
  • Universities to establish veteran-specific entry programs.
  • Develop a veteran identifier in university admissions processes.
  • Provide student veteran access to transition skills and opportunities including financial, health, career and counselling support.
  • Record demographic, study pattern, performance and completion data on student veterans.
  • Reorient universities toward student veterans’ needs, including study plan flexibility, staff education on student veterans and veteran-sensitive university processes.
  • Emulate university support pathways such as “elite athlete programs” to identify, promote and support the needs of veterans studying at university.
  • Provide scholarships and financial support opportunities for student veterans.
  • Support the presence of ASVA chapters on campus.
  • Build university leadership support for supporting student veterans.
  • Coordinate campus support for all veterans including the establishment of veteran support officers.
  • Create a designated space on campus for student veterans.

Read the full report, Australian universities and educational equity for student veterans


This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.


1 Flinders University
2 Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research, La Trobe University
3 University of South Australia
4 Australian Student Veterans Association (ASVA)
5 the University of Newcastle

Posted 14 July 2021 By ncsehe