Student Aspirations for Higher Education in Central Queensland
A survey of school students’ navigational capacities, June 2013.
In recent times, student aspiration for higher education has become the subject of Australian Government policy and school/university partnerships. A perceived shortfall in aspiration for higher education – particularly by under-represented groups – is seen to be frustrating the achievement of the Government’s targets for universities.
Announced in 2009, the targets stipulate that:
- by 2020, 20 per cent of students participating in university should be from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, and
- by 2025, 40 per cent of 25 – 34 year olds should hold a bachelor degree.
Progress towards these targets has been slow and, given current trajectories, there is some doubt that they can be achieved. Increasing students’ aspirations for higher education is seen to be a way in which to address this problem, although very little is known about actual levels of student aspiration for higher education among various populations or about the nature of student aspiration itself.
This report documents research commissioned by Central Queensland University (CQ University), on the aspirations for higher education (HE) of approximately 250 students from 14 government schools in Central Queensland (CQ). Data on these students’ aspirations are derived from their participation during 2012 – 2013 in The Australian Survey of Student Aspirations (TASSA). Five of the participating students’ 14 schools are located within a 50 kilometre radius of a university campus. Two of these five schools are at the outer limits of this radius. Nine schools are designated as low socioeconomic status (SES) schools; the other five schools are mid SES.
The research was undertaken in three stages: survey instrument development and refinement; implementation; and data analysis. These were informed by six concepts derived from the international research literature, emphasising different aspects of aspiration. They are:
- social imaginary
- taste/ status
- sociocultural navigation, and
- resources (financial and material but also cultural and social).
Primary among these is the concept of navigational capacity.
The survey revealed that 67% of CQ school students desire to have a university degree in the future. This compares with other surveys that suggest 70% of school students from low SES urban areas of Australia aspire to go to university. Differences in these results are slight, suggesting that regional /rural issues do not adversely affect the ‘headline’ level of student aspirations for higher education. However, the survey revealed some ‘softness’ in students’ underlying aspirations. Compared with their desires, only 60% of CQ students believed that getting a university degree in the future was a possibility. For CQ males, the difference was even greater, with only 47% of male students believing that they will get a university degree in the future.
No appreciable difference in aspirations for higher education was identified between students from low and mid SES backgrounds or between the average student and Indigenous students, who comprised 10 % of all respondents. The most significant demographic differences were between males and females, with females displaying higher levels of aspiration for higher education (71%).
A major finding from the research is that students’ capacities to navigate pathways to higher education from their current locations in the education system, are ‘patchy’ and/or limited. This is a recurring theme throughout the report. The survey provides some good examples of the navigational capacities of students, particularly females. However, many students who aspire to get a university degree do not know what degree they want to study or what university they want to attend. Some students do not realise that they do not need a degree to achieve their career aspirations. Others aspire to attend universities that do not offer the courses they need to undertake in order to achieve their career goals. Several with aspirations for higher education do not appreciate that they will need to move location in order to attend university. A few do not know very much about TAFE and/or see no difference between university and TAFE. This is most evident among students located more than 50 kilometres from a university campus. Many limit their preferred choice of future university to regional geographical areas, irrespective of their course and career aspirations.
Many of these decisions about students’ futures and how to get there, draw on a limited archive of experience and knowledge. While the advice of teachers and schools featured strongly, students identified their parents and families as their primary resource in the formation and pursuit of their aspirations for higher education and for the future more generally. 84% of students (94% of Indigenous students) said that the views of their parents were important or extremely important in influencing their decisions about the future and 96% said that they received encouragement from their parents/family to attend university. Yet very few parents and family members had direct experience and/or knowledge of university. Only 14% of mothers, 6% of fathers and 18% of siblings had a university degree or had studied at university. In brief, their aspirations are informed by a quite distant knowledge and experience of higher education.
There are at least two main implications that can be drawn from the data analysed in this report. First, schools and university outreach programs seeking to increase the future participation of CQ school students in higher education need to focus more explicitly on developing students’ navigational capacities to realise their higher education aspirations. In particular, their current ‘tour’ knowledge needs to be augmented with a ‘map’ knowledge of relevant pathways to higher education. Students who are most likely to aspire to higher education and to see these aspirations realised have access to ‘knowledge from above’ rather than rely on ‘knowledge from below’. Second, the resourcing of students’ aspirations and navigational capacities – by university outreach programs and the like – needs to focus not just on discrete individuals or even on student groups but also on students’ families and their sociocultural groups. Aspirations are formed “ in interaction and in the thick of social life”. Focusing on whole populations is particularly important if the ‘images’, ‘stories’ and ‘legends’ of the ‘social imaginary’ of CQ school students are to include realisable aspirations for higher education.
The results from this research suggest that this is where our energies with respect to students’ aspirations for higher education should now be directed.
Gale, T., Parker, S., Rodd, P., Stratton, G. Sealey, T. and Moore, T. (2013), “Student Aspirations for Higher Education in Central Queensland: A survey of school students’ navigational capacities.” Report submitted to Central Queensland University, Australia. Centre for Research in Education Futures and Innovation (CREFI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.