The Australian student Equity Programme and institutional change: Paradigm shift or business as usual?
NCSEHE 2016 Equity Fellowship Final Report
Dr Nadine Zacharias
The Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) has provided an opportunity for universities to develop bespoke equity programs which respond to their institutional profile and strategic priorities, but many important outcomes of HEPPP funded work are not currently recognised by decision-makers. This Australian-first comprehensive analysis of HEPPP has informed recommendations for systemic change in policy and practice in student equity, and set benchmarks for a national evaluation framework reflecting broader measures of success.
The vision of an Australian higher education system that actively widened participation and whose graduates reflected more closely the diversity of the Australian population was articulated in the Bradley Review of Higher Education and adopted as a fundamental aspiration of significant higher education reform implemented from 2010.
The Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) was designed to encourage the sector to support the Government’s aspiration, and has provided significant funding to 37 public universities to implement equity strategies and programs enabling people from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds to access and succeed in higher education. To date, there has been no national investigation of the design and implementation of institutional HEPPP programs in different universities and how this contributed to student outcomes at institutional and sector levels.
Objectives and methodology
This Fellowship sought to understand how HEPPP had been implemented by universities and whether the sector had acted on the Government’s aspiration.
The project took a collaborative approach, developing questions in consultation with an advisory group. It used a qualitative methodology including the analysis of HEPPP annual progress reports between 2010 and 2015, three institutional case studies, and an engagement strategy with the Australian Government Department of Education and Training and key stakeholders across the sector.
The Fellowship produced a set of diagnostic tools, an interpretive model and an Equity Initiatives Map, to enable analyses of HEPPP program design and implementation in the context of institutional equity strategy and performance. The three case studies demonstrated the application of the tools to identify universities’ strategic approaches to HEPPP implementation and the success factors, outcomes, and challenges associated with these.
Key findings and recommendations
- HEPPP has provided an opportunity for universities to develop bespoke equity programs which respond to their institutional profile and strategic priorities.
- Case studies illustrated the diversity of HEPPP implementation and the importance of institutional context in designing and analysing HEPPP programs.
- Universities needed to ‘translate’ the policy focus on people from low SES backgrounds to their local context which led to different interpretations of what constitutes ‘low SES’.
- Program design in most cases was built on existing strategies and infrastructure which pre-dated HEPPP.
- Analyses of HEPPP expenditure and effort in 2011 and 2015 revealed a consistent under-investment in the access phase and a substantial increase in investment in the attainment and transition out phase.
- Good management practices and organisational approaches matter for the successful implementation of institutional HEPPP programs.
- HEPPP has demonstrated success in promoting equity across the higher education sector, but institutional level outcomes for low SES students remain uneven with some universities contributing disproportionately to the national increase in low SES participation.
- Unpacking the complex relationships between institutional HEPPP programs and student outcomes is difficult, and there were no clear correlations between the changes in low SES participation rates, institutional growth, HEPPP funding received, and cohort diversity.
- The contributions of demand-driven funding and HEPPP were delineated conceptually: Demand-driven funding solves access issues at sector level, but not necessarily at the institutional level, due to university selection criteria. HEPPP funded work improved awareness, aspirations, attainment and affordability. Both policies were limited in their ability to comprehensively influence attainment at school level.
- Strategic intent may explain some of the variation in outcomes, with the three case study universities exhibiting different growth strategies and different approaches to program design, yielding different changes to access and participation rates.
- The Equity Initiatives Map is a powerful tool to produce a national picture of HEPPP expenditure and effort, enabling life cycle analysis and consistent terminology across institutions and programs.
- More comprehensive measures of success and the development of a national HEPPP evaluation framework are necessary. The ‘Major Aims’ specified in the Equity Initiatives Map could be used as the starting point to develop a suite of evaluation tools.
HEPPP as a driver of Change
- HEPPP has been a catalyst for organisational change by increasing the focus on student equity, promoting understanding of barriers to participation, and creating an expert workforce on equity issues. All the case study universities reported processes of strategic intention in their widening participation initiatives.
- Drivers of change included the volume of HEPPP funding, universities’ missions and values, and influential equity directors or other senior champions of widening participation.
- One case study had achieved transformational change, driven by a well-connected senior group working out of one organisational area, leveraging the introduction of a new course model and centralised admissions process and repositioning the equity agenda as a collective institutional endeavour.
- The absence of transformational change does not constitute failure. Given universities’ different starting points in their efforts to improve low SES participation, organisational change should be seen as an indicator of the distance travelled since the launch of HEPPP.
- Short-term HEPPP funding arrangements created inefficiencies and reduced program performance, a problem which could be effectively addressed with the allocation of three-yearly budgets.
- Widening higher education participation is a systems issue requiring long-term funding, collaboration, and cross-institutional partnerships which should be enabled by Australia’s national equity program.
Conclusions and considerations for policy
Recommendations for Policy Makers
- The Department of Education and Training (DET) should request universities to complete the Equity Initiatives Map with their annual progress report.
- The HEPPP reporting process should invite program level analysis and reflections over time by asking universities to provide an overarching narrative of its program’s intent, structure, achievements and challenges.
- The Government should maintain stable policy settings with regard to demand-driven funding and HEPPP to continue the unprecedented improvements in equity group participation.
- If participation targets for students from low SES backgrounds were to be continued, the mechanisms for meaningfully connecting a national target to institutional level targets and desired program outcomes would need to be carefully considered and consistently enforced.
- HEPPP Guidelines should legitimise other equity groups to address compound disadvantage while the focus remains on poverty and the sociocultural disadvantage it creates. The definition of socioeconomic disadvantage could be extended to include the next quartile up, i.e. the bottom 26 to 50 per cent.
- The DET should develop an evaluation framework for HEPPP to enable the sector to systematically evaluate the influence of HEPPP funded initiatives on broadly defined student outcomes across the four main phases of the student life cycle.
- The Government should continue HEPPP funding at current levels and HEPPP must remain as a national program, with dedicated equity funding to all Australian universities and an explicit incentive to engage in cross-institutional partnerships.
Recommendations for the Sector
- Universities should use the Equity Initiatives Map as a diagnostic tool to review their HEPPP programs and optimally align expenditure and effort with institutional priorities and needs.
- Universities should use the interpretive model to review their organisational and management approaches to HEPPP implementation and identify any factors which may further improve program effectiveness and efficiency.
- Staff delivering core outreach or retention activities should be paid out of operating funding or be employed as ongoing staff.
Recommendations for Research
- Future research could include the analysis of the individual dimension of program implementation to more fully reflect the influence of individual equity practitioners, leaders and champions on the success of institutional HEPPP or other equity programs.
- The current review of the equity groups should develop a target group definition, or a blended model of group and individualised indicators, which is more accurate and user-friendly in targeting equity interventions at groups and individuals.