Targeted Strategy Recommended for Regional Student Engagement
Widening participation programs are demonstrably effective in stimulating university applications, but a sustained commitment is critical in maintaining consistent, long-term engagement, particularly in regional and remote schools.
A review of a large-scale collaborative initiative in Queensland, led by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), recommends a tailored strategy to meet the higher costs of outreach programs in hard-to-reach areas, where students often see the decision to undertake tertiary study as a significant risk.
This project explored the impact of widening participation activities in schools serving low socioeconomic status communities, drawing on longitudinal data from the Queensland Widening Tertiary Participation (Queensland Consortium) initiative. The study aimed to examine the comparative impacts of widening participation activities on the cohort’s participation in higher education, and the key factors responsible for any differences in urban and regional locations.
- This project was a comparative study examining whether widening participation programs delivered in urban and regional schools in low socioeconomic status (SES) communities across Queensland had the same impact on application rates to university, and sought to determine the key factors responsible for any differences.
- The report built on knowledge and insights from the Queensland Widening Tertiary Participation (the Queensland Consortium) initiative, launched in 2009 by seven public universities in Queensland, plus the Australian Catholic University which operates a campus in Brisbane.
- The strategy behind the Consortium approach was for universities to deliver similar programs in different locations. Each university took responsibility for developing partnerships with a cluster of schools so that all low socioeconomic status (SES) primary and secondary schools across the state had a university partner. Campus proximity was a key factor to determine each university’s cluster. The application rates of Year 12 school-leavers were tracked, and disaggregated by cluster: regional/metropolitan; Indigenous/non-Indigenous; and degree of school engagement with the outreach program.
- The study used a mixed methods approach based on a quantitative analysis of Queensland school leavers’ university applications, and qualitative analysis of interviews and focus groups at nine case study schools. These included 117 participants: 15 school staff; 33 parent and community representatives; and 69 school students. Additionally, 14 university outreach project managers across the eight partner universities, and 46 enrolled university students who attended a school targeted by widening participation activities, were also interviewed.
- The approach taken by Queensland universities was effective in stimulating applications where the widening participation programs were fully implemented and sustained at the school level. This outcome was generally achieved in metropolitan areas and some provincial cities.
- Outcomes were less positive where insufficient resourcing and engagement levels led to the program not being maintained at scale and depth in all schools, with regional and remote schools most likely not to achieve outcomes comparable with metropolitan counterparts.
- Other prominent factors that played out differently for urban and regional students included: campus proximity; availability of role models and reliable information; and development of resilience. Added financial and emotional costs associated with having to relocate to study made the decision to attend a university a high stakes one for many regional and remote students.
- The Australian Government should fund the development of a regional and remote widening participation strategy that can create and sustain high engagement with schools in regional and remote locations.
- This strategy should be complemented by specific engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
- The regional and remote strategy should include a parental engagement component to inform parents about higher education and address financial and emotional costs associated with relocation to study.
- Universities should develop tailored and packaged supports for students from regional and remote low SES backgrounds that reduce the risks involved in moving to a city to access higher education.
- Universities should seek to improve provision of higher education in regional and remote locations, including through innovative distance and blended models of delivery.
- The Queensland Consortium should continue collection of relevant data on widening participation program delivery and university applications and explore expanding this data set to include greater duration of engagement data across Queensland.
- The Australian Government Department of Education and Training should consult with equity practitioners on a more comprehensive means of tracking engagement with outreach programs at the school and student level to enable more effective system-wide monitoring and analysis.