Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Facilitating Success for Students from Low Socioeconomic Status Backgrounds at Regional Universities

The report "Facilitating Success for Students from Low Socioeconomic Status Backgroundsat Regional Universities" by Marcia Devlin and Jade McKay has been published by Federation University Australia. There are no real surprises in this 110 page report. Some of the suggested areas for policy reform seem a little naive.

The research found eight factors for the success of students:
  1. Students’ own attitudes
  2. Family support
  3. Financial security and sustainability
  4. Reliable technology
  5. Understanding and responding to the particular circumstances and needs of students
  6. Facilitating students being and feeling connected to university
  7. Student preparedness for the realities of university study
  8. An inclusive, engaged approach to learning and teaching
The authors suggest five areas for work:
  1. Ensuring financial stability for students
  2. Defining, measuring and monitoring ‘attrition’
  3. Valuing staged and micro qualifications
  4. Leveraging existing regional and rural infrastructure
  5. Regional school investment
We do not need a study to identify that financial security is an issue for students from low a SES background. Also the proposal to ensure financial stability for students would exclude many from higher education.

The proposal for micro-credentials is worthwhile. However the term "micro-credentials" is misleading, as this suggests a credential for a few hours work. What the report appears to be proposing are sub-degree qualifications: certificates and diplomas. These take six months to a year of study. These are not "micro-credentials" and are already allowed for in Australian Higher Education. All that is required is the government funding incentives to implement them.

Government could encourage institutions to implement nested qualifications. That is, students would be able to exit with a qualification after six months or one year and be able to reenter the same program later. Government could encourage this by making it a condition of the funding of degree programs: that is degrees which did not have a nested option would not be funded.
Shorter qualification are more common in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector, than universities. Government funding to encourage students to undertake VET before university would likely improve success rates for low SES students. Many regional universities have co-located VET facilities and this should be relatively easy to implement.

What the report does not seem to address is improving the inclusiveness of higher education, through better course design and use of trained teachers. This is an area where the regional universities have an advantage over the capital city research universities. Cathy Stone's National Guidelines for Improving Student Outcomes in Online Learning  provide a useful set of tips for improving e-learning which are also applicable to campus-based programs.

The report also fails to address the role of e-learning in facilitating success for students. E-learning is normally considered to lower student success, compared to on-campus students. However, e-learning allows students who would otherwise not be able to access higher education at all to participate. E-learning offers a way to provide cost-effective support for students from low SES backgrounds in regional areas.

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