Monday, March 20, 2023

Redesigning University for All Students

Greetings from the ANU First Generation Welcome Alumni Week event. Staff and graduates, who's parents did not go to university were asked along to share their experience. Despite studying this topic during my MEd, it was only a couple of years ago, at one of these ANU events, I realized I was one. But I still have difficulty understanding how this made my university experience different.

The talks from staff who were fist generation was useful, in helping current students understand they are not alone. However, I suspect that people who go on to become academics have very different university experience to the average student. As an example, they seem to have attended a lot of universities, and completed multiple qualifications ( as have I). That would be daunting for a student just starting out. We need to tell them it is okay to go to one university, and then get a job outside: you don't have to aim to be an academic.

Also what was of use were group discussions around tables. This helps studnts meet others like themselves. It also helped me realise that there are those who have a more difficult time then themselves. Those of us from a low income, single parent first generation backgrounds may the we had it tough, but hearing from some whose parents were political prisoners, puts it in perspective.

While a one off, face to face event is useful, I suggest much more is needed to help first generation students. This has to be built into the curriculum, as a compulsory assessed, for-credit component, not an optional extra-curricular activity. 

One way for first generation students to be helped, I suggest, is to offer training in how to be a student as a formal compulsory initial course which counts towards their degree. As a student I would not do an optional activity, as it would be stealing time from my essential compulsory courses. I suspect that is a mindset which goes with being a first generation student.

There also small impediments which can be easily fixed. As an example, getting textbooks is said to be something first generation studnts have difficulty with. The last university I studied at provided textbooks (this is a common feature at open and distance universities). As a student I didn't have to pay extra, or do anything for books. A few weeks before the course started, a package of books arrived on my doorstep. This applied wherever you were. I was 13,000 km from the campus, but the books still turned up, on time. This is something more Australian universities could emulate.

The approach I suggest is to flip the thinking on first in family students. At present universities design on the assumption that students know about university, through having attended a private school, or from university educated parents. Special arrangements are then just needed for those who did not. This is similar to the approach which used to be made for those with a disability. That approach would no longer be acceptable: you can't build a classroom without wheelchair access, and the offer to carry disabled students up the stairs: that would be unlawful discrimination. The approach to first in family and other disadvantaged students should similarly change: provision for them should be built into the curriculum, as the default option. This will help all students.

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