Speech: Broadening Higher Education Attainment: USQ as a case example

27 September 2012
Informa 4th Social Inclusion Conference
27-28 September 2012, Melbourne

Broadening Higher Education Attainment:
USQ as a case example

Professor Jan Thomas
Vice-Chancellor and President
University of Southern Queensland

Greetings. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.

I have been asked to convey to you in a relatively short period of time something that is of immense importance to my University and which in many ways dominates our approach to higher education learning & teaching.

As you can see from the USQ Mission, broad participation and attainment are in our DNA. 

To enable broad successful participation in higher education and to make significant contributions to research and community development

This is what our antecedent institution was established to do in the higher education expansion that followed the Martin Review of the 1960s and in common with other post-88 and regional universities we have the distinction of punching above our weight in terms of the proportion of our students from disadvantaged backgrounds. One-third of our students from low-SES postcodes – and our student performance indicators tend to be above State and sector means.

This is achieved through a wide range of strategies that span the period from well before the student learning journey begins through all aspects of our relationship with the student. We have in place a large suite of programs that aim to increase the participation of Low SES background students in higher education and we are active in R&D for improving and exploring new initiatives. 

For those who want details of specific programs and projects I invite you to visit the URL shown where you’ll find this information in a specially prepared paper. Important programs include
  •  our Tertiary Preparation Program which is one of the largest and longest running in the country, 
  •  the outstanding Helping Hands Indigenous Nursing Student Support Model, 
  •  a large program for offenders studying while in custody – noting that our prisons population is overwhelmingly over-represented for persons from disadvantaged backgrounds; and 
  •  a student management approach based on building strong relationships. 
However, a key message I wish to impart today is that USQ’s capacity to support the broadening of higher education attainment lies in its learning & teaching culture - our ability to attract, and provide effective learning environments for a diverse student constituency. This might be described in terms of USQ having mainstreamed its social justice culture or that our learning & teaching culture has embedded in it strong social justice principles. I’d like to take you through a consideration of the social justice paradigm at USQ to illustrate the elements that underpin how this works in practice. I will do this by basing my discussion around a number of prompts ...

1. Equity can be approached as an add-on
... the first of which is to consider if equity can be approached as an add-on.

It wasn’t that long ago that most institutions viewed social justice in higher education in terms of specific projects targeting specific groups that attracted designated funding but which were in some way removed from mainstream learning & teaching. I’m aware that there are still individuals who think of equity in these terms.

However, although it has taken a long while to sink in, equity has been a mainstream concern for the sector since we first moved from turning the traditional small elite higher education system into a mass one. It is somewhat remarkable that the full impact of the diversification of the higher education student body still eludes many in the sector. After all, we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the release of the Martin Review, that began in earnest the massification of higher education in Australia, and it is more than 20 years since A fair Chance For All formalised official attitudes to equity in universities.

The massification of higher education has obliged a significant cultural change that despite resistance from the sector has gradually developed. The dramatic change in the attitudes to learning & teaching that have occurred over the past decade is evidence of that; and it is this cultural change – associated with a move to student-centred learning, the continuous improvement of learning & teaching and the recognition of learning & teaching as a high esteem activity in universities – that has the biggest impact on equity in higher education. As we know, it is relatively easy to increase enrolment numbers. However, without the right learning & teaching culture and support strategies in place, student performance figures can readily take a beating. Such has been observed in the sector with the rapid rise in student enrolments from 2011 - but more on this later.

A key element of USQ’s learning & teaching culture that supports its success in broadening educational attainment is its concern for identifying and responding to student needs. This forms a keystone to our ability to teach to a diverse student constituency. We don’t expect students to come to us as fully realised independent learners; and hence we are proactive in having strategies in place to deal with the implications of this. And we do not expect all of our students to conform to a certain type – we accept the diversity that exists and deal with it. That, in a nutshell, is our secret – we understand our student constituency, we care about their success and we respond accordingly. I think of our culture as being student-focussed – knowledge-based, caring, flexible and responsive; with student success as the core driver.

It might be argued that this culture arose from USQ’s background as a College, and to some degree this is true. However, more critical I think was the early adoption by the institution of distance education, which could be argued as representing the first form of student-focussed higher education. The history of university-level distance education in Australia goes back to Departments of Correspondence Studies in the Universities of Queensland and WA immediately following World War I. 

At a time when university teaching amounted to little more than instructing students through lectures, the pioneers of correspondence education had to tackle the real problems of delivering education effectively to working adults away from campus, principally to upgrade the skills of teachers working in rural areas. The very practical challenges involved led to very practical and pragmatic approaches with the student and their requirements as the principal focus. Remarkably, many issues of concern to modern academics entering online education - such as the introduction of study circles in regional areas, requirements for some degree of on-campus study as part of external programs, and the use of external materials as an aid for internal students - were being discussed in the context of correspondence education as early as the 1920s!
USQ inherited NS has been developing the student-focussed culture demanded by off-campus education since the 1970s, and it continues to serve us well as a basis for teaching to diversity.

However, the culture change required across the sector to deal appropriately with the challenges created by a mass higher education system is still not complete. For example, advocates of student-centred learning still feel the need to put forward the arguments that the ‘instruction paradigm’ of traditional university teaching is: “inadequate for the increase in student numbers and the greater diversity within the student body” that has been a feature of higher education for several decades and is still continuing. 

Just this year a report commissioned by the Million+ group of post-92 institutions in the UK still felt the need to call for “a move from teacher-centric to student-centric models”. 

So a major part of my argument this morning is that a solid student-centred and student-focussed learning culture is critical for teaching effectively to diversity. At its heart, equity is a mainstream concern that arises because of the continued degree of massification of higher education that cannot be tackled as an add-on through a few isolated projects. 

It is important to appreciate that the improvements to learning & teaching that have been associated with the massification of higher education represent a win-win for all concerned. High performing students can certainly passively absorb and regurgitate information as required of them under the traditional instruction paradigm of lectures and tutorials. However, with the active engagement and innovative teaching approaches of student-centred learning, all students are now exposed to superior learning environments and universities are much better positioned to meet the needs of employers.

The demands created certainly put additional burdens on staff, and this is a major consideration which I will address shortly.
Within this culture there is a need for a clear understanding of what educational equity is, what is trying to achieve and how it fits within a university. I’d like now to explore these themes further.

2. Equity is about not discriminating
Our second prompt raises the link between equity and discrimination. 

It is well recognised in the sector now that equity is different to equality. If someone from a disadvantaged background is treated identically to someone from a privileged background – that is, if the consequences of disadvantage are not accounted for – then this has the simple effect of perpetuating the disadvantage of the one individual and reinforcing the privilege of the second. It has long been recognised that equity requires proactive action to assist individuals to overcome the impact of disadvantage.

I want to go further, though, and explore the relationship between equity and discrimination. To explore this I’d like to consider the following statement which I’ve taken from a recently published strategic plan from an overseas higher education provider. It reads as follows:
Our core values are respect, openness, honesty and integrity with a commitment to quality and intolerance of nepotism, corruption and discrimination in any form. 

On the surface this sounds like a fairly typical high level statement of an institution’s core values. But, of course, maintaining an intolerance of discrimination in any form is not possible, and in fact, not appropriate, for an educational institution. This is because, as meritocracies, we quite correctly discriminate all of the time - when grading assignments, deciding who passes and fails, deciding who receives awards and so on. And of course our Federal and State antidiscrimination legislations do not contend that all forms of discrimination are inappropriate – for example, such legislation would not support a person with severe visual impairment being considered for employment as an airline pilot. The key is in understanding discrimination and not applying it in ways that are inappropriate or unfair.

So, we need to be comfortable with the fact that equity and meritocracy are entirely compatible just so long as we have thorough understanding of both concepts. 

An important related issue concerns how we handle the question of difference. In a mass higher education system we need to be able to identify and deal with difference – both rejoicing in diversity and addressing the challenges and issues that it creates.

A definition for equity that I quite like is the following which is taken from the AQTF Standards for Registered Training Organisations:

“The process of ensuring equal opportunity and the allocation of resources and services in a fair, consistent and inclusive manner irrespective of an individual's or group's cultural or linguistic background, their religion or spiritual beliefs, socio-economic status, gender, age, or abilities.
In simple terms Access and Equity is about removing barriers and to open up opportunities for people!” 

The ability to deal with ‘difference’ is key to achieving equity. A point that has been appreciated for a long time is that equity does not mean equal treatment. Taking a quote from a 1994 publication by the Office of Multicultural Affairs entitled: ‘Achieving Access & Equity’:

“... it is important to understand that equity is not simply equality of treatment. Equity policies recognise that citizens are different in their needs, interests and values. Treating everybody the same may simply perpetuate existing inequalities. The goal is a greater social equality overall, but taking account of the reality of difference.” 

I’ve mentioned the importance of flexibility in USQ’s approach to diversity. We need to be able to identify individual student needs, and where possible identify students at risk and consider early intervention strategies. Hence, we often need to concern ourselves with matters involving differences between students. But despite the importance of such discussions, I continue to see examples of well-meaning academics in such discussions tying themselves in knots for fear of being seen as judgemental, elitist or worse. Staff can be terrified of being pulled up for using deficit language or making other faux pas. We really need to be kinder to ourselves in such discussions, and to help our colleagues discuss difference in appropriate and constructive ways.

3. It’s about Low SES
My third prompt is a crucial one - is it really all about low SES?

Arguably the genius of the Bradley Review was its ability to link the sector expansion needed to achieve the degree attainment rates needed to keep Australia competitive with the long-held desire to make the sector more equitable in terms that would be familiar to the authors of A Fair Chance for All. 

This link came by way of viewing the most promising pool of untapped potential students for fuelling sector expansion as the most prominent under-participating group – namely, low SES. Hence we have the twin targets of 40% attainment by 2025 being predicated on the achievement of 20% low SES by 2020.

While we throw the term low SES around quite liberally, the consideration of low SES has proved a minefield for the university sector. A Fair Chance for All referred to people from low SES background, on the understanding that people’s background had a significant impact on the circumstances in which they would eventually approach higher education. However, appreciating that background is a difficult thing to assess in practice, Lyn Martin in 1994 recommended the postcode method for determining current SES status. 

This served to change significantly the way that SES has been viewed in the sector ever since – and landed the sector with a convenient but devilishly misleading indicator. To her credit, Lyn fully appreciated the severe limitations of the postcode methodology and clearly assumed that improved methods would be introduced once they became available. However, two decades later and we appear no closer to a usable individual indicator of SES. This is not for lack of trying as the Department has valiantly trialled both cumbersome techniques based on parental occupation and simpler but just as difficult to introduce methods based on proxies such as ‘first in family’. 

However, apart from giving us a basis for targeting our schools outreach programs and giving the government a target to aim for, SES is not the fundamental indicator anyway. In expanding the sector we have moved to recruiting students who increasingly differ from the traditional university student – being less likely to present as strong independent learners, less likely to be familiar with the higher education culture, less likely to possess the support networks and other strategies that may otherwise ease their passage through higher education, and more likely to bring with them some form of “baggage” as a result of disadvantage or a background of disadvantage. These students appear to be over-represented in the low SES population, but low SES is not their defining characteristic. A low SES student presenting with a high student entry score will behave very similarly to any other high TER student – that is the nature of what TER measures. So low SES in itself, does not give us a handle on the nature of the new student body – and it certainly does not begin to address the sheer diversity of the emerging student cohorts.

Fortunately, equity practitioners are well used to working with a range of criteria for targeting programs and discussing student issues, but the use of low SES in general sector parlance does not reflect the degree of understanding of the new and extremely diverse student body that is required to broaden educational participation and attainment effectively.

Which leads me to my next prompt ...
4. Equity is cost neutral
I don’t believe that many people argue that equity is cost neutral any more but it’s still worth while raising.

There was a time when the observation of low SES students with high TER scores performing well at university lead some to believe that this equity business was a bit of a hoot and that no special support or consideration was needed. However, that time is long gone and the nature of the post-Bradley expansion of higher education means that we are broadening our concern to students who are more difficult to recruit, typically require additional preparation and support, and are over-represented for students at risk of attrition.

Some institutions will bear the burden of this more than others – as has always been the case; but there should be no illusions about the added costs associated with the expansion of the sector. These costs are not just financial as they include such things as higher teaching loads on individual staff. This, in turn, puts pressure on the time available for these staff to do research and may, if not properly managed, serve as a disincentive to some. 

It is worth noting that a 2011 “DEEWR survey found that two in five academics under the age of thirty planned to leave the sector within five to ten years [citing] ... that bureaucratic work was taking them away from teaching and research.” So workload management issues pose a major challenge for the sector moving forward. A related issue is an appreciation of the increasing role of professional staff in the greatly expanded group of activities associated with learning & teaching. This blurring of academic and professional staff roles has been the reality at institutions such as my own for several decades. One implication of this is that it artificially lowers your apparent staff:student ratios – another example of where traditional performance indicators can give a misleading picture of what is occurring in practice.

5. Equity impacts negatively on quality

I believe that the most pernicious set of arguments currently being raised in the sector relate to supporting the notion that equity in some way impacts negatively on quality. This is an issue that particularly irritates me.

I’d just like to make a few points:

Firstly, there is no evidence that exceptional talent has been compromised with the massification of Australian higher education. Australia produces exceptional talent – its problem, as everyone knows, is that it finds it hard to retain it.

Secondly, we’ve already noted that the massification of the Australian higher education system has been associated with a considerable improvement in the quality of learning & teaching in the sector from which all students are benefitting. We should also note that the quality of the sector as assessed by most external stakeholders relates to our exit standards – that is, the quality of our graduates – and thanks to AUQA and now TEQSA our exit standards are immutable. 

So if we argue for a decline in the quality of the sector then on what basis are we making such a claim? To suggest that this is due to a decline in the overall quality of our students would represent a throwback to a bygone elitist era, and represents a distorted perspective. Quality relates to how well we do our job. The job of the sector post-Bradley is to improve higher education attainment rates in the light of immutable exit standards and the quality of how well we do this job is dependent on us, not on the student. We must take responsibility for the quality of what we do.

Arguments may be made on the basis of changes in the high-level performance indicators collected routinely by the Department. I mentioned previously that the recent rapid expansion in the Australian university sector has been associated with declining rates of student retention. A recent headline in The Australian read as follows: 

‘Retention rates slump at fast five: Drift down sends a warning signal about admission policies’. 

However, there is continued argument as to whether this does, in fact, reflect a need to tighten admissions policy, OR is simply a reflection of inadequate preparation and support provided to new students at risk, OR a trend that we’ll simply have to accept as the sector continues to expand, OR may be due to noise in the stats. The truth may lie somewhere between all four potential explanations.

As to the way we interpret the available performance indicators, care is needed in drawing generalised conclusions about what differences or changes may mean. USQ has student attrition rates that are high compared with State and sector means. However, this mainly reflects the context in which USQ operates. Over two-thirds of our students are adults studying part-time while employed. 

For these students the pressures in attempting to balance study, employment and family responsibilities can lead to students needing to cease study for periods. By and large these reasons do not relate to the quality of the learning environments the students are exposed to or to the inherent abilities of the students to complete successful study – and, in fact, many of these students successfully return to study at a later date. The message, however, is clear - that care is needed in interpreting any performance data that is not appropriately contextualised or compared with appropriate benchmarks.

We’re almost getting to the end of the presentation now. 

There are just three quick additional points I’d like to make.

6. It's about providing opportunities

Firstly, I’ve made the point that one of USQ’s strengths is that we care about the success of students – we do not believe that simply providing opportunities for the student is sufficient. In the age of mass higher education, universities must be proactive in supporting students and responding to student needs. In particular, failing to address the impact of disadvantage risks setting people up for failure and validating existing prejudices. There is nothing less satisfying than an argument along the lines of “we gave them an opportunity and they didn’t take advantage of it” if the failure resulted from a simple failure to connect the student with appropriate learning environments and support strategies. 

The mantra should be: don’t enrol them if you are not prepared to support them.

7. Technology is the problem/answer

My next prompt concerns the issue of technology. A third of USQ’s student body is from low SES postcodes and USQ employs blended learning as a matter of course. Technology and low SES are not incompatible. However, the consideration of technology in the context of social justice is complex. For example:

  •  There remain groups and individuals that do require special consideration with regard to the use of technology. For example, USQ is currently involved in developing a closed simulated online study experience for offenders in custody using hand held devices that overcomes the restrictions to conventional online access of prisoners.
  •  As I’m sure many of you are in the process of finding out, the social media skills of the i-generation students don’t automatically qualify them for successful online study. It is extremely dangerous to make assumptions about the preparedness of students for online study. i-orientation is a requirement even for the generation that has grown up with i-technology.
  •  Strategies involving open courseware provides the potential to significantly extend the reach of higher education across the globe – subject to finding solutions to access and support issues.
Related to the latter point I will be appearing before the Joint NBN Committee on 8 October as part of its Fourth Six Monthly Review of the Rollout of the National Broadband Network arguing for the introduction of strategies to make NBN services more accessible to financially disadvantaged individuals and households. At present the emerging cost structures for NBN access suggests that opportunity to enable a generation of students and boost participation of low SES households is at risk of being missed. 

8. Australia does equity better than anywhere else

And this leads me to my final prompt – a commonly held assumption that Australia does equity better than anyone else.

In many ways I believe this is the case. Australia is a wonderfully egalitarian country. We provide a model for multiculturalism that must be the envy of the world. And our achievements in promoting social justice in the higher education context are truly commendable.

However, we cannot afford to be complacent, because as commendable as our situation is there is so much more to do. I read just this week that Australia is one of the few countries in the world that still commands a Triple A credit rating – so our economy is doing very well on world standards. Keep this in mind as you read the following slide which is data taken from a publication that was recently released by the Australian Social Inclusion Board entitled: Social Inclusion in Australia, 2nd edition.

As you can see, when we look at Australia’s record as a whole, we can appreciate just how much work we still need to do.
Social inclusion: How is Australia faring?
  •  Those who have been homeless in the past 10 years were:
  •  2 x more likely to have a physical disability
  •  3 x more likely to be a victim of violence
  •  4 x more likely to have a psychological disability
  •  Australia’s levels of income inequality are higher than the OECD average AND the gap between the rich and the poor continues to rise
  •  5% of the working age population, or 640,000 people, experience multiple and complex disadvantage which may affect their ability to fully participate in society
  •  Australia has the fourth highest rate of children in jobless families in the OECD
  •  75% of people aged 20-24 years have a Year 12 certificate but people living in the most disadvantaged areas are 20% less likely to finish Year 12 or equivalent.
  •  While the unemployment rate of the general population is well below OECD average (at 5.9%), 19% of teenagers (15-19 yo) and 9.5% of young adults (20-24 yo) are unemployed.
So we can’t afford to relax. We must continue to pursue social inclusion policies and practices in our universities as part of what is required to help make Australia a more socially just society. 

Social justice still requires champions. 

So, if I could be so bold as to recount for you some of the elements and implications of a learning & teaching culture appropriate for a mass higher education system.

A learning & teaching culture appropriate for a mass higher education system
  •  A successful response to the continued massification of higher education requires a learning & teaching culture that is student-centred and student-focussed; and underpinned by social justice.
  •  Understand your student constituency, care about their success and respond accordingly
  •  Understand that equity and meritocracy are entirely compatible just so long as we have thorough understanding of both concepts. 
  •  Equity does not mean equal treatment – need to address diverse student needs.
  •  Broadening higher education participation and attainment comes with inherent additional costs.
  •  Preparation and pathways are essential
  •  Positioning learning & teaching to deal with diversity brings benefits to all students.
  •  “Don’t enrol them if you are not prepared to support them.”
  •  Don’t take social justice for granted – it always needs champions

Thank you. Please take a record of the URL where the list of USQ programs and projects is posted.
If time is available, I’d be happy to take questions.

Ross, J. (2012). ‘Retention rates slump in fast five’, The Australian, 18 July 2012:

White, M. 1982, ‘Distance education in Australian higher education: A history’, Distance Education, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 255-78.

From Attard, A. et al. (2010). Student Centered Learning: An insight into theory and practice, Education International/esu/EU Education and Culture DG, p. 10:

Grove, J. (2012). ‘Teaching should be student-centred: Discuss, Times Higher Education, 16 February 2012:

Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research (2011). Building and Maintaining a Student-Centred Cutlure – The Foundations: Core Values, Setting Expectations and Integrated Decision Making, p. 2:


From: Office of Multicultural Affairs Achieving Access and Equity, A Second Edition Guide for the Australian Public Service Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1994, pp i and 1-5: 

Abela, P. (23 July, 2012). ‘Let managers manage, and academics teach’, Campus Review.

Op. cit.

From: Social Inclusion in Australia, 2nd edition. Australian Social Inclusion Board

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