Level playing field? Educational disadvantage and its impact on participation in higher education

Dr Janette Ryan

Faculty of Education, Monash University and Visiting Fellow, Oxford University

Thursday 26 February 2009

Jointly presented by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, The Smith Family and The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre

Powerpoint presentation from Janette Ryan (pdf format)
Powerpoint presentation by Trevor Gale (pdf format)

Dr Janette Ryan

Audio transcript available here - MP3 format (30 MB)

Introduction by Professor Trevor Gale

The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education is very pleased to be able to partner with UniSA's Hawke Centre and The Smith Family in sponsoring tonight's public address by Dr Janette Ryan.

Janette's address focuses on educational disadvantage and its impact on participation in higher education. These are issues central to the interests of the National Centre and your presence here tonight suggests that they are of interest to you as well.  For those of you who have not yet heard of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education - which is understandable, given that we have only been in operation for 8 months - it is a research centre recently established to facilitate the study of student equity policy and practice in Australian higher education and in related fields, and to lead the development of new knowledge in these fields. The Centre is funded by the Australian Government's Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and is hosted here in Adelaide by the University of South Australia.

The lack of access to university for some Australians is a significant problem in our country. It remains the case that your life circumstances, what kind of family circumstances you were born into, are the greatest determiner of whether you will attend university or not. Not whether you have the capability to undertake university study as we might think, given the emphasis that is placed on the enter scores that universities use to select students for entry.  For example, throughout Australia, people from low socioeconomic backgrounds are three times less likely to attend university than people from high socioeconomic backgrounds. In Adelaide the figures are even worse. People from the eastern suburbs are seven times more likely to attend university than people from the northern suburbs. We also know that when such people gain entry to university they are no less likely to complete their studies than their higher socioeconomic status peers.

Similar stories can be told about people from Australia's regional and remote communities and about Indigenous peoples.

These are not problems we are just encountering now. They have been with us for many years, at least since 1990 when we started keeping detailed records and probably for a lot longer. Despite our best efforts, they are problems that we just don't seem to be able to shift and they reflect badly on Australia's claim to be an egalitarian society.

In the face of problems that just doesn't seem to go away, we think it is time to rethink the problem.  Even though the Centre has only been in operation for 8 months, we have made a start on undertaking some research that we hope will help our universities to rethink what we can do to achieve fairer outcomes for all Australians.  One of our projects is examining what are the best kinds of activities that universities can offer students in primary schools and in the lower parts of the secondary school to encourage and enable students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to consider and prepare for study at university later in their lives.  Another project is examining the factors that influence and inhibit the participation in university of students from regional and remote communities.  And a third project, titled the Student Equity Exchange, will establish an online database of leading research and practice that can be accessed by people from around the nation. It will also create an online discussion forum for researchers, practitioners and policy makers to share ideas and seek real-time answers for their program planning.

As well as our research activities, we are also in the early planning stages of organizing a series of Higher Education Equity Summits in each of the state parliament houses around the country. These could involve young people as well as researchers and practitioners and perhaps even parliamentarians, and would focus on exploring the principles of effective practice for greater equity in higher education.  In co-hosting this Public Lecture tonight with the Hawke Centre and The Smith Family, we hope to forge an ongoing relationship of future events and research that will contribute to more Australians from marginalized groups gaining access to higher education.

We know that the playing field is not level and that concerted effort will be required to rethink our understandings of the problem and our future strategies.  That is why we are so pleased to have Dr Janette Ryan with us tonight to speak to us about helping us to start to rethink this problem.

Janette is well qualified to speak to us about these matters. She is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University and is currently a visiting scholar at Oxford University. Her doctoral study was on teaching and learning for diverse groups of students in higher education. Janette has published widely in the areas of equity and access to education, including:

  •  student retention and student aspirations towards higher education,
  • teaching and learning for students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds,
  • students with disabilities, and
  • international students.

She has authored and co-authored several books on teaching and learning in higher education and has delivered seminars, workshops, keynote presentations and papers in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, China and Hong Kong. She helped establish the Big Buddy programme with the Smith Family in Victoria, which provides mentoring for financially disadvantaged students by teacher education students. Would you please join with me in welcoming Dr Ryan to the podium.


The Australian Government's policy on Education for All is intended to ensure that all those who can benefit from higher education should have the opportunity to do so. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, however, have been one of the main designated equity groups under this policy that continues to be under-represented in higher education.

Government and university equity programs have for years not been able to significantly improve their participation rates in higher education and in many ways run counter to the changing patterns of private and public school enrolment.

  • What are some of the factors that work in both subtle and more obvious ways that prevent students from low SES backgrounds being able to achieve the same higher education access as other groups in Australian society?
  • Do the reasons for this under-representation lie at a different level than is generally thought?

This presentation will consider some of the ways that aspects of schooling and university act to constrain students' perceived and real barriers to continuing on to higher education study. It will also illustrate some of the ways that this disadvantage can be addressed by schools, universities, community groups and society generally and how these can work towards improving aspirations for university study and more successful educational outcomes. This will include a report on one initiative by the Smith Family in Victoria working with their client families and children by linking them to university education student mentors. It will also look at some of the initiatives in the United Kingdom that provide different ways of addressing these issues.

The Smith Family
The Smith Family, an independent non-profit organisation, works in partnership with other caring Australians to help disadvantaged Australian children and their families. As research has shown, The Smith Family's work supporting children's education and learning is one of the most effective means of breaking the cycle of disadvantage and ensuring all children have the same opportunity to realise their potential (www.thesmithfamily.com.au).

The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education
The Centre has been established to produce and disseminate knowledge about the inclusion in higher education of socially and economically disadvantaged groups, and to facilitate dialogue and exchange among relevant researchers, practitioners and policy makers.  It also provides advice on student equity policies and practices to institutions and systems across all education sectors.

Biography
Janette Ryan is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University and is currently a visiting scholar at Oxford University. Her doctoral study was on teaching and learning for diverse groups of students in higher education. She has published widely in the areas of equity and access to education, including student retention and student aspirations towards higher education, teaching and learning for students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities, and international students. Her research interests include inclusive education, teacher education, international education and cross cultural teaching. She has authored or co-authored several books on teaching and learning in higher education and has delivered seminars, workshops, conference keynote presentations and papers in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, China and Hong Kong. She helped establish the Big Buddy programme with the Smith Family which provides mentoring for financially disadvantaged students by teacher education students.

National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, UniSA The Smith Family

While the views presented by speakers within the Hawke Centre public program are their own and are not necessarily those of either the University of South Australia or The Hawke Centre, they are presented in the interest of open debate and discussion in the community and reflect our themes of: strengthening our democracy - valuing our cultural diversity - and building our future.

Areas of study and research

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