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05 April 2013

Perspectives on higher education If the current communication practices within the tertiary education system continue, Australian universities will struggle to lift the participation rates of students from non-traditional backgrounds.

Research into public communications from the University of South Australia, has found that meeting the target of 40 per cent of Australians aged 25 to 34 holding degree qualifications within 12 years could be seriously undermined by poor communications and image making.

Undertaken by UniSA’s Dr Sally Lewis, the research is being discussed by the nation’s leading vocational education and training experts at the 16th Australian Vocational Education and Training Research Association (AVETRA) Conference being held in Western Australia today.

With a background in senior communication roles in both Industry and Government, Dr Lewis says current communications from tertiary institutions themselves and the public commentary surrounding university education still reflect an elitist and stereotyped view of who should attend university.

“Given the current methods of public address to potential students, it is likely that both public media flows and in-house institutional information will need to change,” Dr Lewis says.

“What we are seeing to a large extent is that institutions are targeting a specific market with most of their communications. In the main, that is marketing to and presenting public images of successful year-12 school leavers.

“While that is understandable, it does leave the target group we want to encourage back into study - 24 – 35 year olds - out of the loop.

“We also need to consider the media messages that we see all the time which tend to stereotype university students as young people who like books and studying, who want to wear suits in their everyday working lives and who are more studious and less practical. 

“That style of stereotype is acting to disengage with the very people we need to entice if we are to meet the Bradley Review targets.”

Dr Lewis said forecasting shows that by 2025 a third of all jobs in Australia will require the minimum of a bachelor degree.

“If we are to have any chance of meeting that skills demand we need to rethink and adjust the way we talk about higher education,” she says.

“With up to 56 per cent of material in the media taken from media releases, universities have an opportunity to change the script about university education and ensure that opportunities and encouragement to engage in higher education are extended more widely and redefined to reflect the Bradley Review aspiration.”

Dr Lewis said she was encouraged to see new UniSA Vice-Chancellor Professor David Lloyd had students from non-traditional backgrounds firmly on the radar.

"We (UniSA) need to look at greater pathways for equity of access, because there are bright sparks who do not necessarily have the support to get top grades or don't do well on the day of exams,” he said. 

“These are the people we want to encourage to think about university and to understand that universities have a place for them and will support them to succeed – they need to know a degree is doable.” 

This important study, captured in the Industry Report Public Communication & Tertiary Education Choice, shows how participation targets recommended in the Review of Australian Higher Education chaired by Professor Denise Bradley in 2008, present a complex challenge to current higher education recruitment processes.

“If the proposed Government higher education participation targets are to be met, then the current higher education demographics will need to change,” Dr Lewis says.

“The way we talk about and depict what makes a university student will have an important role to play in making that change.”

Media contact: Michèle Nardelli office: 08 8302 0966 mobile: 0418 823 673 email: michele.nardelli@unisa.edu.au

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