Like Australia, the UK has set ambitious targets to widen access and improve participation in higher education. Last week saw the release of an important report, written by former UK Cabinet Minister Alan Milburn, that called on universities to “step up to the plate” on improving the attainment, aspiration and achievement in higher education of under-represented groups, particularly students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

In this report, “University Challenge: How Higher Education Can Advance Social Mobility”, a key recommendation was that universities should spend less money on scholarships and fee waivers for students once they get into university, and refocus some of this funding towards outreach activities designed to keep kids in school.

This recommendation might sound surprising; after all, it seems logical that more disadvantaged students should be supported financially in their studies. The critical issue, though, is when this financial support is most helpful. Milburn’s report found that increasing the pool of successful school leavers, rather than financial support at the “other end”, had the biggest impact on whether disadvantaged students progressed into university study. Redirecting funding towards these early interventions was what made the difference.

The report confirms what we at the University of Newcastle’s Equity and Diversity Unit have known for some time: that building aspiration toward university study needs to start early to be effective.  Through our AIM High School outreach program we work with teachers, students and, most importantly, families within low socio-economic communities to build the capacity to aim high and to see multiple pathways into higher education. Our goal is for students to imagine a future where they are not only attending but also succeeding at university.

Starting in Year 1 of primary school and following students through to Year 12, the University of Newcastle AIM High program is one of the few in Australia that has had a longstanding focus on increasing the capacity within families, in partnership with schools, to assist their children in reaching their educational and career aspirations. One of the core aspects of the program is building links between conversations at school and in the home about careers and higher education.

It is this link between school and family that is crucial in addressing the educational disadvantage that exists within our community. According to the latest Census data, the Hunter region has a far lower proportion of the population with a bachelors or higher qualification than the rest of the country (21 per cent vs 30 per cent). For the community on the Central Coast, the rates are even lower. This trend continues to all post-school education, with the percentage of people who have no post-school qualification in the Hunter being 49.1 per cent and on the Central Coast 48 per cent, compared to the figure of 45.5 per cent for NSW. For the Port Macquarie-Hastings region the results are similar, with university participation rates for all five local government areas in the Mid North Coast sitting below state and national averages.

To address this disadvantage, we need to have early and direct contact with students and their families, and to be inclusive of family members who themselves may have had fragmented experiences of education. Students start to make decisions about what they will and won’t do as early as Year 2. By Year 8, many of these decisions are set.  Scholarships and engagement programs in senior high school have limited effect, if you cannot even begin to imagine yourself at university.

Evaluations from our AIM High program have consistently shown a marked change in the perceptions of students and their families and their understanding around tertiary education. Students in primary schools have reported developing a sense of engagement with universities and tertiary education. Similarly, parents report developing an awareness of the opportunities that further education affords their children and themselves. This is important, because we know that parents have a critical role in communicating to their children that “people like us” not only go to university, but also can succeed.

Programs to support the access and participation of students from low socio-economic backgrounds are part of the fabric of the University of Newcastle – not only of our history but also our plans for the future. Our vision for 2025 is to be a global leader in each of our spheres of achievement, and to support the development of strong regional communities. Equity and excellence are at the core of this vision. What the Milburn report shows us is that it’s not enough simply to open the doors to higher education. Though programs like AIM High, universities need to do more to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed – not just at the end of their school journey but right from the start.

Belinda Munn
Manager, Equity and Diversity