Students do not participate equally in higher education. Inequity can be observed in the statistics of low participation and less-than-satisfactory retention rates.Universities and governments have been keen to redress this with policies aimed to support and assist students who are at risk or disadvantaged in their learning. Yet, these figures and policies mask the reality of daily life - the broader range of issues and needs which students experience over the course of their studies. In this qualitative study of student equity, we sought to amend this imbalance of perception with a focus on the experiences both of students and staff, and to identify positive approaches for dealing with inequity and with overcoming disadvantage. The research was supported by a Teaching Improvement Grant, and led to a collection of vignettes of the experiences of students themselves which are presented on an interactive web site. It is hoped that students and staff can find value in the stories and accounts made by those respondents who have willingly agreed to share their experiences with others in the university community.
The 'Inclusive Equity' research project
The 'Inclusive Equity' research project grew out of a project proposal for the Graduate Certificate in Educational Studies (Higher Education) offered by the Institute for Learning and Teaching at the University of Sydney in 2004. The premise of the project was to create a website for the Faculty of Arts, drawing together all the services available to students from equity groups. At the same time we aimed to conduct research into the situation of such students from the perspective of both teachers and students, and showcase innovative methods of managing equity issues where they impact on learning, including the notion of inclusivity. It was to provide academics with examples of how other colleagues have overcome issues of equity. The aim was to help students within equity target groups, not only within the Faculty of Arts, but within the whole University.
The 2002-2004 University of Sydney's Equity Plan set the goal of providing the conditions of access to, and successful participation in higher education' (EP 2002, - 4: 1) for certain groups in the community, who it recognises do not always participate equally in higher education. Under the most recent Equity Plan, the following five groups were considered by the University as equity target groups: people with disabilities; people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds; women in non-traditional areas of study and in postgraduate study; students of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background; and people of non-English speaking background. The University's objectives are to increase the number of people from the nominated groups who enrol and complete their studies at the University. These groups were first nominated in the University's first Equity Plan of 1990 and, then as now, no priority was set for any particular group, the assumption being that equity issues will be integrated into mainstream activities.
Formally, this effort was to help address Recommendation 5 of the Academic Board Phase Two Review and the Faculty of Arts Teaching and Learning Strategy 1.5, namely, that the Faculty should develop more strategies to increase the participation of and retain students from all equity groups. This project is closely related to the Not Drowning, Waving Program within the Faculty of Arts, which seeks to assist and support students at risk to identify and adopt strategies likely to help them complete their courses, improve their experience and learning outcomes at University and also to develop awareness on the part of academic staff of the needs of such students. 'Inclusive Equity' also builds on a profile of the Faculty already exposed in the Articulating Arts project, completed in 2005. It complements work done by Asmar et al (2003, 2005) on diversity and inclusive teaching in relation to the Faculty of Economics and Business, and to the University as a whole; and McLisky & Day (2004) on supporting Indigenous students within the (former) College of Science and Technology.
In order to gather the information needed for this project, we conducted both online and face to face interviews in second semester, 2005. Our focus was on the following groups of students:
- disabled students
- low income students
- international students
- non English-speaking background students
- rural students
- Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students
- women studying in a non-traditional area or postgraduate areas.
Our concern was not to concentrate on minority groups within the Faculty, or on groups which experience discrimination, but simply on key identified equity groups.
After receiving approval from the Human Research Ethics Committee in July 2005, face-to-face interviews were audio recorded and transcribed, with participants' personal details anonymised.
Research findings: Students
There was a strong initial response to our 'invitation to participate'. In total we received 111 student responses to our invitation. From these, 33 interviews were conducted, both online and face to face. There were 17 responses which fell into the category of being from a language background other than English and/or international students; 9 respondents were categorised as low-income students; 6 respondents reported a disability; 1 respondent was a rural student; and 1 respondent was a woman from a non-traditional area. Three students identified themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. We also interviewed 13 members of teaching and general staff from the Faculty of Arts who were in close contact with students from equity groups.
When compared with Faculty figures, it was a relatively small student sample, albeit rich in qualitative data. Faculty figures for 2001 indicate there were some 7305 students in total, including 19 (0.26%) Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students; 144 (1.97%) disabled students; 483 (6.61%) international students; 306 (4.19%) non-English Speaking Background (NESB) students who have been in Australia for less than ten years; 283 (3.87%) rural students; and 333 (4.56%) students living in localities characterised as low socio-economic areas. Nevertheless, we did not necessarily see our respondents as convergent with those students composing Faculty figures, for a number of reasons. First, we allowed students to self-identify with the categories. We allowed self-identification for low-income and Aboriginality, for example, rather than following the strict criteria employed by government agencies. Second, we allowed students to identify with more than one category. Third, we also recognised that in some cases, status may change over time, and that students may be reluctant to identify with a category if there is stigma attached. As such, we were able to aggregate student responses into the four broad equity categories, discussed below.
NESB and international students
Although we collected NESB and international student data separately, there was sufficient commonality to justify collapsing the two groups. Thus, of the 14 responses in this combined category, 3 said they had no trouble participating in Units of Study, learning efficiently, or taking part in university life. These three respondents were also local NESB students, as opposed to international students. One dryly made the comment 'Participate in university life ...! What university life? Lectures and tutes?'
Of the remaining 11 students, a further 2 saw that there was a language barrier but viewed it with optimism, as something to overcome. Eight answered that there was a barrier, but analysed this variously as problems in speaking and reading English, especially in tutorials where class participation is assessable; and problems in participating in discussions where cultural knowledge is not shared (particularly references to television media, such as Australian soap operas, for example). One fifth of the students were unaware of how to participate in clubs and societies and spoke of not being involved: 'University life ... it seems to be none of my business'.
We also surveyed all students on strategies for managing their problems and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. While the role of the tutor or teacher figured strongly in answers, responses which focussed on what the student could do were as follows: asking to tape-record tutorials; preparing for a topic by conducting online background reading; asking neighbouring students; asking teachers and presenters to speak more slowly; trying to participate more in group activities; trying to understand Australian culture better by reading old newspapers, hiring videos, watching local TV and trying to make more Australian friends. The need to understand Australian culture was emphasised by one student, who spoke of the benefits of having had Australian friends before arriving.
Where the role of the teacher was emphasised, respondents spoke of teachers who "understand" international students' and who were prepared to be patient when students were used to a different style of learning. The same students also spoke of the need to meet expectations and become more in class. Others spoke of the need to ask tutors for the meaning of words, while others expanded at length on the qualities of a good teacher. A good teacher is approachable and has time at the end of the tutorial to explain terminology. Going through the main points of the tutorial or lecture is helpful, and again, taking the time to explain terminology or 'Western' concepts is helpful, or providing weblinks so people can chase up the information themselves. Three students were also aware of the burden which this places on the lecturer and were reluctant to become troublemaker[s]'. Another student praised small group work as an opportunity to speak more and become more involved.
It was difficult to elicit information regarding services which may benefit NESB/international students. Four respondents did not know of any services. One student who was well aware of available help mentioned the Language Centre and their online resources, as well as the Library website. The same student was also very happy with the orientation programs run by the International Office, particularly for the midyear intake. WebCT was also praised as a means of accessibility to the lecture. Others mentioned the International Student Support Unit and the International Office as supportive, while three knew of the essay-writing workshops or the Learning Centre. Two students mentioned the Internet as useful, one of whom praised 'ostensibly' free internet access on campus.
As far as requests went for new services or technological aids, two students suggested online aids for Australian culture and language could be helpful - such as a 'Wikipedia-style catalogue of Australian history and culture'; seminars explaining Australian legal and political systems; an Orientation camp; better and cheaper access to modern technology; proofreading services rather than just attending courses on essay writing. One student suggested that all lecture notes be made available online and that free internet access be mandated across the University.
There were 8 responses in this category. The factor common to all low-income students was a lack of time. Most respondents saw themselves in a position where they have to work, alongside their studies, which in the case of 6 respondents impacted on their learning situation as well, and their ability to take part in group work and extra-mural activities. For some, it cut down on the time available for reading, while for others, the ability to perform research was reduced. Most students in this category lamented on the cost of coming to campus, particularly the cost of food, photocopying, travel and core services provided by the University.
Strategies which respondents suggested were helpful in managing their situation involved becoming more organised (down to filing techniques), working out one's most productive period, making best use of Union facilities and scholarships, making more use of email to talk to lecturers, planning time to meet with other students for study, negotiating with staff for times to hand in work, being organised enough to avoid library fines, and personal prioritising.
Existing services and resources of benefit to this group were the legal service; the Women's Coffee Room'; the University Counselling Service, the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA), the International Student Support Unit, the Library, and microwave-equipped common rooms. Three respondents suggested improved access to information on financial assistance, more opportunities for on-campus employment, and more assistance to postgraduate research students not receiving scholarships (as there appears to be an assumption, in the opinion of one respondent, that all are on scholarships). One suggestion was free readers for subjects; and another two respondents praised the computing resources on campus but called for better subsidisation. Another service highly praised was the availability of electronic journals, for which the cost of printing is either cheaper than photocopying or free if done via the Postgraduate Arts Research Centres which provide desk space and computing facilities to research students.
Students with a disability
There were 5 responses from this category. The diversity of disabilities is such that each impairment impacts on the individual's learning situation in different ways. All, however, spoke of missing lectures, and of an inability to participate fully in social events. Individual student strategies for managing disability were as follows: telling the lecturer or tutor in advance if the disability is a chronic or ongoing condition and disruptions were to be expected; finding and using the services provided by the University; asking for help (even if you feel self-conscious); using the Security Service to drive you between buildings; using the note-taking service when the student can't be in lectures; and copying a friend's notes. Most respondents were highly aware of available help, and made use of provided services such as the mobility service; the note-taking service; special provisions for exams; University parking passes; the Counselling Service; and Disability Services. All respondents indicated that awareness on the part of staff was very important in managing their disability, including teachers making allowances for the individual respondent's condition, such as exemptions from in-class participation in some instances, or allowing extra time. New services that respondents would like to see included more assistance at libraries other than Fisher, more emailing of exams and/or assignments, and more taping of lectures or records of lectures on the internet. There was one suggestion that students might get an automatic disability card send out at the beginning of each year. All respondents stressed the importance of human contact and appreciated the help given.
The three Aboriginal students interviewed in this study were active participants in university life and did not feel disadvantaged in their studies: Personally, I have not encountered any issues due to my Aboriginality... I have found that I am not alone, and (on occasion) doing better than others'. Another made the point: ...Aboriginality does not make it difficult to participate in units of study. What makes it difficult is the environment that individuals live in'. In this regard the Koori Centre is pivotal in providing support to Indigenous students and in fostering a good study environment. There was special recognition for the support they received and in particular the relationships developed with the staff and other students at the Koori Centre. Students also spoke of the need to make more mainstream students aware of the work of the Koori Centre.
Summary of student views
A number of issues raised by students cut across the equity categories discussed above. The key concerns were as follows.
An important discovery about students with equity issues is that they are time-poor. Poverty may or may not be an issue, but time is at a premium. Students unable to meet financial commitments typically seek employment, and students who work as well as study are time-poor. They complain less about their poverty than their lack of free time, and go to great lengths to explain their time-management strategies, down to how to punch the holes in photocopies - a trivial example, but illustrating the levels of stress upon such students. Time is a serious problem for other equity groups also. Students who have children are time-poor, as are students with a disability making it take longer to get to class or appointments, or hand in work, and who have to make special efforts to access disabled facilities or lecture materials.
A difficulty which non-English speaking background students reported was not lack of linguistic knowledge, but assumed knowledge on the part of lecturers. Many lecturers seem to assume that if a person speaks English well, and has lived here for some time, they will share the same cultural knowledge. However, some students reported a lack of Australian cultural knowledge, and found that they were disadvantaged when for example, a lecturer used an excerpt from Monty Python. What might seem like a shared joke to a lecturer leaves NESB students scrambling for the Internet.
Some students see their disadvantage manifest in the ever-increasing gap between those comfortable with modern technology and those lacking even basic computing skills. For such students there is a real need for human solutions, such as increasing the availability of drop-in clinics, WebCT training in the first weeks of semester, and advertising computer support events or services via posters rather than through online communications such as email and web pages.
For others, technology was seen as a great leveller. Twenty-five respondents identified technology as an important means of redressing inequity. Of these, 12 saw potential for more online academic services; 6 felt there was scope for more online communications; and 4 felt that technology could be harnessed to overcome the feeling of isolation and to build a sense of community. One mature age student lamented on loss of community engendered by mass provision, and suggested that internet communications could help put like-minded people in contact with each other. Several students commented on the Research Clusters web site which connects staff and student researchers together in online communities of inquiry. Contemporary technologies such as blogs and chat sites were cited as suitable tools for building online research communities and for sharing academic resources. Others saw the role of the internet essentially as an informational medium, best used to inform students about the range of available events and services and to bring these people together in face-to-face communities.
Those students who were time-poor, and/or overcoming a disability, saw great value in the provision of online academic resources. One respondent argued that 'some kind of online presence should be compulsory for all courses', citing the benefits of having access to 'sparse or far-flung journal articles', online documents, lecture notes, and discussion activities, all of which were considered 'very helpful when my attendance at the physical campus location was limited (for example, during time off recuperating after surgery)'. Students also expressed an interest in services such as online exams, the online submission of assignments and self-help online programmes which might overcome the travel and cost barriers of their particular circumstances.
For one rural student, who evidently resides outside of Sydney, there is six hours of travel associated with each lecture. He cited as helpful the greater use of bulletin boards so as to be able to discuss issues via the internet. This student advised looking more closely at the use of technology to overcome distance: Fund Arts Faculties so that they have modern facilities and support services to join the computer age. The staff are struggling with limited resources and skills...
Four students felt that the cost of internet access was a prohibitive barrier particularly for low income students. These students expressed concern for the University policy of charging students for bandwidth usage. This suggests that the continued provision of free access labs, printing facilities and University computer support services will remain important elements of equity provision into the future.
Research findings: Staff
Twelve members of teaching and general staff from the Faculty of Arts were interviewed. The surveyed staff all had a high level of awareness as regards equity target groups. But by far the greatest concern was in connection with international and NESB students and the teaching challenge they present. This was not to diminish the enrichments such students bring to classroom learning, both of which rated a mention. Here there are truly innovative solutions to teaching problems which demand a more active response than some other types of disadvantage. It is noted that international students are by no means a homogeneous group, and different nationalities bring different interactional styles. More than once lecturers mentioned that the various language and culture characteristics of these students brought with them insights into better teaching methods. One lecturer who worked extensively with Chinese-background postgraduates spoke of engaging students either by structuring interaction through small group work or by naming students explicitly and drawing them into interaction. He spoke of such students as often highly capable and highly qualified, and urged others not to waste them as a resource. The same lecturer pointed out the need to '... speak more slowly, ...repeat what you say more often, give definitions as simply as possible and sometimes in several different ways'.
Another lecturer spoke of a strategy she had adopted which was to institute a website with week-by-week expectations for each tutorial class and each lecture so that the information was put forward in a very explicit manner, chunk by chunk. This was a different approach to putting all the information in an extensive course outline, which had great (intimidating) slabs of English. Another strategy adopted by the same lecturer was to showcase bad examples as well as good examples of writing, and allow students to provide critique, as a means of improving expression. Other lecturers suggested using simpler grammar when assessing work, avoiding jargon and fostering creative projects involving recording students in Mandarin with native English speakers in the same group acting as translation links, and spoke of the general level of pleasure and animation amongst the students in such ventures. Two lecturers raised the issue of inclusivity amongst international students, pointing out that numerous international students arrived after Orientation Week and missed out on developing connections with others.
However, plagiarism by international students was raised by teachers as an object of concern. There is evidence that some cultures find it appropriate to show respect to an authority by re-creating their words, and that plagiarism is not understood in the same way by some students. Monitoring, frequent explanations and warnings, assistance from the Learning Centre and having a native speaker review written English were strategies adopted by lecturers to address this problem, which is seen largely as a result of lack of confidence in writing English, and pressure to do well. Another problem is lack of contact with native speakers. Some departments have employed support staff with specific skills in teaching English as a second language to tutor students intensively, which brought many benefits.
Issues of disability were viewed with considerable understanding from staff, who make special efforts to accommodate the needs of these students. Provisions ranged from preparing special materials such as blown-up notes, longer time for examinations and dedicating more time to going over work where needed. The work of Disability Services was praised highly by staff.
Most staff reported that it was difficult to identify low-income students. One teacher reported that awareness of low-income students only came about at the end of semester, when extra-curricular events were likely to be planned and discussion of how much a celebration dinner might cost came about. Yet income does impact on the learning experience in other ways. The same lecturer mentioned that students were sometimes anxious to leave class on time so that they could get to work, and often had trouble handing in assignments on time because of work commitments, but such students did not otherwise stand out. Another lecturer mentioned speaking to parents of students with low income, many of whom did not want to burden their children with a HECS debt, but this had a flow-on in other ways: '[the parents have] a sense that the HECS debt is an investment and you reap the rewards from it. For some people having to afford a computer on top of the debt is too much for them.'
Some issues affect Indigenous students in particular. Some are mature-age students, and many have extended family and community responsibilities, which affect them more than the average student. This necessitates more understanding with extensions, and accommodating students' personal issues. Moreover, Indigenous students may not have a family culture which understands or supports academic work. There are, however, numerous support mechanisms through the Koori Centre, such as computing facilities, counselling, academic skills classes and mentoring, as well as student networking through Klub Koori. Regarding student retention rates, one lecturer suggested that it would be helpful to put Aboriginal students into contact with staff with research interests in various Aboriginal areas as a means of introducing role models to Aboriginal students.
Rural students also rated some mention. One lecturer emphasised how much more important technology became with students who lived at a distance, even those as close as the Blue Mountains or Gosford, and their increased use of email and other electronic media. Another lecturer mentioned the positive involvement of 'kids from the country' in mentoring programs, while another made specific allowances for them when catchup sessions were scheduled at the end of semester as many were travelling home at specific times and would miss out. In this case it signals the increased willingness for lecturers to make themselves available via electronic means, and confirms the experiences of the rural respondent above - that electronic forms of contact are already playing an extremely important role, although broadband only just becoming available in many rural areas.
A Faculty strategy - the Inclusive Equity website
The internet is the main place where I find things out. Maybe there could be a [place] on the USyd site... specifically for people with equity issues. (Low income student, Faculty of Arts).
A major goal of this research project was to establish a web site to collect and showcase the experiences both of staff and students in dealing with and overcoming disadvantage (http://www2.arts.usyd.edu.au/ie/). The website also draws together the services available to equity groups in the Faculty of Arts in one centralised location. Visitors to the website will see practical examples of how students and staff have overcome issues of equity and disadvantage and how they were best assisted in their own words. Alongside the student vignettes are inclusive teaching strategies for incorporating diversity and supporting students at risk within the teaching setting. It is intended that information sharing will help future students within target equity groups to have a better learning experience within the Faculty. The vignettes are by nature personal. However, all names, places or other distinctive identifying features of the participants have been anonymised to ensure that privacy is protected.
One of the reasons for creating this service is that it gives equity groups a voice, and democratises equity services in the Faculty of Arts. Most initiatives by the University for equity groups are one-way, with the University deciding how it will determine its relationship with such students. This service employs the voices of staff and students for communicating these important issues. It is also a very public statement that our University cares about students with equity issues. We hope that those students' voices will now reach out to inform an improved awareness of their special needs in the learning environment.
The project team would like to express its thanks to Bryde Dodd, Heather Middleton, Jacqui Wechsler and Jennie Kearnes for their substantial contributions to the project. Special thanks also go to Nerida Jarkey and Claudia Crosariol for their support.