Changing practice, policy and perspectives on student equity groups in higher education

Fields of Research

  • 1301 - Education systems
  • 1303 - Specialist studies in education
  • 1608 - Sociology

Socio-Economic Objectives

  • 93 - Education and training
  • 95 - Cultural understanding


UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • 8102 - Higher Education
  • 8101 - Technical and vocational education and training
  • 5700 - Internet publishing and broadcasting


Impact Summary

At the heart of the impact of this research are university students themselves as this research has worked systematically to inform university approaches to supporting learners to stay at university. With the dramatic growth in student numbers and diversity, the importance of making sure universities and schools are adequately preparing and support all cohorts is imperative.

Read details of the impact in full

Details of the Impact

At the heart of the impact of this research are university students themselves as this research has worked systematically to inform university approaches to supporting learners to stay at university. With the dramatic growth in student numbers and diversity, the importance of making sure universities and schools are adequately preparing and support all cohorts is imperative.

For many students, university is an unfamiliar setting with many individuals from more diverse backgrounds often feeling little belonging within this learning environment. My research has shown how students describe entering university as similar to entering a foreign or unfamiliar country, so a feeling of disconnection is not surprising (O’Shea, 2016). For students who do not have a family tradition of attending university then this situation may result in feeling like 'imposters', which can inevitably lead to thoughts of departure (O'Shea et al, 2017). This research adopts a 'strengths - based' focus which involves working closely with students and significant others to explore first hand the experiences of moving into university and the types of challenges that students encounter. My work has included students from rural / remote areasAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studentsolder studentsthose who have transitioned from the VET sector and those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

 Impact at a community level 

This work has had impact at a broader social level providing resources for family members to assist in ‘unpacking’ the university environment and providing advice in an accessible way. With colleagues (Stone, May & Delahunty), we created the first Australian open access website targeted at both students and family members, the website is designed to provide support to prospective and new students as well as advice to those closest to them.

The site is replete with 'student voice' which informed both the resources available and also, the look and feel of the content. This deep engagement with personal narratives has resonated with a diversity of end users, encapsulated by a recent review in Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) journal:

The stories are authentic and tell of each students’ journey…Nona’s story resonates with those who are migrants. When I read her story it reminded me of my late grandmother who did not complete primary education but had an insight into what she could do to support me. Nona’s joy of seeing her grandson study at university and how she supports him, is very heart warming and her advice is practical (Wolfgramm-Foliaki, 2017).

The site has been nominated as an exemplar of Best Practice in Student Support (Australian & New Zealand Student Services Association, 2015) but more importantly has prompted unsolicited email feedback from students, who (somewhat unexpectedly) also use it as a forum to ask questions and obtain advice:

'This site [is] empowering me to achieve my goal of study that [I] am doing at the moment'. (Email Feedback)

 'I am the first family member to attend Uni. I'm wanting to know what support and if any financial support or scholarships could be available to help my family support me, as I will need to leave the town to attend uni.

Having conducted research with the family of learners, a number of resources and online quizzes have been designed to assist in this transition to university, these resources have also provided useful for school careers counsellors:

The research was great - I would like to know how schools and unis can dovetail to make the transition more smooth.

Very interesting in terms of motivational factors and stressors on our students (Feedback from Schools Careers Masterclass)

Impact and engagement at a national level 

Drawing upon a diversity of media has allowed this work to have a broader national reach. Platforms have included a dedicated blogtwitter feed and also online newsletterswhich have been complemented by TV features, radio interviews and also articles that seek to provide assistance to those commencing university and also those contemplating attending. I have deliberately used a range of media to capture as many audiences as possible including institutional piecesregional print and radio pieces , national news outlets and also articles targeting community members across various sectors.

I have worked across the sector to assist educational providers to consider how they might better support students from equity groups. This has led to the implementation of new initiatives within the educational equity and outreach space, many guided by the First National Principles For Engaging and Retaining First in Family Students, developed in collaboration with stakeholders and policy makers . This work has usefully informed approaches to curriculum development and also practical initiatives designed to proactively engage with students, as the following email attests:

We are getting closer to drafting our Session 2 Welcome Call script and wanted to double check that we have the most up to date version of the principles. We located the nine draft principles...Are these the most up to date principles for us to use to guide our script and process?

(Project Coordinator, Student Engagement and Retention Team, Southern Cross University)

Finally, the research has also contributed to knowledge about student retention and engagement at a national policy level, with the latest Australian Government Discussion Paper on Student Attrition and Retention (Higher Education Standards Panel, 2017) citing this research to evidence the need for new equity definitions of students (p45). Recommendations from this work were referenced in the paper and I was invited to participate on a panel that provided expert advice to Government hearings on sector-wide approaches to retaining students from equity groups. These hearings included policy makers from the Department, politicians and leading academics, the final recommendations from this working party are pending.

Impact at an international level 

Finally, the research has attracted emerging attention internationally resulting in invitations to present internationally,   book publications and a Churchill Fellowship to enable visits to the UK, Canada and the US. Churchill Fellowships are awards of national repute and are competitively awarded to projects 'that disrupt and challenge the status quo addressing issues of national significance and local benefit...'


  • Students
  • Parents / caregivers of students
  • Equity / outreach practitioners


Impacted Countries
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • United Kingdom

Approach to Impact

Summary of the approaches to impact

  • What must it be like for a person to start university when they are the first in their families or community to do so?
  • What types of challenges might students from diverse backgrounds encounter and what types of information or support might they need?
  • Most importantly, what is it that helps ALL learners persist and ultimately succeed in higher education?

These are just a few of the questions that I have spent the last decade pondering and seeking answers to, my research has focussed on improving educational outcomes for all students but particularly those who are at risk of dropping out of their studies before completion. This work is centred on the stories of students; over the last decade I have interviewed or surveyed hundreds of university students (n=800+) from all walks of life, these narratives providing genuine and rich insight into the realities of higher education participation. I have also conducted research with the family and caregivers of learners and complemented these understandings with data derived from teachers and equity practitioners involved at the 'coal face' across the educational sector (schools, colleges and universities).

Read the full approach to impact

Approach to Impact

I have developed numerous student interventions targeted at students at all stages of their studies, created resources for students and their families to assist them in this educational journey and also, worked with higher education institutions across Australia to embed new approaches to engaging and retaining diverse student cohorts.

Why this Focus?

There are both personal and also more broader reasons why I have adopted this particular focus. At the broad level, the statistics tell us that while universities are attracting students from a greater diversity of backgrounds, some students do not achieve to the same level academically as others (for example those from low socio-economic backgrounds or rural/remote areas). While this growth in student diversity seems a positive development, it is vitally important to avoid this 'open door' to university becoming a 'revolving door'. In Australia, attrition or 'drop out' rates remain high at just over 15% across the student population (Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP), 2017). My work seeks to draw attention to this situation, not by attributing 'blame' to the student or the institution but rather by recognising the diverse range of skills and knowledges that all learners bring to this environment and exploring ways institutions can better capitalise on these.

Interested in hearing more about the personal reasons for this focus? The following short video provides an overview of why this area has sustained my interest for so long and was produced by University of the Sunshine Coast.