Higher education access for all

Fields of Research

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

Socio-Economic Objectives

  • 93 - Education and training
  • 95 - Cultural understanding


  • Higher education
  • Retention
  • Attrition
  • Lived experience
  • Education equity
  • Student
  • Intervention
  • Support

UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • 4 - Quality education
  • 8 - Decent work and economic growth
  • 10 - Reduced inequalities
  • 11 - Sustainable cities and communities


Impact Summary

Departing from university has long-term economic and social impacts yet students from diverse backgrounds often describe this environment in terms of alienation and isolation. Entering university has been characterised, as similar to entering a foreign or unfamiliar country, so a feeling of disconnection is not surprising. 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. To address this issue, this research has not only contributed to scholarly research but also provided resources targeted at the parents and family members of students. This empirically validated material ‘unpacks’ the university environment and provides advice in an accessible way.

The impact of this research spans the domains of students, parents, and communities as well as engaging with key educational stakeholders including government policy makers. The research has informed a national Government review on Improving Completion, Retention and Success in Higher Education and findings have been applied to equity practices and understandings across the Australian educational sector. The affiliated website (https://heaccessforall.com) and blog (www.firstinfamily.com.au/blog) has an engaged global audience and regularly receives unsolicited feedback from both commencing university students and their family members. This research has featured in a range of media outlets including radio, television and print mediums, all of which foreground how students from diverse backgrounds can access and participate in higher education successfully.

Research Focus

This research is focussed on improving educational outcomes for all university students but particularly those who are at risk of dropping out of their studies. To achieve this goal, the research has foregrounded student voices, with an emphasis on the ‘lived experience’ of considering and engaging in higher education. Since 2014, over 650 students and family members from diverse walks of life have been interviewed or surveyed, these narratives providing genuine and rich insight into the realities of university participation.

This rich data set has underpinned:

  1. numerous student interventions targeted at students at all stages of their studies,
  2. a range of resources designed to assist students and their families in this educational journey, and
  3. engagement with stakeholders in the school, vocational and higher education contexts in order to embed new approaches to supporting and retaining diverse student cohorts.

Related United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:

4. Quality education
8. Decent work and economic growth
10. Reduced inequalities
11. Sustainable cities and communities

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. The research though has had broader impact on the family and community of students, the equity and outreach practitioners and has attracted attention at national and international levels.

Impact at a community level

This work has led to the development of resources for family members to assist in ‘unpacking’ the university environment and providing advice in an accessible way. With colleagues (Stone, May & Delahunty), the first Australian open access website targeted at both students and family members has been created, 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.'

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.
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.

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 blog, twitter feed and also online newsletters which 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.

This research has informed workshops and seminars on student engagement and retention presented to over 500 staff across 15 university sites in all states of Australia (except NT). These empirically informed workshops focus on supporting and engaging commencing and first year students who are intersected by various equity categorisations. This work has provided the basis for changes in thinking and approaches: 239 participants completed workshop evaluations with some 86% indicating that they were likely or most likely to apply ideas derived from the workshop to their professional context and 96% of participants indicating that attendance had contributed to their knowledge base. Workshops have been complemented by two national conferences (2015 and 2016), which attracted over 200 stakeholders from across the education and community sectors in Australia with representation from universities, TAFEs, NFP organisations and schools.

The research underpinned the development of the Overarching Principles and Strategies For Supporting First-in-family Students and their Families, published online and presented (by invitation) to the Department of Education at the national Improving Student Success seminar (Universities Australia Conference, March 2017).

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) cites this research to evidence the need for new equity definitions of students. Recommendations from this work were used to inform recommendations on sectorwide approaches to retaining students from equity groups.

Impact at an international level

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 to study best practise for engaging students from equity backgrounds.


  • Students (5,000)
  • Parents and caregivers (5,000)
  • Equity and outreach practitioners (1,000)


Impacted Countries
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • United Kingdom