Strategy Eleven (August 2012 update)

Attract and support promising students from a diversity of social and cultural backgrounds

Attracting promising students whatever their social or cultural background is core to our sense of purpose and consistent with our history. Our aim is to diversify our student population and, particularly, to increase the participation of students from low socioeconomic, Indigenous, rural and remote backgrounds. We are committed to improving the preparation, aspiration and achievement of intellectually able students from groups currently underrepresented in our student population.

We have made strong progress across strategy 11: we have enrolled more students from low-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, we have strengthened and expanded partnerships with schools and communities in low-SES and regional areas, and faculties across the University have engaged with this agenda through their research and teaching.

11(a) Expand our partnerships with specific schools and community organisations to raise awareness of the value of tertiary education, support educational attainment, and increase aspirations for further study.

Evaluation of our federal-government-funded Compass program tells us we are starting to make a real difference in how younger school students from low-SES backgrounds perceive tertiary education. Since its 2009 launch, Compass has built strong and enduring relationships with 25 schools in south and south-west Sydney, and increased levels of engagement in schools and communities in regional areas such as Broken Hill, Dubbo, Forbes and Port Macquarie. As at June 2012, we had had 19,055 engagements with school students through the Compass program, and over 1200 engagements with parents, either on campus or in schools. We have assisted the University of Adelaide to launch their own version of Compass, which will provide more data to further evaluate and develop the program. Compass will continue work until at least 2014 thanks to a federal government grant of $21.2 million over three years under the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, enabling the University to work in partnership with four other Sydney universities.

We have also continued to partner with the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (see strategy 10) and the Smith Family, and began a partnership in 2011 with the Future Directions Network, which encourages young people from south-west Sydney to engage in tertiary study. This partnership led to a highly successful student recruitment effort at Revesby Workers’ Club in May 2012, when more than 650 high school students and their parents met some of our current students from the area.

11(b) Review admissions criteria and policies, including those covering pathways, special admissions programs, and ATAR bonuses, to increase participation by underrepresented groups.

Following a major admissions review, we launched the University’s first principals’ recommendation scheme to all NSW schools in mid-2012. The Early Offer Year 12 Scheme (E12) program does not rely solely on the ATAR as a measure of potential but also on students’ other skills and achievements and their motivation and enthusiasm for particular subject areas. The program offers an early conditional offer to the University with specific ATAR cut-offs, financial help in the form of a scholarship and additional support in the first year of study. For the 2013 intake we will have 177 E12 places available across 16 courses, backed by $1 million of related first-year scholarships.

When looking at the relative academic performance in Year 9 and Year 12 of students from low-SES and high-SES backgrounds, our admissions review found that, even when two students performed at a similar level in Year 9, the student from the high-SES group was much more likely to obtain a high ATAR in Year 12. This reaffirms the need to develop other ‘early engagement’ pathways so that students know before Year 12 about the opportunities and support available to them at the University, particularly in light of sectoral changes that also encourage a focus on measures other than just exam success (eg the new NSW RoSA1 initiative, which recognises extracurricular activities).

Other progress towards initiative 11(b)2 includes our extension of the Broadway Program (for applicants who have experienced long-term educational disadvantage) to automatically cover all students who attended schools identified as 'low-SES' for entry from 2011. Students who join us under these new pathways benefit from increased support once at the University (see initiative 11(e)).

11(c) Set University, faculty and school targets for recruitment and retention of low-SES, Indigenous and rural and remote students.

We have established targets for recruitment and retention of low-SES students for the period of the current strategic plan, and these targets are starting to be realised. However, it can be difficult to track our progress due to the delay in receiving information about how many low-SES students we have enrolled under federal government criteria. Although this information (based on Centrelink and census collection district data) is an important factor in assessing all universities' performance with regard to funding allocations, it can take 18 months or longer to be available.

For our own internal tracking purposes, we use postcode data, which is a blunter instrument due to variations in socioeconomic status within postcodes. We enrolled 129 more students from low-SES backgrounds (by postcode data) in 2012 than in 2011 and believe we have never had as many students enrolled from low-SES backgrounds.

11(d) Complete ongoing negotiations with universities in rural NSW for greater cooperation in education and research, and the provision of flexible pathways for students.

The new ‘flexible pathway’ agreed in 2010 with the University of New England (UNE), whereby we will facilitate entrance for UNE students from a low-SES background who have already completed a year of university study, started at UNE in 2012, with the first students due to arrive at Sydney in 2013.

Separately, we participate in three federal government-funded Collaborative Research Networks (CRNs), which aim to encourage smaller less research-intensive and regional higher education institutions to develop their research capacity. The NSW CRNs we are involved with are led by the University of New England (mental health and wellbeing in rural regions) and Southern Cross University (policy and planning research for sustainable regions). We also partner with Edith Cowan University (growing research excellence through partnership and engagement).

11(e) Ensure appropriate support for the retention and achievement of students from underrepresented groups.
Students who have already joined us from our target groups are benefitting from an additional $300,000 funding for first-year bursaries, as well as more orientation and transition support.

We have also redeveloped orientation and support programs to target specifically the needs of incoming students. Improvements include an expanded bridging program for students from low-SES or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds that provides access to training in academic English and mathematical skills before each semester begins.3

In Semester Two 2012, the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies and the Business School will pilot a program that will enable us to target at an earlier stage students at risk of academic failure in their first semester, and increase related academic and personal support.

New initiatives such as the E12 program (see initiative 11(b)) and the Wingara Mura strategy (see strategy 10) contain detailed support plans.

11(f) Provide staff development activities and resources to build the necessary skills to support the successful implementation of social inclusion and Indigenous education initiatives.

To build skills among our staff to support our social inclusion work, our ‘Widening Participation’ grants program launched in 2011 supports (i) relevant engagement with schools or communities, (ii) integration of inclusive teaching strategies to support students once they are at the University, and (iii) related research on social inclusion. There are 37 projects underway across the University, with each of the divisions prioritising certain areas. For example the Department of History is partnering with 10 low-socioeconomic schools to provide opportunities for schoolteachers and students to engage with the University. The Business School and Health Sciences have developed mentoring programs for first-year students to ensure all students feel welcomed and know what support services are available.

11(g) Convene a cross-disciplinary network of researchers into social inclusion and exclusion and related community issues.

The grants program described under 11(f) is complemented by the Widening Participation Scholars network (see strategy 3) of more than 180 academic and general staff that provides access to internal and external expertise for information sessions about social inclusion, grant-writing workshops and networking opportunities.

1. Record of School Achievement.
2. Initiatives to specifically attract Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are discussed under strategy 10.
3. Some students also received related bursary and accommodation assistance.