Prioritising literacy is a fundamental first step towards addressing equity issues in higher education, says UNSW’s Dr Sally Baker.

A sector-first collaboration between three universities and six Western Sydney schools will improve equity and access to higher education for students from low socio-economic backgrounds

The NSW Equity Consortium is a five-year partnership between UNSW Sydney, the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and Macquarie University, working with teachers and careers advisors to encourage students to cultivate more “expansive futures”.

The project, Imagined Futures, will build student and school capacity for accessing higher education and improving learning outcomes post-school. It is supported by funding from the NSW Department of Education.

The Consortium grew out of engaging with academics to formulate a new research-driven strategy and outreach agenda for UNSW, spearheaded by Mary Teague, Director of UNSW Access and Equity and Inclusion in the Division of Equity Diversity & Inclusion.

“The research is anti-competitive, longitudinal and highly participatory in design,” says research affiliate Dr Sally Baker from the UNSW School of Education. “As such, it marks a departure from established outreach strategies.”

Dr Baker is an expert in teaching, language and literacies, and the educational experiences of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) migrant and refugee students. Her research operates through an advocacy lens informing public policy and practice on issues of equity in higher education. 

The Imagined Futures outreach program will build student and school capacity for accessing higher education and improving learning outcomes post-school. Image: Shutterstock.

Literacy integral to combatting disadvantage

Each university has developed a literacy-focused learning initiative, using creative methods to provide students with tools to navigate different pathways post-school. The initiatives will be delivered to whole-of-year cohorts in Years 7–10.

Literacy is fundamental to redressing disadvantage, Dr Baker says. Researchers accessed NAPLAN data to identify key areas of challenge.

“When we're thinking about gaps between expectation and attainment, attainment is impacted primarily by things like literacy. Literacy is not the only factor but it's a very important factor,” Dr Baker says.

“For example, the challenges that can come with not being at age-appropriate reading and writing levels can lead to entrenched patterns of disengagement and then disadvantage for particular cohorts.

“[And] if we follow the research, the earlier the outreach the better [the outcome].”

Navigating new horizons

The project encourages students to expand their aspirations with the support of teachers and careers advisors, and to approach education as a lifelong project.

“The theory of change that drives this project is the idea of the map, the compass and the key,” Dr Baker says.

“So, to imagine a future – whatever that future is – to be able to imagine beyond where you are in Year 7, 8 or 9, for example, you need to have some understanding of what the options are. So, being able to see the landscape of different career options, that's the map.

“But you also need to be able to get from where you are to where you want to go, and understand what kind of routes and pathways you can take, and understand, importantly, that university is not the only pathway… So that's the compass.

“[And] for our project, literacy is the key. That's the really important part in the theory of change. You need to know what's there, you need to know how to get there, and you need the key.”

The Imagined Futures outreach program encourages students to approach education as a lifelong project. Image: Unsplash.

By enabling students to re-imagine their futures, the project aims to positively impact the learning trajectories of underrepresented groups, says Dr Baker. Image: Unsplash.

More than a poverty of aspirations

The literacy-focused initiatives provide a mechanism to challenge deficit thinking around students’ expectations post-school: their own preconceptions as well as un/conscious institutionalised bigotry.

But it’s not just about poverty of aspirations, Dr Baker says. Disadvantage is intersectional; it forms across gender, socio-economic status and cultural background, she says.

“It’s a long piece. It’s slow advocacy,” she says. “We are working to disrupt this very strongly entrenched educational disadvantage.

“We know the impacts of intergenerational trauma and an education system that's not super fit-for-purpose for our First Nations students mean they can be critically disadvantaged.

“Then if we add in students like refugees, who are asked to take the same kind of standardised tests with limited language and literacy development, we're creating the conditions for perpetual challenge with educational equity.”

By enabling students to re-imagine their futures, the project aims to positively impact the learning trajectories of underrepresented groups, she says.

Research embedded in process

The project invites input from its partner schools – Bass High School, Bonnyrigg High School, Cabramatta High School, Campbelltown Performing Arts High School, Prairiewood High School and Punchbowl Boys High School – to further qualify the research.

Teachers will collaborate in both the design and delivery of the program as well as engaging in professional learning opportunities throughout the project, says Dr Baker.

Encouraging teacher confidence and building data literacy is critical, she says. The project will share a data analyser tool, created by UNSW’s Dr Dennis Alonzo, that helps teachers collect and understand data, and “tell compelling stories about their students’ progress”, she says.

Equity plus quality delivers outcomes

Despite significant investment at a federal level to widen participation in higher education, there has been no significant uptick in engagement, Dr Baker says.

The Bradley Review in 2008 said addressing the underrepresentation of Indigenous, low socio-economic status, and regional and remote populations was vital to delivering “an outstanding, internationally competitive tertiary education system”.

Equally, the drive for equity formed the foundation for the 2011 Gonski report’s needs-based funding model.

The Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), designed to increase access and raise aspirations for higher education, has been criticised for being co-opted as a recruitment strategy for universities.

For Dr Baker, research must address advocacy agendas in education. “It’s about putting some of the tools in place that, for whatever reason, state and federal governments have been unable to provide,” she says.

“As researchers, we have a contract with the public – an ethical contract… That’s the role of research really, to inform public policy and practice.” 

This article was originally published in 2022.

Written by Kay Harrison