Building a diverse student cohort is a key strategic aim for UNSW, but a culture of inclusion remains critical to ensuring students from diverse backgrounds, can thrive. 

Diversity and Inclusion are often mistaken as synonymous, however diversity or representation is only one piece of the puzzle, and inclusion or a sense of belonging, is vital in ensuring students feel they have a place and a voice at UNSW, and are set up for success. 

Diverse student cohorts come to the university with a range of academic backgrounds, social experiences and world views. Many of these students are, at the start of a semester and a new year, experiencing changes to their environment that, to some, can feel overwhelming. These changes can be to their learning, social, and/or language environment and can have profound effects on a student’s performance within their programs and units of study. These changes can greatly affect the ways that students relate to their studies and how well they are able to integrate into a particular learning environment. 

Increasing access to UNSW for students from low-socio economic backgrounds is the primary strategic aim for Access and Equity (Students) and the newly established Gateway admission pathway and Program (GAPP), recently saw 979 Year 12 students receive an early conditional offer to UNSW for 2021, with applications now open for Year 11 students. 

A recent scoping study conducted by Catherine Stuckings and Tierney Marey, into the transition experiences of 80 UNSW students from low-SES backgrounds highlights key cohort strengths in adaptability, resilience, curiosity, determination and generosity. These students seek familiarity, connection and specificity of both information and support when navigating their transition to university.  

“Students spoke to the challenges of arriving on campus without seeing any familiar faces and navigating university systems and processes without the tacit knowledge of their peers. Getting students through the door isn’t enough. We must ensure, that at every step of the way, we are providing relevant and accessible support and building a caring community for them to be a part of.  By embedding inclusion through evidence-based and caring practice, we will better enable students from underrepresented backgrounds to flourish at UNSW. This benefits us all,” says Transition and Outreach Officer at Equitable Learning Services, Tierney Marey. 

For many students from diverse backgrounds, they may be coming to university for the first time, be the first in their family to go to uni, or travel a long way from their home/community to study. For students who are first in family, their sense of belonging and inclusion may be challenged due to a potential lack of insider knowledge.  

At UNSW, a Students as Partners initiative within Access and Equity (Students) is working to bridge the gap between the high school and University for students from underrepresented backgrounds. 95% of the Year 12 high school student participants in the Gateway Winter Program in July, agreed or strongly agreed that it was particularly useful to hear about university directly from current UNSW students helps bridge. Of the 52 uni students involved in Students as Partners, 17 identify as students from low-SES backgrounds, first in family, or come from regional/remote areas. 

Students and their families frequently place greater value upon ‘hot knowledge’ in education decision making (Ball & Vincent, 1998; Smith 2011) which is defined as informal ‘word-of-mouth’ knowledge gained from social sources such as family, friends, teachers and others’ (Smith 2011, p. 166). 

Students as partners approaches as co-designers, facilitators, mentors and powerful role models have been embedded in of the Gateway Winter and Spring Programs and play an important role in ensuring participating high school students can connect with current university students, who can authentically explain their own transition process and ‘hacks’ to settle into uni. Current UNSW students’ ‘hot-knowledge’ helps bridge the potential divide between student participants and academic subject matter experts.  

Inclusion of students from diverse backgrounds calls for a proactive, whole of university approach, including dedicated and context-appropriate support for student’s academic and social transition to UNSW. This imperative has recently been further compounded by the disrupted nature to both the first--year student and secondary school education experience and rapid move to online learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“As we continue to welcome an increasingly diverse student cohort, the importance of building an inclusive university community has never been more important. It’s our responsibility as a strong and united UNSW community to do whatever is possible to ensure inclusive teaching and learning environments and targeted support efforts are prioritised” says Mary Teague, Director, Access and Equity (Students) 

At UNSW, there are Equitable Learning Services for students, and staff and academics can learn more about inclusive teaching practices as part of the PVC (Education and Student Experience). 

To learn more about the GAPP, visit the Access and Equity website.