22 SES 11 E, Popularism and Privatization
‘Student success’ is a key driver in higher education policy and funding, however, this understanding is often defined from the perspective of neo-liberal discourses that value human capital or fiscal outcomes. Notions of success and failure at university tend to rely on measures such as ‘obtaining high grades‘ or ‘employability after graduation’, but how student themselves define and articulate educational success needs further qualitative exploration. This paper draws upon a national Australian study that explicitly asked graduating students how they defined ‘success’ and whether they personally regarded themselves as successful in their student role. This investigation was designed to determine whether conceptions of success can be generalised across student populations or if this term needs to be contextualised to educational environments and also, student cohorts.
Success within the education field is largely characterised in terms of academic achievement or graduation outcomes, this might include achieving a certain volume of learning or maintaining a linear and uninterrupted progression through a degree program. However, such framing assumes universal application and delineates between those who value such measures of achievement and those who may have alternative, but equally important motivations for participating in learning. Utilising surveys and interviews conducted with Australian students who are the first in their family to attend university and in the latter stages of their degree, this presentation will initially foreground students’ understandings of academic success and their personal hopes for a successful future. Using this data as a foundation, the presenters will outline how such alternative perspectives could be utilised to inform higher education policy and practices. Drawing on Varnham’s work (2017) with students as co-creators and partners, the presentation will explore how being a ‘successful student’ can be enacted in a diversity of ways within the university environment. Activities and processes that engage student voice effectively in decision-making, from learning and teaching to university strategy and governance, add value to student outcomes not necessarily measurable by grades or traditional progression patterns. Arguably, a core measurement of ‘success’ is the ability for critical thinking, leadership, innovation and citizenship.
Theoretically, data analysis was informed by Sen’s Capability Approach, which enabled success to be conceptualised as an individual learner’s ‘ability to do valuable acts or reach valuable states of being’ (Sen, 1993, p. 30). In applying the Capability Approach, success was more broadly understood as reflecting a person’s achievement of ‘valuable functionings’ (Sen, 1993). Such functionings largely recognised as products or outcomes that are regarded as being of consequence or value to individuals themselves. Overall, the data revealed how students’ perceptions of success were ‘multifaceted’ and that frequently preconceived ideas had to amended upon arrival at university, as these did not necessarily match the expectations of this environment.
Neo-liberal agendas that operate across the HE landscape have framed discourses around HE attendance in terms of the more public benefits of university attendance (Hunter, 2013). This externalisation of success factors is most clearly manifested through marketing and publicity that emphasise levels of employability, wealth imperatives and productivity to their prospective student body. However, this focus serves to mask the more personal or social impacts of this endeavour, which may go unacknowledged. If we simply define success in terms of university attendance and graduation then there is a risk of creating a ‘dichotomy between achievement and success and non-participation and failure’ (Taylor, 2012, p. 83). Instead, this paper will unpack success in terms of the more personal and embodied indicators that students themselves articulated and provide applied and practical advice about how this understanding can be translated at an institutional level.
The data outlined in this presentation has been collected as part of a national Australian study exploring persistence strategies and behaviours of students who are the first in their families to attend university. All of the participants were in the latter stages of their undergraduate degrees and this presentation is based upon data collected between April and August 2017 across nine universities located in four Australian states. Participants could self-select participation either through completing an anonymous online survey or through contacting the researchers to arrange an interview (or could opt for both). A total of 306 surveys were completed and these were complemented by 72 in-depth narrative biographical interviews. While the questions for the survey and interview were similar, the interviews encouraged detailed narratives of students’ experiences of persisting and succeeding at university. Survey responses also resulted in rich qualitative data, with respondents often writing lengthy descriptions of their university experiences and achievements. Both the interview transcripts and survey responses were imported into NVivo 11 to assist in thematic analysis of the data. Coding was conducted at an inductive level and drew upon techniques outlined by Strauss and Corbin (1998); this included completing line-by-line analysis and using in-vivo coding. These processes were assisted by continual reflective memoing to ensure that emergent categories were carefully scrutinised and reflected upon throughout the analysis. As mentioned, Sen’s Capability Approach provided a lens from which to explore and further unpack the data.
Based on findings, this paper presentation will argue that any conceptualisation of ‘academic success’ needs to consider broader cultural and social connotations. Success cannot be assumed to be a neutral or objective term but rather one that is politically loaded, underpinning meritocratic assumptions of educational achievement within a neo-liberal agenda. However, arguably the HE sector has a key role in assisting to operationalise alternative understandings of success, providing real opportunities for students to achieve those things they consider of value. The presentation of findings will also be complemented by examples of actual practical strategies that institutions could implement that better address the skills and desires that learners themselves consider as indicating ‘success’. This includes the opportunities that universities offer for ‘genuine choice’ for students (Walker, 2008, p. 275). This is a deeper and more fluid understanding of choice that identifies the importance of opening up individual freedoms and futures so that people have the opportunity to ‘do and be what they value being and doing’ (Walker, 2008, p. 270). Such understandings also provide a space to consider perspectives contrary to those that assume ‘lack’ or ‘deficit’ when learners do not achieve measurable or predetermined outputs. Such acknowledgement recognising how both the materiality of life and its non-material aspects influence the success factors that people genuinely value. Actual and genuine ‘freedom of opportunities’ (Sen, 1992, p.5) can only be guaranteed across all sections of our community when success is recognised as having nuanced and multiple meanings, which are not necessarily aligned with those valued and emphasised within HE institutions.
Hunter, C. P. (2013). Shifting themes in OECD country reviews of higher education. Higher Education, 66, 707-723. Sen, A. (1992). In equality re-examined. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Sen, A. (1993). Capability and well being In M. Nussbaum & A. Sen (Eds.), The Quality of Life (pp. 9-30). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (2nd ed.). London: Sage. Taylor, Y. (2012). Good students, bad pupils: Constructions of 'aspiration', 'disadvantage' and social class in undergraduate-led widening participation work. In T. Hinton-Smith (Ed.), Widening Participation in Higher Education: Casting the Net wide (pp. 73-90). London: Palgrave Macmillan. Varnham, S (2017). Student Voice Australia: Students and Tertiary Education Providers Undertaking Partnership for Quality Enhancement. Available from www.studentvoiceaustralia.com Walker, M. (2008). Widening participation; widening capability. London Review of Education, 6(3), 267-279.
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