Communities exert a powerful influence on young people’s aspirations for university education, according to new research led by the University of Newcastle, Australia.
The study, funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), found consistently high student aspirations for university across a diverse range of Australian communities.
Eight case study communities represented broad population demographics, with variations in socioeconomic status (SES), ethnicity, geographic location, employment, and average level of education.
Lead researcher Laureate Professor Jenny Gore said, across all of the communities surveyed, higher education was the most popular educational aspiration.
“Aspirations for university were high in many disadvantaged communities, which challenges the simplistic view that young people from target equity groups have low aspirations for their futures,” Professor Gore said.
“Rather than focusing on raising aspirations, it may be more productive to consider how these ambitions might end up being eroded or compromised, and what could be done to better support students’ aspirations.”
The research showed that living in a particular community did not determine educational and career pathways; a complex interplay between geographic, structural and relational elements shaped aspirations and capacity for young people to pursue higher education.
“Collective efforts should aim to raise student awareness and exposure to education and careers, while providing the tools for them to realise their goals,” Professor Gore said.
“We recommend the provision of local work experience, community role models, accessible scholarships, and outreach activities tailored to local contexts, not just target equity groups.”
The report also proposed that schools could function as “community hubs”, providing a base for online delivery of courses and “taster” sessions for tertiary education.
Across all the case studies, young people aimed to exceed the general educational and career outcomes of their communities, but SES had a significant bearing on aspirations to high-status careers.
“Students in high SES urban communities aspired to more prestigious occupations on average, in comparison to students living in regional and remote communities or those characterised by disadvantage,” Professor Gore said.
“We also found aspirations were highly gendered with females more inclined toward university, rather than vocational pathways. Males tended to favour sports-related careers, the police, defence forces and engineering, while females commonly aspired to be teachers, veterinarians and to work in the arts.”
NCSEHE Director Professor Sue Trinidad said the research was particularly relevant in policy and program design to engage disadvantaged students in higher education.
“Nurturing aspirations is critical in widening participation among less advantaged students, and it is encouraging to see that higher education is perceived as a realistic goal across all groups,” Professor Trinidad said.
“Families, teachers, community leaders and universities can work together to foster those aspirations, with consideration for students’ complex backgrounds and personal influences.”